How to outfox someone who's smarter than you

Sometimes the best strategy is to think completely outside the box. Or not have a strategy at all.

Kevin Zollman: When one is confronted with a situation that’s truly zero sum where one party is going to win and the other party is going to lose, a situation is very complicated and sometimes difficult to analyze. Game theory spent much of its early days analyzing zero sum games and trying to figure out what’s the best strategy. 

It’s a little complicated because it depends critically on how sophisticated you think the other party is. 

If they’re very, very, very smart, the chances that you’re going to outthink them are not very high. In such a situation often times the best strategy is very counterintuitive, because it involves flipping a coin or rolling a dice or doing something random.

Professional poker players know this and they often times advocate in poker strategy books that one should occasionally do something completely counterintuitive in order to keep your opponents off guard. And in fact game theory has shown that this is good, solid, mathematically well-founded advice, that often times what you want to do is engage in a kind of random strategy—game theorists call this a mixed strategy—in order to make sure that your opponent can’t get the leg up on you. 

The nice thing about these random strategies is that they ensure that your opponent can never outthink you. So even if you think your opponent is a little smarter than you or a little bit more sophisticated than you or has a little bit more information than you do, the fact that you’re being random to a certain extent means that they can’t outthink you.

Now how do you figure out how to be random? I’m not saying just flip a coin all the time or whatever. What game theorists have figured out is that in zero sum games the best strategy to pursue when you’re against a sophisticated opponent is to adopt the strategy which minimizes your maximum loss. This is sometimes called the mini max strategy. 

So the idea is you think: what’s the worst case scenario for me? What could my opponent do that would make me worse off? 

And then you figure out what’s the best strategy against that, so you’re minimizing your maximum loss. 

Game theorists prove that if you use this way of thinking, minimizing your maximum loss, you ensure that no matter how sophisticated your opponent is you’ve guarded against the worst case scenario. And not only that but in zero sum games you’ve done the best you can possibly do.

That’s not true in games that aren’t zero sum, so one has to be very careful about employing this strategy, because if you’re mistaken and you’re not in a zero sum interaction you could end up ruining it for everybody. But if you’re truly in a zero sum interaction this is one of the strategies that you can use. 

Now suppose that you’re dealing with an opponent who’s not sophisticated, you are smarter than they are, there it depends very much on: how smart are they? Can you outthink them? And what’s the individual interaction that you’re engaged in? 

So to return it to the example of poker players, poker players will engage in interactions where they’re trying to think, “Well does my opponent think I’m going to bluff here, yes or no? And maybe I’ll do the opposite.” 

But that’s going to depend on how smart is your opponent? What are they thinking about, and the individual interaction that you’re engaged in. 

Game theorists have actually proven—although it’s not very helpful—but game theorists have actually proven that there is no the one size fits all strategy in a situation where you’re dealing with an opponent who is not very sophisticated.

If you want to win, it's best to think crazy like a fox. Nobody knows this better than Kevin Zollman — a nationally recognized expert in game theory and associate professor of philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University — who suggests that perhaps the best way to get ahead of your opponent is to think completely counterintuitively. This works especially well in poker, where breaking the flow (say, bluffing when you have nothing) can keep your foes from guessing your next move. A little dose of crazy goes a long way. Zollman is the co-author of The Game Theorist's Guide to Parenting: How the Science of Strategic Thinking Can Help You Deal with the Toughest Negotiators You Know — Your Kids, with Paul Raeburn.

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  • Meditations is a collection of the philosophical ideas of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius.
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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

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  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
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  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.