How to Trust Your Neighbors in a Networked World

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

SARS, Bird Flu, terrorists, religious extremists, extreme religionists, DEMOCRATS—it seems that we find a new reason every week to mistrust those around us and yet our society has yet to implode in the orgy of fire and chaos that 24-hour-news networks would have you believe. Liars and Outliers by Bruce Schneier explains how civil structure continues advancing despite our best efforts.

Society can't function without trust, and our complex, interconnected, and global society needs a lot of it. We need to be able to trust the people we interact with directly: as we sit next to them on airplanes, eat the food they serve us in the cabin, and get into their taxis when we land. We need to be able to trust the organizations and institutions that make modern society possible: that the airplanes we fly and the cars we ride in are well- made and well-maintained, that the food we buy is safe and their labels truthful, that the laws in the places we live and the places we travel will be enforced fairly. We need to be able to trust all sorts of technological systems: that the ATM network, the phone system, and the Internet will work wherever we are. We need to be able to trust strangers, singly and in organizations, all over the world all the time. We also need to be able to trust indirectly; we need to trust the trust people we don't already know and systems we don't yet understand. We need to trust trust.

Making this all work ourselves is impossible. We can't even begin to personally verify, and then deliberately decide whether or not to trust, the hundreds-thousands?-of people we interact with directly, and the millions of others we interact with indirectly, as we go about our daily lives. That's just too many, and we'll never meet them all. And even if we could magically decide to trust the people, we don't have the expertise to make technical and scientific decisions about trusting things like airplane safety, modern banking, and pharmacology.


Writing about trust, economist Bart Nooteboom said: " Trust in things or people entails the willingness to submit to the risk that they may fail us, with the expectation that they will not, or the neglect of lack of awareness of that possibility that they might." Those three are all intertwined: we aren't willing to risk unless we're sure in our expectation that the risk is minor, so minor that most of the time we don't even have to think about it.

That's the value of societal pressures. They induce compliance with the group norms- that is, cooperation-so we're able to approximate the intimate trust we have in our friends on a much larger scale. It's not perfect, of course. The trust we have in actions and systems isn't as broad or deep as personal trust, but it's good enough. Societal pressures reduce the scope of defection. In a sense, by trusting societal pressures, we don't have to do the work of figuring out whether or not to trust individuals.

By inducing cooperation throughout society, societal pressures allow us to relax our guard a little bit. It's less stressful to live in a world where you trust people. Once you assume people can, in general and with qualifications, be trusted to be fair, nice, altruistic, cooperative, and trustworthy, you can stop expending energy constantly worrying about security. Then, even though you get burned by the occasional exception, your life is still more comfortable if you continue to believe.

We intuitively know this, even if we've never analyzed the mechanisms before. But the mechanisms of societal pressure are important. Societal pressures enable society's doves to thrive, even though there's a minority of hawks. Societal pressures enable society.


And despite the largest trust gap in our history, it largely works. It's easy to focus on defection-the crime, the rudeness, the complete mess of the political system in several countries around the world-but the evidence is all around you. Society is still here, alive and ticking. Trust is common, as is fairness, altruism, cooperation, and kindness. People don't automatically attack strangers or cheat each other. Murders, burglaries, fraud, and so on are rare.

We have a plethora of security systems to deal with the risks that remain. We know how to walk through the streets of our communities. We know how to shop on the Internet. We know how to interact with friends and strangers, whether-and how-to lock our doors at night, and what precautions to take against crime. The very fact that I was able to write and publish this book, and you were able to buy and read it, is a testament to all of our societal pressure systems. We might get it wrong sometimes, but we largely get it right.


At the same time, defection abounds. Defectors in our society have become more powerful, and they've learned to evade and sometimes manipulate societal pressures to enable their continued defection. They've used the rapid pace of technological change to increase their scope of defection, while society remains unable to implement new societal pressures fast enough in response. Societal pressures fail regularly.

The important thing to remember is this: no security system is perfect. It's hard to admit in our technologically advanced society that we can't do something, but in security there are a lot of things we can't do. This isn't a reason to live in fear, or even necessarily a cause for concern. This is the normal state of life. It might even be a good thing. Being alive entails risk, and there always will be outliers. Even if you reduced the murder rate to one in a million, three hundred unlucky people in the U.S. would be murdered every year.


These are not technical problems, though societal pressures are filled with those. No, the biggest and most important problems are at the policy level: global climate change, regulation and governance, political process, civil liberties, the social safety net. Historically, group interests either coalesced organically around the people concerned, or were dictated by a government. Today, understanding group interests increasingly involves scientific expertise, or new social constructs stemming from new technologies, or different problems resulting from yet another increase in scale.

Philosopher Sissela Bok wrote: " is a social good to be protected just as much as the air we breathe or the water we drink. When it is damaged the community as a whole suffers; and when it is destroyed, societies falter and collapse." More generally, trust is the key component of social capital, and high-trust societies are better off in many dimensions than low-trust societies. And in the world today, levels of trust vary all over the map-although never down to the level of baboons.


We're now at a critical juncture in society: we need to implement new societal systems to deal with the new world created by today's globalizing technologies. It is critical that we understand what societal pressures do and don't do, why they work and fail, and how scale affects them. If we do, we can continue building trust into our society. If we don't, the parasites will kill the host.

Excerpted with permission from John Wiley and Sons, Inc.


Liars and Outliers by Bruce Schneier is available from