The Strategic Advantage of Being a Small Fish

The three gunslingers


Roland, Harry, and Billy are three outlaws who recently arrived at the town of Deadwood. After realizing there’s not enough room for the three of them in this town, they decide to meet at the town center at noon, and duel to the death.

The rules of the duel are simple: each one, in his turn, gets to fire one shot at whomever he wants. This goes on until there’s only one man left standing.

Roland is an excellent shot, who never misses. Harry on the other hand is pretty good but not perfect, and hits the target 70% of the time. Billy is the worst shot of the three, and can only hit the target 30% of the time.

Since Billy is the youngest, and the worst shot by far, the other two outlaws let him go first. Roland, being the best shot of the three, agrees to let Harry go second, and therefore to go last himself.

Billy, now realizing he probably made a mistake entering this duel, is standing there and contemplating who to shoot, since leaving town is unfortunately no longer an option. What should he do if he wants to survive?


Game theory analysis

When it comes to choosing who to shoot, Billy has two options:

  • Harry: If Billy shoots Harry and hits, Roland will kill him for certain on his turn, since Roland never misses.
  • Roland: If Billy shoots Roland and hits, Harry will shoot him on his turn. While Harry only has a 70% chance of hitting Billy, that’s quite a bit better then Billy’s 30% chance of hitting Harry, and this is made worse by the fact that Harry gets to take the first shot at him.

As you can see, neither option looks too promising, though option B looks a bit better than option A. But what if there was a third, preferable option?

In fact, the best strategy for Billy is to fire his first bullet straight in the air. Then Harry, on his turn, will shoot at Roland, since he knows that if he doesn’t then Roland will kill him during the next turn (because Harry poses a bigger threat to Roland than Billy does).

If Harry kills Roland, then Billy gets to fire the first shot at Harry, which is better for Billy than having Harry take the first shot at him.

If Harry misses Roland, then Roland kills Harry on his turn. Then, Billy gets one shot at Roland, before Roland wipes him out.

Regardless of whether Harry misses or hits, Billy is better off missing his first shot intentionally, rather than trying to hit one of the other two outlaws.


The lesson

Sometimes, if you’re a little fish in a big pond, it’s better to stand back, and let the big fish take each other out before you step into the race. Often, the leader and the runner-ups can be so weakened by their attacks on each other, that those far behind them can take advantage of this and catch up. While doing this still doesn’t guarantee that Billy will survive, his odds certainly improved in comparison to what would have happened if he had decided to step in to the game from the start.


Other things we’ve learned

Being the big fish can actually be a disadvantage- in this scenario, Roland has the lowest odds of survival, despite being the best shot of the three. Being the big fish didn’t guarantee victory for him; instead, it just made him a bigger target.

Don’t give up a potential advantage- if Roland hadn’t let the other two guys go first automatically, he would have had a much better chance of surviving. Just because you’re the big fish, doesn’t mean you should give up any potential advantages.

Know how to pick your battles- though Billy was able to improve his odds by thinking strategically and waiting before entering the fight, he is still more likely to die than not. The truly smart move for him would have been to avoid this duel in the first place.


Summary and conclusions

  • Often, being the big fish in a pond can be a disadvantage, because it makes you into a bigger target.
  • If you’re the big fish, don’t automatically give up all your potential advantages. Just because you’re stronger doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed victory.
  • If you’re the small fish, you can often benefit from hanging back, and letting the leader and the runner-ups weaken each other before attacking.
  • The first and most important strategic consideration is knowing how to pick your battles. If you enter the wrong battle, even the best strategic thinking might not help much.


This strategy and example come from “The Art of Strategy: A Game Theorist’s Guide to Success in Business and Life”. It’s a good read for someone looking to understand basic game theory and how it applies to real-life situations.

I recommend it over the earlier version of the book (“Thinking Strategically”), because that’s what the authors themselves recommend. However, the difference between the two versions isn’t too crucial.


The Backfire Effect: Why Facts Don’t Always Change Minds

The Backfire Effect


In a perfectly-rational world, people who encounter evidence which challenges their beliefs, would first evaluate this evidence, and then adjust their beliefs accordingly. However, in reality this is seldom the case.

This is because when people encounter evidence which should cause them to doubt their beliefs, they often reject the new evidence, and start supporting their original stance even more strongly. This cognitive bias is known as the backfire effect.


Examples for the backfire effect

Instances of the backfire effect have been observed in a large number of scientific studies, which looked at various scenarios:

  • One study examined people’s opinions about federal welfare programs. The researchers found that despite the majority of the people being highly misinformed about the nature and scope of these programs, being given actual facts about them did not lead to people changing their opinions on a significant scale (though in this case, the facts were just useless, and did not directly backfire). Interestingly, the study also found that the people who were the least informed about these topics, often expressed the highest degree of confidence in their answers.
  • A study which examined voting preference showed that introducing people to negative information about a political candidate that they favor, often causes them to increase their support for that candidate.
  • A study which examined parents’ intent to vaccinate their children, found that when parents who are against vaccinating were given information showing why vaccinating their child is the best course of action, they sometimes became more likely to believe in a link between vaccination and autism. Furthermore, even when these parents’ misconceptions regarding the vaccination-autism link were reduced, the information still lead to a decreased intent to vaccinate their children. (Note that this phenomenon has been observed for other type of vaccination decisions, such as choosing to vaccinate against the season flu).


What causes the backfire effect

The backfire effect is essentially a type of confirmation bias, which is a cognitive bias that causes people to search for, interpret, and recall information in a way that confirms their preexisting beliefs.

This phenomenon occurs as a result of the process through which people argue against information that challenges their beliefs. Specifically, if people argue against unwelcome information strongly enough, they end up with more arguments to support their cause, which in their minds align with their preexisting beliefs. This causes them to believe that there is more support for their stance than there was before they were presented with the unwelcome evidence, which can lead to them supporting their original viewpoint more extremely than they did before.


How understanding the backfire effect can help

Understanding the role of the backfire effect in people’s thought process can help you engage with them in a more effective way: As we saw earlier in the study on people’s misconceptions about federal welfare programs, simply presenting people with facts doesn’t usually help change their opinions. However, in a follow-up study, the researchers discovered that tweaking the way they presented the facts helped mitigate this effect.

In the follow-up study, people were first asked to estimate the percentage of the national budget that is allocated towards welfare. Then, they were also asked what percent of the budget they believe should be spent on welfare.

Posing these questions back-to-back lead participants to contrast their perception of reality with their preferred level of spending. Then, participants were told which portion of the budget is spent on welfare in reality. In this case, people often had to process the notion that not only is the federal spending lower than they thought, but it is also lower than the portion of the budget that they believed should be allocated to welfare. Asking people to explicitly list how much they believe should be spent on welfare lead to them being willing to change their opinion when they later learned that this number is higher than the actual budget.

For you, this means that when you’re presenting new information to people in an effort to change their stance, you need to display this information in a non-confrontational manner, that allows people to accept the new facts by reaching the conclusions that you want them to reach themselves. That is, if you actually want to get your point across, you need to remember that it’s not just about what you say, but it’s also about how you say it. Attacking the other person for having the ‘wrong’ opinion, no matter how misguided it might be, is unlikely to work.


Understanding the role of the backfire effect in your own thought process can also help you make more rational decisions: This necessitates being critical of your judgement, and of how you process new information that you are given. However, keep in mind that being reducing this bias in practice isn’t an easy thing to do. Essentially, you would need to fight against this as you would against any other form of the confirmation bias: by being more critical of arguments which support your beliefs, and by not automatically discarding arguments which provide evidence against them.


The backfire effect isn’t always there

While the backfire effect plays a significant role in how people process new information, that doesn’t mean that it affects everyone all the time. Studies (such as this one and this one), show that there are a lot of cases where the backfire effect doesn’t influence people’s thought process.

This doesn’t necessarily contradict other findings, as even studies that show support for the existence of the backfire effect demonstrate that its influence is highly variable. Furthermore, since it’s difficult to predict when the backfire effect will play a role, it’s better to generally assume that it will, and to act accordingly. This disclaimer is simply here to serve as a reminder on how complex human psychology is, and on how research results are rarely clear-cut.


Summary and conclusions

  • The backfire effect is a phenomenon where people who encounter evidence that contradicts their beliefs, strengthen their support for those beliefs, despite the new evidence to the contrary.
  • This effect has been observed in many scenarios, such as people supporting a political candidate more strongly after negative information about him is released.
  • The backfire effect occurs because when people argue against unwelcome information strongly enough, they end up with more arguments that support their cause, which in their mind align with their preexisting stance.
  • If you’re trying to communicate effectively with someone, you can mitigate this effect by presenting the information in a way that allows the other person to reach the conclusion that you want them to reach by themselves, based on the information that they receive.
  • There is variability in terms of when this effect appears and when it doesn’t. However, since this is difficult to predict, it’s better to act under the assumption that it will play a role in people’s decision-making process.


Writing Tips from David Ogilvy

David Ogilvy


David Ogilvy (1911-1999), who is often hailed as the “Father of Advertising”, was a US marketing tycoon, and a co-founder of Ogilvy & Mather, one of the largest marketing companies in the world.

Ogilvy was best known for advocating two important concepts in marketing. The first concept was that marketing decisions should be driven by research into consumer habits, while the second was that consumers should be treated as intelligent, and should be persuaded to purchase products accordingly, using soft-sell techniques.

Below is a collection of tips from Ogilvy on writing and creativity. While they were originally aimed at people working in the advertising industry, they are valuable to anyone who writes content for one reason or another.


Tips on writing

Write the way you talk. Naturally.


Never use jargon words like reconceptualize, demassification, attitudinally, judgmentally. They are the hallmarks of a pretentious ass.


Do not address your readers as though they were gathered together in a stadium. When people read your copy, they are alone. Pretend you are writing to each of them a letter on behalf of your client.


Use short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs.


The less an advertisement looks like an advertisement and the more it looks like an editorial, the more readers stop, look, and read.


I don’t know the rules of grammar… If you’re trying to persuade people to do something, or buy something, it seems to me that you should use their language, the language they use every day, the language in which they think. We try to write in the vernacular.


Before you send your letter or your memo, make sure it is crystal clear what you want the recipient to do.


Good writing is not a natural gift. You have to learn to write well.


Tips on headlines

On average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. Never use tricky or irrelevant headlines… People read too fast to figure out what you are trying to say.


In the average newspaper your headline has to compete with 350 others. Readers travel fast through this jungle. Your headline should telegraph what you want to say.


The headlines which work best are those which promise the reader a benefit.


Tips on editing

Never send a letter or a memo on the day you write it. Read it aloud the next morning — and then edit it.


If it is something important, get a colleague to improve it.


Check your quotations.


Tips on creativity

Big ideas come from the unconscious. This is true in art, in science, and in advertising. But your unconscious has to be well informed, or your idea will be irrelevant. Stuff your conscious mind with information, then unhook your rational thought process. You can help this process by going for a long walk, or taking a hot bath, or drinking half a pint of claret. Suddenly, if the telephone line from your unconscious is open, a big idea wells up within you.


In the modern world of business, it is useless to be a creative, original thinker unless you can also sell what you create.


The creative process requires more than reason. Most original thinking isn’t even verbal. It requires a groping experimentation with ideas, governed by intuitive hunches and inspired by the unconscious. The majority of business men are incapable of original thinking because they are unable to escape from the tyranny of reason. Their imaginations are blocked.


Concentrate your time, your brains, and your money on your successes. Back your winners, and abandon your losers.


Where people aren’t having any fun, they seldom produce good work.


When you reach for the stars, you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.


Summary and conclusions

  • David Ogilvy was one of the most notable figures in the marketing world, and is often hailed as the “Father of Advertising”.
  • The tips that he offers, though originally intended for those in the marketing industry, are valuable for anyone who writes content.
  • His general advice on writing focuses on writing as naturally as possible, in a manner that is accessible to your readers.
  • His advice on headlines emphasizes the competition that your headline faces, and the consequent importance of being clear and offering a benefit to each potential reader.
  • His advice on creativity discusses how to let your subconscious lead the process, and highlights the importance of knowing how to channel your creativity in a productive way.


If you enjoyed his insights, you can also take a look at two of his best-known books: Ogilvy on Advertising and Confessions of an Advertising Man.