Precommitment: Burning Bridges as a Strategic Decision

Precommitment

 

Precommitment is a strategy where you intentionally take actions which limit your future options, in order to enforce your commitment to a particular course of action and make your threats appear more credible to others.

Precommitment can be a valuable strategy to apply in many areas of life. As such, in the following article you will learn more about the concept of precommitment, see some examples of its use, and understand how you can implement it yourself as effectively as possible.

 

What is precommitment

Precommitment is a strategy where you intentionally take actions which limit your future options, in order to enforce your commitment to a particular course of action and make your threats appear more credible to others.

For example, an advancing army might precommit to an attack by destroying any bridges that would allow them to retreat, as soon as they cross them. In this case, the use of precommitment has two main benefits:

  • It motivates the troops of the invading army, because they know that retreat is not a viable option for them, which means that the only option that is left is to keep moving forward.
  • It demotivates the defending army, because it shows them that the invaders are fully committed to the attack, which means that the invaders are unlikely to give up, no matter what happens.

Note: the concept of precommitment plays a role not only in game theory but also in a psychological context, where it refers to people’s decision to precommit to a future course of action as a way to overcome their impulsivity and encourage themself to follow through on their long-term goals.

 

Examples of precommitment

Cortés and his ships

One of the best-known examples of precommitment occurred during Cortés’ attack on the Aztec empire (circa 1519).

At the beginning of the expedition, men who were not loyal to Cortés decided to steal a ship and sail back home. After Cortés stopped the attempted mutiny, he decided to sink his own ships, in order to ensure that his men knew that they have no hopes of returning home in them.

The use of precommitment here was successful, and Cortés and his men continued their conquest, this time with increased motivation.

Noteaccording to historians, Cortés sunk his ships by scuttling them to let water in, rather than by burning them, as is usually believed.

 

The Golden Balls gameshow

Another good example of precommitment appeared in an episode of the Golden Balls gameshow.

In this gameshow, when contestants reach the final stage of the show, each of them is given two balls, one of which represents the option to “Split” and one of which represents the option to “Steal”. Each contestant must, in secret, choose one of the balls. Once both contestants have chosen, they reveal their decision:

  • If they both chose “Split”, they split the jackpot.
  • If one chose “Split” and one chose “Steal”, the one who chose “Split” gets nothing, and the one who chose “Steal” gets the full jackpot.
  • If they both chose “Steal”, they both get nothing.

In an infamous episode of the show, one of the contestants told the other contestant that they are going to choose “Steal”, no matter what happens.

They told the other contestant that nothing they say will change their mind, and therefore the only way that the other contestant could manage to get any money was by picking “Split”, in which case the contestant who chose “Steal” would give them half the money after the show was over. They said that if the other contestant rejected this deal and decided to go with “Steal”, they were both guaranteed to get nothing.

By doing this, and by precommitting to a certain course of action, the contestant who said that they will choose “Steal” no matter what forced the other player to choose “Split”, because this was the only way that they could potentially receive anything. By doing this, they put themselves in an advantageous position, and protected themselves against having the money stolen from them.

This course of action involved a high degree of risk, because it was possible that the other contestant would decide to choose “Steal” anyway, out of spite.

However, in the end, things worked out well: after a long argument, the second contestant agreed to pick “Split”, and during the final reveal of their decision it turned out that the first contestant also picked “Split”, thus ensuring that they both got paid equally.

 

Precommitment and brinkmanship

The concept of precommitment is associated with that of brinkmanship, which is the strategy of pushing volatile engagements to the brink of active conflict, with the goal of achieving a positive outcome for yourself. Specifically, these two strategies are related to each other because people’s precommitment often leads them to engage in brinkmanship, when they precommit to a strategy that significantly increases the risk of escalation.

This is evident, for example, in the strategy of deterrence used during the Cold War, where nations precommited to responding to a nuclear attack against them with a nuclear attack of their own, as in the case of the Soviet Dead Hand system, which was a fail-deadly system meant to launch all of the USSR’s nuclear weapons in response to a nuclear attack against them.

This extreme form of precommitment, which occurs when someone precommits to a very limited course of action by cutting off all their of their other available options, is sometimes referred to as desperate ground strategy or death ground strategy.

 

How to use precommitment

As we saw so far, precommitment involves cutting off some of your future options, in cases where doing so can give you a strategic advantage.

If your goal in using precommitment is to motivate your own people or to intimidate your opponent, it’s vital to make sure that all the relevant parties are well aware of the fact that you implemented this strategy, which means that you will often have to broadcast its use in some way.

When doing this, remember that the more costly your actions are and the greater the penalty for lying, the more honest your threat will appear to others, a concept which is known as the handicap principle.

You can, of course, try to bluff when using a precommitment strategy, and fake your commitment to a certain course of action. The benefit of doing this is that it could allow you to enjoy the advantages of the precommitment strategy, without also requiring you to suffer from the cost of having to limit your future options.

However, the issue with this approach is that the easier it is for you to bluff, the less likely other people are to believe you. Furthermore, it’s often difficult to successfully fake precommitment, especially in the long term, and if your lie is discovered, it could damage your credibility and your ability to make threats in the future, which is why you should think carefully before bluffing your commitment to a certain course of action.

Finally, remember that precommitment is an inherently risky strategy, since it limits the number of options available to you, and since it often leads to an escalation of conflicts. As such, you should only choose to precommit to a certain course of action after thoroughly analyzing the situation.

 

Precommitment by your opponent

In some cases, your opponent might end up using the precommitment strategy against you. When this happens, you should first check to make sure that your opponent has actually precommitted to a certain course of action, and that they’re not simply bluffing, before you decide how to respond.

In addition, note that there are situations where you might choose to force your opponent to commit to a certain course of action, by cutting off some of the options that are available to them.

This approach can be beneficial in certain situations, such as when using it demotivates your opponent or causes them to panic and make mistakes. However, it can also end up backfiring and causing issues for you, in situations where it makes your opponent more dangerous, which can happen, for example, if they feel that they are fighting with their back to the wall, meaning that surrendering is not an option.

Accordingly, if you’re planning on cutting off your opponent’s options, you want to make sure that this is the best course of action for you, and that you can do it in a strategic manner. For example, if you do choose to limit the number of options that your opponent has, you will often want to ensure that they have a reasonable way to surrender, or to ensure that they have something that they care about enough to prevent them from fighting as if they have nothing to lose.

 

Summary and conclusions

  • Precommitment is a strategy where you intentionally take actions which limit your future options, in order to enforce a commitment to a particular course of action and make your threats appear more credible to others.
  • A famous example of precommitment is that of Cortés sinking his ships during his expedition to the Americas, which prevented his men from trying to run back home.
  • Before precommiting to a certain course of action, you should make sure to analyze the situation and determine that this is the best course of action, since this strategy is inherently risky due to the fact that it limits the number of options available to you, and since it often increases the risk of escalation in conflicts.
  • You should also remember that, in many cases, it’s important to make sure that other people are aware that you have committed to a certain course of action, and the more costly it is for you to say that you have committed to that course of action, the more honest your threat will appear.
  • If you plan to force your opponent to commit to a certain course of action by limiting the number of options that are available to them, it’s generally preferable to still leave them with a way out of the conflict or with something that they care enough about to prevent them from fighting as if they have nothing to lose.

 

The concept of precommitment is discussed, together with other relevant strategies, in “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.