Look Forward, Reason Backward: A Primary Principle of Strategic Thinking

One of the basic principles in game theory is that you should look forward and reason back.

Essentially, this means that before making a move, you should consider all the possible moves that you and the other players can make, together with the possible outcomes that these moves lead to. Then, consider how desirable each outcome is to each player, and based on this, determine which moves other players are likely to make, and which move you should make yourself.

In the following article, you will see how the principle of look forward and reason backward works, and how you can implement it in order to make smarter decisions.

 

Example: to advertise or not to advertise?

Consider the following scenario:

MegaCorp is currently the only company selling a certain type of high-quality industrial lasers.

Startupo is a new company, which is considering entering the market currently dominated by MegaCorp.

To deter Startupo from competing against them, MegaCorp can engage in a costly advertising campaign, which would involve significantly reducing their profits.

Since Startupo is a smaller and more flexible company, they can wait and see whether MegaCorp runs their ad campaign before deciding whether they should enter the market.

As such, each company has two possible moves: MegaCorp can decide whether or not to run the ads, while Startupo can decide whether or not to enter the market.

This means that there are 4 possible outcomes for this scenario, each of which is ranked differently by the players, with ‘1’ being the most desirable outcome, and ‘4’ being the least desirable outcome:

 

Megacorp’s outcome ranking:

  1. No ads, no entry (of Startupo).
  2. Ads, but no entry.
  3. No ads, but entry.
  4. Ads and entry.

 

Startupo’s outcome ranking:

  1. No ads, yes entry.
  2. Ads, but no entry.
  3. No ads and no entry.
  4. Ads and entry.

 

Based on this, we get the following game tree (also known as a decision tree in cases where there is only one player), which illustrates all the possible moves and outcomes in this scenario:

 

Game tree showing the possible moves in the scenario.
The ‘M’ represents Megacorp, while the ‘S’ represents Startupo. The numbers in the terminal nodes represent the ranking of that outcome for Megacorp and Startupo respectively.

 

Essentially, when making the decision whether to or not advertise, MegaCorp starts by looking at all the possible outcomes of this scenario, and then asking themselves which moves their competitor is most likely to make:

  • If MegaCorp runs the ads, then Startupo will choose not to enter the market, since doing this gets them their #2 outcome, as opposed to their #4 outcome. This choice means that MegaCorp also gets their #2 outcome.
  • If MegaCorp doesn’t run the ads, then Startupo will likely choose to enter the market, since it leads to a better outcome for them than not entering the market (outcome #1 versus outcome #3). In this case, MegaCorp will get their #3 outcome.

Based on this, it’s clear that MegaCorp should run its advertising campaign, in order to prevent Startupo from entering the market. Doing this means that they will get their #2 choice, similarly to Startupo, while if they decide to not run the ads, then they will get their #3 choice, while Startupo will get their #1 choice.

Here, we applied the principle of looking forward and reasoning backward by first considering the possible outcomes of the scenario, and then working our way back in order to figure out all the possible countermoves that Startupo can make in response to Megacorp, in order to figure out the best course of action for Megacorp.

 

Considerations when applying this principle

This method of backward induction can be used in order to find the optimal solution of a game when the following conditions apply:

  • Sequentiality: the game must be sequential, meaning that the players act one after another (as opposed to a simultaneous game, where the players act at the same time).
  • Finiteness: the game must be finite, meaning that it must have a clear endpoint.
  • Perfect information: the players must have perfect information regarding the possible moves and outcomes of the game, as well as regarding the desirability of each outcome.
  • Rationality: all players must choose their move rationally, meaning that they must select the option that is best for them.

Of course, in reality, things are complicated, and these conditions may not all be satisfied, especially since perfect information rarely exists, and since people often tend to make irrational decisions. This is further complicated by the fact that games can have more than just two players, each of which can often have multiple possible moves, and various complex motives.

This all leads to an important caveat: just because the game has an optimal strategy that you should select, doesn’t mean that it’s easy to find it (chess is a good example of this). However, these extra factors and considerations can be often be incorporated into the model, and backward induction nevertheless remains the best way to deal with many of these scenarios, which are going to be complex regardless of how you approach them.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • The principle of looking forward and reasoning backward represents the concept of backward induction, which is the idea that you should start reasoning backward from the end of a problem, in order to identify your optimal course of action.
  • Essentially, this means that before making a move, you should consider the possible moves that you and the other players can make, together with the possible outcomes that these moves will lead to. Then, rank the different outcomes in terms of their desirability for each player, and based on this, determine which moves other players are likely to make.
  • In order to illustrate all of this in a clear way, you should use a game tree, which maps the possible moves that each player can make, and the outcomes that these moves will lead to. Once you have the full game tree mapped out, you can reason backward in order to identify the optimal moves for you to make.
  • There are some conditions that must apply in order for this strategy to work. These include having the players take turns in a sequential way, having a set endpoint for the “game”, having perfect information available for all the players, and having the players make perfectly rational decisions.
  • Applying this strategy can be difficult in real life, where scenarios are often complex, and where some of the necessary conditions may not exist. However, backward induction is still one of the best ways to handle many of these scenarios, which are going to be difficult to solve regardless of which method you use.

 

The rationale behind this strategy and its example comes 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.

 


The Best Type of Subtitles to Use When Learning a Foreign Language

Illustration of subtitles in both native and foreign language (assuming your native language is English).

 

When you learn a new language, it’s important to get a lot of exposure to it. One of the best ways to do this is by watching movies and TV shows in your target language.

In general, it’s better for you to watch foreign-language videos with subtitles, rather than without them. However, this gives rise to a question: what’s the best type of subtitles to use? This is an important question, because a simple modification, in terms of the type of subtitles that you use, could have a significant impact on the effectiveness of your learning process.

In the following article, we will see which subtitles are most effective, and how the choice of which subtitles to use varies based on which stage you’re at in the learning process.

 

Foreign-language subtitles vs. Native-language subtitles

In general, studies show that it’s better to use foreign-language subtitles when you’re watching foreign-language material (as opposed to native-language subtitles), though the benefits of doing this only extend to some aspects of the learning process. For example:

  • Dutch students learning English as a second language were slightly better able to process English sentences after watching English material with English subtitles than they were after watching English material with Dutch subtitles.
  • English-speaking students who were learning Spanish had a slightly greater improvement in vocabulary recognition after watching Spanish films using Spanish subtitles, compared to students who watched the Spanish films with English subtitles. They also enjoyed watching the films more, and connected with the material better.
  • Turkish college students who were learning English did not experience any significant improvement in their listening comprehension after watching an English video using English subtitles compared to watching it with Turkish subtitles.

Overall, it appears that it’s generally preferable to use foreign-language subtitles as opposed to native language subtitles, though the difference isn’t huge. In addition, keep in mind that your preference could depend on how well you speak the foreign language.

Specifically, while foreign-language subtitles tend to lead to better learning outcomes for most people, students who are just beginners might struggle with them. As such, if you have only a limited proficiency in your target language, it might be better for you to use subtitles in your native language first, until you feel comfortable with having both the audio and the subtitles in the foreign language.

 

Other types of subtitles

So far, we discussed the two most common schemes which are used when viewing foreign-language material; these consist of an audio/soundtrack in the foreign language, together with subtitles in the foreign language or in the native language.

Next, we will see two other types of viewing schemes, which are less-commonly used, but still worth considering, since they can be valuable in your learning process.

 

Reverse subtitles

Reverse subtitles are subtitles in the foreign language, which appear together with a soundtrack in the native language. In some areas of language learning, such as vocabulary learning, these subtitles can be preferable to native-language subtitles on a foreign-language soundtrack.

Reverse subtitles are especially beneficial if you’re a beginner, since they can help you get exposure to your target language in a comfortable environment, where you don’t feel overwhelmed by constantly struggling to understand what the characters are saying.

In addition, they are beneficial since they offer a great way to get some relatively passive exposure to your target language; just enable the foreign-language subtitles while watching your regular shows, and you’ll notice yourself using them more and more, as you manage to pick up bigger units of texts.

Furthermore, another important advantage of reverse subtitles is that it’s sometimes easier to find films and shows in your native language than in your target language. For example, if you’re an English speaker, you will likely have a much bigger selection of things to watch in your native language than in most other languages.

However, the disadvantage of reverse subtitles is that using them means that you’re not developing your proficiency in several important areas of the language, and especially in terms of your listening skills. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t use these subtitles at all, but it does mean that they can’t be the only type of subtitles that you use throughout the learning process.

Overall, reverse subtitles can be beneficial, but it’s important to keep their limitations in mind. If you’re a beginner, they offer a great way to achieve exposure to your target language in a comfortable environment that encourages things such as vocabulary acquisition. However, because using them means that you’re not exposed to the sounds of your foreign language, as your language proficiency grows, you should starting using other types of subtitles too.

 

Dual subtitles

Dual subtitles are subtitles that use a foreign-language soundtrack, together with subtitles in both the foreign and the native language. This means that these subtitles provide the most information out of all types of subtitles. This can be advantageous, by giving you as a learner more valuable input, but the problem is that there is often not enough time to process all this input while watching a show.

One way to deal with this is to stick with looking at either the foreign-language or native-language subtitles exclusively, and then refer to the other type of subtitles only in specific cases, where you need a translation. For example, this means that if you’re focusing on the foreign-language subtitles, then you will likely look at the native-language subtitles only in cases where you need a translation for a certain word or phrase.

Note that some platforms offer a special type of dual subtitles, where you only see the foreign-language subtitles normally, but hovering over a specific word shows you its native-language translation, while pausing the show.

Overall, this type of subtitles can be highly valuable, as long as you can find a platform where it works well, and as long as using it doesn’t cause you to feel overwhelmed while watching your show.

 

Other considerations to choosing which subtitles to use

First, it’s important to keep in mind the fact that the earlier you are at the language-acquisition process, the more input in the native language you’re probably going to need. As you improve your proficiency in the target language, you will be able to handle more foreign-language input, but as with any other type of learning, this is a process that takes time.

In addition, it’s important to remember that there is a lot of variation in people’s personal preferences. This means that different people learn in different ways, and can benefit more from using different materials. As such, when choosing which subtitles to use, experiment and try different things, until you find the solution that works best for you.

Finally, remember that the most important factor to consider with regards to choosing which subtitles to use is your motivation to engage in the learning process. If you won’t engage with material in the target language, then you won’t be able to learn it.

Therefore, if you find yourself not watching things because the material is too difficult, it’s better to switch to something that you’re comfortable with (e.g. native-language subtitles), as long as it means that you’re actually engaging with foreign-language material in some way. At the same time, however, be aware that language learning can be difficult sometimes, and that eventually you need to advance to the more complex material, even if it seems scary at first.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • If you’re watching movies, TV shows, or any other material in your target foreign language, it’s generally better to watch it with subtitles than without them.
  • Foreign-language subtitles are generally a slightly more effective study aid than native-language subtitles. However, if you’re a beginner, you’re probably going to need subtitles in the native language at first, until you get to a stage where you can cope with having both the soundtrack and the subtitles be in the foreign language.
  • Two other helpful types of subtitles are reverse subtitles, where foreign-language subtitles appear together with a native-language soundtrack, and dual subtitles, where the foreign-language soundtrack appears together with subtitles in both the foreign and the native language.
  • Your choice of subtitles will likely change over time, as your foreign-language proficiency grows. In addition, different people prefer different types of subtitles, so experiment to see what works for you.
  • When it comes to learning, the main thing you should focus on is increasing the time spent engaging with material in your foreign language. As such, when it comes to choosing which subtitles to use, pick the ones that increase your motivation to watch things in your foreign language, since the more material you watch, the more you will learn.

 


Straw Man Arguments: What They Are and How to Counter Them

Strawman argument

 

A straw man argument is a rhetoric technique where someone distorts their opponent’s argument, in order to make it easier to attack. By doing this, the person using the strawman pretends to refute their opponent’s argument, while in reality they refute a different argument, that does not accurately portray their opponent’s original stance.

For example, if person A were to say “we should improve the public healthcare system”, person B might reply with “I find the fact that you want to give a lot of money to large pharmaceutical corporations very suspicious”.

Because strawman arguments are so prevalent, it’s important to thoroughly understand them. In the following article, you will learn more about how strawman arguments work, and about how you can counter them, or use them yourself.

 

What is a strawman argument

A straw man argument is a rhetoric technique where someone distorts their opponent’s argument, in order to make it easier to attack.

The use of a strawman argument usually consists of the following three stages:

  • First, person A states their position.
  • Then, person B presents a distorted version of person A’s original position, while pretending that there’s no difference between the two versions.
  • Finally, person B attacks the distorted version of person A’s position, and acts as if this invalidates person A’s original argument.

Essentially, instead of arguing against the original stance, person B creates a strawman, which is easier for them to attack. This means that there is a logical flaw in the premise of person B’s argument, and namely the fact that they are arguing against a distorted version of their opponent’s original argument.

As such, the strawman fallacy is considered to be a type of an informal logical fallacy, and specifically a type of a relevance fallacy, since the person using it is attacking a stance that is not directly relevant to the discussion at hand.

 

Example of a strawman argument

The following is a typical example of a strawman argument in political discourse:

Senator A: I think we should make medical marijuana more readily available for patients who need it.

Senator B: That’s a terrible idea. If we just let everyone do drugs whenever they want, crime rates will increase drastically.

In this example, Senator B uses a strawman argument, by misrepresenting Senator A’s stance on two key points:

  • Senator B argues against everyone having access to marijuana, while Senator A argued in favor of patients having access to it.
  • Senator B argues against drugs in general, while Senator discussed only medical marijuana.

In doing this, Senator B makes it much easier for himself to attack his opponent.

Keep in mind that it doesn’t matter whether Senator B’s overall claim is true or not (i.e. that if everyone had free access to drugs, then crime rates will increase drastically). It’s entirely possible for an argument to be logically fallacious, and still have a correct conclusion.

However, even if that was the case, it doesn’t change the fact that Senator B’s argument is a gross and fallacious misrepresentation of Senator A’s stance, which is why it should not have been used in the first place.

 

How to recognize strawman arguments

Strawman arguments are common in debates on various topics, and can appear in a wide range of forms, such as:

  • Oversimplifying, generalizing, or exaggerating an opponent’s argument, and then attacking the new, weaker version.
  • Focusing on one specific part of an opponent’s argument, while ignoring everything else that they say (a technique known as cherry picking).
  • Quoting parts of an original argument out of context in order to misrepresent them.
  • Arguing against fringe or extreme opinions which are sometimes used to support the opponent’s stance, but which the opponent didn’t use themself.
  • Similarly, if the opponent is part of a group, then it’s possible to focus on the weakest members of that group and refute their stance, while pretending that this is what the entire group believes.

In addition to these common ways of using strawman arguments, there are various other methods of distorting people’s arguments, ranging from minor distortions to outright fabrications. However, all of these techniques have the same thing in common: they involve someone distorting their opponent’s stance, in order to make it easier for them to attack.

As such, strawman arguments are relatively simple to recognize in discourse. Essentially, when you realize that there is a mismatch between someone’s stance and the stance that their opponent is attacking, it’s a clear sign that a strawman argument is being used.

 

How to counter strawman arguments

A good way to minimize your vulnerability to the strawman fallacy in the first place is to use clear and definite language, with as little room for misinterpretations as possible. This makes it more difficult for your opponent to distort your stance, and makes it easier for you to correct them if they attempt to do so.

However, while this reduces the risk of someone using a strawman argument against you, nothing can prevent someone from using this type of argument if they truly want to. Therefore, it’s important to know how to counter strawman arguments, which you can do using one of the following three methods:

  • Point out the straw man- call your opponent out on their use of a strawman, by explaining why their argument is fallacious, and how it distorts your original stance. You can put them on the defensive by asking them to justify why they believe that their distorted argument is the same as the original one; since the two arguments are different, they will either be forced to admit their use of a strawman, or they will try to justify it by using even more fallacious reasoning, which you can attack.
  • Ignore the strawman- you can choose to ignore the distorted version of your argument that your opponent presents, and continue to simply advocate for your original position. This can be effective in some cases, but if they continue to focus on the strawman, you may have to use one of the two other methods mentioned here.
  • Accept the strawman- in some cases, it might be necessary or preferable for you to accept a strawman when you’re defending your stance, meaning that instead of arguing in favor of your original stance, you now start defending the distorted version of your stance, as presented by your opponent. Keep in mind, however, that the longer you go down this route, the more difficult it will be to go back and point out your opponent’s fallacious reasoning, since by not saying anything against the strawman you appear to accept it as your own stance.

Overall, since a strawman argument is fallacious because it distorts the stance that it argues against, the logically correct way to counter it is to point out this distortion. This is also the most effective choice for countering the strawman in most cases, though the two other options, namely ignoring the strawman or accepting it, can also be helpful in some situations.

 

Accounting for crowds and perception

Often, strawman arguments are used in debates that are viewed by a group of people. This is important to take into consideration when countering a strawman, because it can affect the way you choose to react to the strawman.

Essentially, when arguing in front of a crowd, your focus is often on persuading the crowd, rather than persuading your opponent; this is why people often use the logically fallacious strawman arguments in the first place.

As such, when it comes time to choose which technique to use in order to counter the strawman, consider which technique will appeal the most to the appeal in the crowd, rather than just thinking about which technique will help you deal with your opponent.

 

Accounting for the unintentional use of strawman arguments

Keep in mind that the use of a strawman argument can sometimes be unintentional. This is because, in some cases, people distort their opponent’s stance because they misunderstand it, rather than because they want to make it easier to attack.

This is important to remember when it’s time to interpret your opponent’s arguments, and when you need to counter any strawman arguments that they make. Accordingly, you generally want to start by asking your opponent to justify their use of the strawman, instead of just attacking them for their fallacious reasoning.

Doing this is beneficial not only because it promotes more friendly discourse, but because it also increases the likelihood that the other person will see the problem with their reasoning and accept their mistake. Remember that if you simply attack a person for their opinion, they will often continue to support it, even if they realize that they were wrong all along.

 

Using strawman arguments yourself

First of all, remember that you might be using strawman arguments unintentionally. If you identify cases where this happens, and specifically instances where you distort your opponent’s view in order to make it easier for you to attack, try to highlight this distortion in your mind, and correct it before approaching their argument again.

One way to ensure that you’re not using a strawman is to try and re-express your opponent’s position, and then ask them whether they agree with your description before you start arguing against it. This is the best way to make sure that your opponent agrees with your formulation of their stance, and is the preferred way to engage in productive discourse.

There may be times where you might choose to use a strawman argument yourself, for whatever reason. However, keep in mind that while the use of the straw man technique is widespread, and while this technique can be persuasive in some cases, research suggests that using this type of argument is not always a beneficial strategy, aside from the obvious issues with using fallacious reasoning.

Specifically, a study on the topic showed that as a rhetorical technique, strawman arguments are useful only when the listeners have a low level of motivation to scrutinize the argument, meaning that they don’t care much about what’s being said. Conversely, when listeners are invested in the argument, the strawman technique is generally ineffective, and may even backfire by reducing the persuasiveness of the argument.

 

Variants of strawman arguments

Hollow-man arguments

hollow-man argument is a variant of the strawman, and involves inventing a weak fictitious position, and attributing it to a vaguely defined person or group who is supposed to represent the opposition, before knocking it down in an attempt to discredit your opponent.

A hollow-man argument can often be identified through the use of weasel words, which include phrases such as “some say that…”, that are not attributed to any specific person or group. This is because such phrases make the statement vague enough to be nearly impossible to refute, while absolving the speaker of any responsibility with regards to the truthfulness of their claims.

 

Iron-man arguments

An iron man argument is a variant of the strawman, and involves distorting your own stance in order to make it easier to defend. Essentially, an iron-man argument is used in the same way you would use a straw man (i.e. by misrepresenting an original stance), but this time it’s in order to strengthen your own stance, rather than to weaken your opponent’s stance.

One of the most prominent ways to do this is by using vague statements that are easy to agree with, even if they don’t have much to do with your actual point. For example, let’s consider Senator B, who’s arguing against legalizing medical marijuana for patients.

Instead of talking about the issue at hand directly, Senator B can say the following:

I just want what everybody wants: to do the right thing, and make life better for the American people. Following our moral compass takes courage in hard times, but only if we remain steadfast in our beliefs will we be able to prosper and grow strong together.

Senator B didn’t actually say anything that is directly related to the topic at hand. He didn’t discuss facts, and didn’t argue directly against anything his opponent said. Instead, he made abstract statements that almost anyone would agree with, and adopted this vague agenda as his stance.

This means that now, instead of arguing against a specific topic like the legalization of medical marijuana, he’s arguing in favor of “doing the right thing” and “following our moral compass”, which is much easier for him to defend.

 

Steel-man arguments

A steel-man argument is a variant of the strawman, and involves distorting your opponent’s argument in order to make it easier for them to defend, and more difficult for you to attack. Essentially, this means that you take your opponent’s original argument, and frame it in the best way possible before attacking it.

This is the suggested course of action under the principle of charity, which suggests that you should argue against the best possible interpretation of your opponent’s argument. In its ultimate version, doing this involves the following four steps, which were suggested by the famous philosopher Daniel Dennett, based on the work of psychologist Anatol Rapoport:

How to compose a successful critical commentary:

  1. You should attempt to re-express your target’s position so clearly, vividly, and fairly that your target says, “Thanks, I wish I’d thought of putting it that way.”
  2. You should list any points of agreement (especially if they are not matters of general or widespread agreement).
  3. You should mention anything you have learned from your target.
  4. Only then are you permitted to say so much as a word of rebuttal or criticism.

– From “Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking

Doing this has the similar benefits as giving your opponent the benefit of the doubt when it comes to whether or not their use of a strawman was intentional. As we saw above, doing this can lead to more productive discussions, by making your opponent more receptive to criticism, and more likely to change their opinion.

Note: some scholars use the term ‘iron-man argument’ to refer to any argument which distorts the original position in order to improve it. However, the distinction between iron-man and steel-man arguments is important to make, since the goals of the two types of arguments are markedly different. Specifically, while iron-man arguments are used in order to make it easier for you to defend your own stance, steel-man arguments make it more difficult for you to attack your opponent’s stance, meaning that the two types of arguments are used for very different reasons.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • A straw man argument is a rhetoric technique where someone distorts their opponent argument, in order to make it easier to attack.
  • There are various ways in which one can distort their opponent’s argument. Some of the more common ones include generalizing, oversimplifying, or exaggerating the original argument, focusing only on specific details in the original argument, quoting things out of context, and arguing against extreme opinions which are sometimes used to support the opponent’s stance, but which the opponent didn’t actually use.
  • Once you are capable of recognizing people’s use of strawman arguments, you can try to counter them. The main way to do this is by pointing out the straw man and asking your opponent to justify why your original stance and their distorted stance are the same. However, you can also choose to ignore your opponent’s attempt at using a straw man, or to simply accept it and continue the discussion.
  • When countering a straw man, keep in mind the possibility that the person using it is doing so unintentionally, simply because they misunderstand their opponent’s position. Taking this into account and asking your opponent to explain why they believe that the stance which they presented accurately represents the original stance can help you counter the strawman successfully, and makes it more likely that the other person will accept their mistake.
  • A common variant of the strawman argument is the hollow-man argument, which involves inventing a fictitious position, and attributing it to a vaguely defined person who is meant to represent the opposition. Two other notable variants are iron-man arguments, which involve distorting your own stance in order to make it easier to defend, and steel-man arguments, which involve distorting your opponent’s stance in order to make it harder to attack.