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 they are likely to make.

In order to think this way, it’s useful to use a game tree (also referred to as a decision tree in cases where there is only one player). In the following example, you will see how this principle works, and how you can implement it in order to make smarter decisions, by taking advantage of game theory.

 

Example: to Advertise or Not to Advertise?

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 taking a part of their market share, MegaCorp can engage in a costly advertising campaign, which would involve significantly reducing their prices.

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

Therefore, there are 4 possible outcomes for the game, each ranked differently by the players (1 is the most desirable outcome, while 4 is the least desirable outcome):

 

Megacorp:

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

 

Starupo:

  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:

Game tree showing the possible moves in the scenario.

 

When making the decision whether to or not advertise, MegaCorp starts by looking at the possible outcomes, and then asking themselves which moves their competitor will make:

  • If MegaCorp runs the ads, then Startupo will choose not to enter the market (since it gets them their #2 choice, as opposed to their #4 choice). In this case, MegaCorp also get their #2 choice.
  • If MegaCorp doesn’t run the ads, then Startupo will choose to enter the market, since it leads to a better outcome for them than not entering the market (choice #1 versus choice #3). In this case, MegaCorp get their #3 choice.
  • Clearly, MegaCorp should run its ads, to prevent Startupo from entering the market. This way they get their #2 choice (similarly to Startupo), while if they decide not to run the ads, they will get their #3 choice, while Startupo will get their #1 choice.

This rationale is phrased so that it appears we start by considering MegaCorp’s moves. However, we in fact start by considering the outcomes, and then considering which move Startupo will make in each of the two scenarios available to them (ads/no ads). Only then do we consider MegaCorp’s initial move.

 

Other considerations

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

  1. 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).
  2. Finiteness: the game must be finite (have a clear endpoint).
  3. Perfect information: the players must have perfect information regarding the possible moves, outcomes, and the desirability of each outcome.
  4. Assumption of rationality: the players must make the rational choice (i.e. select the option that is best for them).

Of course, in reality, things are more complicated. Perfect information rarely exists, and the potential moves and motives of each player tend to be more complex. However, this method is nonetheless the best way to approach such scenarios, and these extra factors and consideration can be appropriately incorporated into the model. Similarly, the addition of more players to the game doesn’t change the overall strategy either; rather, it just increases the complexity of the game tree.

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. (Think about chess, for example)

 

Summary and conclusions

  • When thinking strategically, start by looking forward in order to see the possible moves and outcomes in the scenario.
  • Try to predict how desirable each outcome is for each player.
  • When you have the game tree mapped out, with all the possible moves and consequent outcomes, reason backwards in order to find the best moves for you to make.
  • This allows you to find the optimal solution to a game, given that some conditions are met (sequentiality, finiteness, availability of perfect information, and assumption of rationality).

 


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. Among other ways, you can accomplish this 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 (the type of subtitles you use), could have a significant impact on the effectiveness of your learning process.

 

Foreign Language Subtitles vs. Native Language Subtitles

In general, studies show that it’s a better to use foreign-language subtitles when you’re watching foreign-language material, though there is some conflicting evidence on the topic. 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 with Dutch subtitles.
  • English-speaking students who were learning Spanish had a (slightly) larger improvement in vocabulary recognition after watching Spanish films using Spanish subtitles, as opposed to students who watched the films with English subtitles. They also enjoyed watching the films more, and connected with the material better.
  • Conversely, a study on Turkish college students learning English, found no difference between foreign-language and native-language subtitles.

As you can see, 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. While foreign-language subtitles tend to be better, beginners might struggle with them. In that case, it’s better to use subtitles in the native language, until you feel comfortable having both the audio and the subtitles in the foreign language.

 

Other subtitles

There are two additional types of subtitles, which are less-commonly used, but still worth mentioning:

Reverse subtitles are subtitles in the foreign language, which appear together with a soundtrack in the native language. Interestingly, these subtitles are mostly preferable to using native-language subtitles with a foreign-language soundtrack. There is a tradeoff though: while this method might help you in some areas (e.g. vocabulary learning), it doesn’t help in other areas, such as your listening skills. Therefore, feel free to use this tool (especially as a beginner), but keep its limitations in mind.

Personally, I really like these subtitles. They can help you get exposure to the target language in a comfortable environment, where you don’t feel overwhelmed by constantly struggling to understand what the characters are saying. While you do eventually need to practice listening to the language you are learning, this is a great way to get passive exposure to it; just enable the subtitles while watching your regular shows, and you’ll notice yourself using them more and more, as you manage to pick up bigger text fragments (starting with words and moving on to full sentences).

In addition, another important advantage is that it is 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.

Dual subtitles use the foreign language soundtrack, together with subtitles in both the foreign and the native language. While these subtitles provide the most information, there is often not enough time to read them both while watching the show. One way to deal with this is to stick with looking at the foreign language subtitles, and refer to the native language ones only when you need a translation. Some platforms have specific solutions for this, which allow you to view the native language translation by hovering over the foreign language subtitles when necessary, but this solution is unfortunately not yet widely available.

 

Other considerations

First, remember that the more of a beginner you are, the more input in the native language you’re probably going to need, and that’s perfectly fine.

Furthermore, there is also variation in personal preferences; different people learn in different ways, and prefer using different materials. Experiment to see what works for you.

Overall, the most important factor is your motivation to engage in the learning process. If you’re not engaging with material in the target language, then you’re not learning. 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. Just make sure you’re aware that this is a step in the learning process, and that eventually you will need to advance to the more complex material, even if it seems scary at first.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • If you’re watching material in a foreign language, it’s better to watch it with subtitles than without them.
  • Subtitles in the foreign language are generally slightly more effective than subtitles in your native language. However, if you’re a beginner, you’re probably going to need subtitles in the native language.
  • Other good options are reverse subtitles (foreign-language subtitles together with a native language soundtrack), or dual subtitles (foreign-language soundtrack and subtitles in both the foreign and the native language).
  • Different people benefit from different types of subtitles. Experiment to see what works for you.
  • The most important thing is to use material which makes you engage with the target language. The more motivation you have, the more you will be exposed to the material, and the more you will learn.

 


Straw Man Arguments: How to Recognize, How to Counter, and When to Use Them Yourself

 

A straw man argument is a debate technique where a person pretends to refute his opponent’s argument, while actually refuting an argument that is only superficially similar to the original one. 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”.

What happens is the following:

  1. First, person A states his position.
  2. Then, person B presents a distorted version of person A’s original position (while pretending that there’s no difference between the two versions).
  3. Finally, person B attacks the new position, and acts as if this invalidates person A’s original position.

Essentially, instead of arguing against the original stance, person B creates a “straw man”, which is easier to attack. This misrepresentation is a flaw in the premise of person B’s argument, which is why straw man arguments are a type of informal logical fallacy.

 

Straw man example

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 let everyone just do drugs whenever they want, crimes rates will increase drastically.”

Senator B uses a straw man argument, by misrepresenting Senator A’s stance on two key points:

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

Note that we’re not discussing whether Senator B’s claim is true overall; we’re focusing on his misrepresentation of Senator A’s stance. Just because person B is distorting person A’s claim, doesn’t mean that his response to distorted stance is wrong (though I’m not implying that this is the case here).

 

Using straw man arguments in practice

These arguments are very prevalent in debates, and can appear in various forms:

  • Oversimplifying, generalizing or exaggerating the opponent’s argument, and then attacking the new, weaker version.
  • Focusing on one specific part of the opponent’s argument and ignoring everything else.
  • Quoting parts of the 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 himself. For example. If the opponent is part of a group, it is possible to focus on the weakest supporters and refute their stance, while pretending that this is what the entire group believes.

Being able to recognize straw man arguments is valuable, because it allows you to tell when others are using this technique, whether in direct arguments against you, or in general discussion. Furthermore, understanding how this technique works means that you can use it yourself when necessary. You would admittedly be exploiting a logical fallacy to support your argument, but the choice whether or not to do so is up to you.

However, while the use of the straw man technique is widespread, research suggests that using this type of argument is not always a beneficial strategy. A study on the topic showed that as a rhetorical technique, straw man arguments are useful only when the listeners have a low level of motivation to scrutinize the argument (i.e. they don’t care much about what’s being said). Conversely, when listeners are invested in actually thinking about the argument, the technique is generally ineffective, and may even backfire by reducing the persuasiveness of the argument.

 

Countering the straw man

A good way to minimize your vulnerability to the straw man in the first place is to use clear and exact language, with as little room for misinterpretations as possible. However, while this reduces the risk of someone using a straw man against you, nothing can prevent someone from using this type of argument if they want to. Therefore, you should know how to counter it, using the following options:

  • Point out the straw man- call your opponent out on their use of a straw man. If they stick with it, focus on showing why their new argument is not relevant. Keep in mind that perception matters, especially if there is an audience: you want your opponent to be on the defensive for his actions, not the other way around. Make your opponent defend why your original stance and their distorted stance are the same. If there is truly a flaw in their premise, it will become evident under scrutiny.
  • Ignore the straw man- you can ignore the distorted argument, by refusing to engage anything that isn’t relevant to your original point (i.e. defend your original point, not the straw man that the opponent presents). If they insist, you will likely have to call them out on the straw man.
  • Go with it- in some cases it might be necessary (or easier) to adopt the straw man as your argument. However, the longer you go down this route, the more difficult it is to go back and point out the straw man fallacy, since by supporting the new argument you appear to take it as your stance.

 

Other important things to keep in mind:

  • The first step to countering a straw man is recognizing it.
  • The overall goal of the straw man is to distort your stance, in order to make it harder for you to defend.
  • Sometimes people use this technique by mistake, because they accidentally misinterpret what you’re saying.

 

Iron manning

An iron man argument is similar to a straw man argument, except that it’s used in order to strengthen your own claims. Essentially, you would use it the same way you would use a straw man (i.e. by misrepresenting an original stance), but this time it’s in order to make your own point easier to defend.

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 go back to 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 say anything that is directly related to the topic at hand. He didn’t discuss facts, and didn’t argue against anything his opponent said. Instead, he made abstract statements that almost anyone would agree with, and adopted this vague agenda as his stance. Now, instead of arguing against a specific topic like 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.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • A straw man argument is when someone misrepresents their opponent’s view, in order to make it easier to attack.
  • This occurs through tactics such as overgeneralization, or quoting things out of context.
  • Once you recognize this technique, it’s possible to counter it.
  • You can use this technique yourself, or you can use a similar version (iron manning), to make your own arguments easier to defend.
  • This technique is relatively effective on uninterested listeners, but can be problematic if the audience is invested in the debate.