The official blog of University of Missouri Skeptics, Atheists, Secular Humanists, & Agnostics



If you want to be a rational agent, you have to become a master of brinkmanship. In short, brinkmanship is a game in which players increase the risk of everyone involved until someone blinks. It is a dangerous art, but without it in your toolkit, you will lose many utility payoffs.

In “The Art of Strategy: A Game Theorist’s Guide to Success in Business and Life,” the authors describe brinkmanship as the process of “taking an adversary to the brink of disaster in order to get him to blink first.” The key is not to make a simple threat, “do this or else,” but to start with a small risk and gradually increase the risk of the threat happening, until they blink.

We see a funny example of this in The Heat, starring Sandra Bullock and Melissa McCarthy. Attempting to get information out of a suspect, the two dangle him upside down over the edge of a third story fire escape. The risk starts relatively small, because their arms are not yet tired and they could easily pull him back up if he were to give in. However, as time goes by, the risk of their arms giving out increases, putting more pressure on him to talk. Unfortunately, they miscalculate how quickly this brink will approach, and even after he talks, they drop the suspect onto a car below.

The threat was not simply “give us the information or we’ll drop you.” The threat was, “the longer you stay quiet, the longer we hold you over the railing and the weaker our arms get.” This is the essence of brinkmanship. The brink is disastrous, and both parties are uncertain of when exactly it will happen. The uncertainty creates risk, and the risk “should be sufficiently intolerable to your opponent to induce him to eliminate the risk by following your wishes.” (Dixit and Nalebuff, 2010)

In order to succeed in brinkmanship, you must be able to make credible threats. This means that your opponent must believe that you are just reckless enough to allow the disaster to happen. Making a threat with words alone is just cheap talk. It takes focus and discipline to demonstrate to one’s opponent that you are a little bit crazy.

If everyone knows that you are a responsible and reliable agent, then you will never be able to make a credible threat. So, when it comes to brinkmanship, people like you are especially disadvantaged.

People like me, on the other hand, have a history of chaos and self-destructive behavior. I like to break things. I can make credible threats. Of course, I can’t claim that my particular reputation results from focus and discipline on my part: I am just naturally a reckless person.

The authors of “The Art of Strategy” give the following eight principles to guide you toward a better brinkmanship game:

1. Write contracts to back up your resolve.

2. Establish and use a reputation.

The above two principles change the game’s payoffs so that it is in your interest to follow through with the threat. The worst part about threats is when you have to follow through with them, so it is important to put structures in place that make it costly for you to wimp out, more costly than following through.

3. Cut off communication.

4. Burn bridges behind you.

5. Leave the outcome beyond your control, or even to chance.

Principles three, four and five make it harder for you to wimp out, not by changing the payoffs, but by removing available actions. If your opponent sees that you are unable to wimp out, the risk will be more pressing.

6. Move in small steps.

Principle six combines the above strategies by changing both the payoffs and the available actions. As the steps increase, so does the risk, until it reaches your opponent’s equilibrium, which is hopefully well within your own threshold.

7. Develop credibility through teamwork.

8. Employ mandated agents.

Principles seven and eight help you make credible threats by working with others. If you are part of a team, then you can do things that an individual alone cannot. Similarly, it is more difficult for a single individual to change the behavior of a group. Taking this idea a step further. By hiring people to carry out your threats, you remove both your ability and their ability to wimp out. Of course, you need to have structures in place to ensure that your agent cannot be bought with a higher offer from your opponent.

Of course, risk is an essential element of brinkmanship, so falling off the edge is always a possibility. However, as these games are ubiquitous in business and life, it is better to be prepared for them than to simply get steamrolled by your opponents.


About Seth Kurtenbach

Philosophy grad student who wandered into a computer science PhD program with a backpack full of modal logic and decision theory.

3 comments on “Brinkmanship

  1. rocketkirchner
    August 5, 2013

    You are describing the exact stradegy of 1960 and 1961 worold Chess champion Mikael Tal’s approach to Chess . Tal said ”i take my oppenent into a deep dark forest where he thinks that 2+2=5 , and only I know the way out ”. This is actually a very timely article for what is happening to my recent Tal -like guitar compositions , where the goal is to discombobulate the listener . life imitates Chess ! touche .

    • Seth Kurtenbach
      August 5, 2013

      Again, thanks for the comment, Rocket! I often think of these strategic interactions in terms of chess, as well. For a while I devoted much of my time to watching a youtube channel that analyzed famous chess matches, and I recall Tal being notable for his creativity and wacky strategies.

      • rocketkirchner
        August 25, 2013

        Seth , check out ” The Sunset Limited ” by Cormac Mccarthy . you can watch the whole HBO 90 min on line . it is THE best collsion iof faith and unbelief in literary form i have ever seen . Samaul L. Jackson plays an ex con convert to christ , and tommy Lee Jones plays a suicidal philsophy professor . 2 guys in a room . it is stellar . i have never seen anything like it !

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This entry was posted on August 5, 2013 by in Author: Seth Kurtenbach, Science and tagged , , , , .
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