Is there a name for this general principle for interacting with people?

Something I feel like I’ve learned over the years is this: When in an adversarial situation, don’t worry too much about what the adversary is trying to do, and instead try to know accurately what they can do.

Some examples:

Board games, like Chess or Go. I can drive myself crazy trying to figure out my opponent’s plan, or I can just “play the board”–in other words, know what my opponent can do and plan accordingly.

Similarly in Poker–I don’t even worry about trying to figure out if somebody’s bluffing or whatever, I just try to play according to my knowledge of how the cards could turn out. (Of course, I’m no good at the game, but neither is anyone I ever play with…)

Office politics: You could drive yourself nuts trying to figure out who’s “out to get you”*, but my strategy is to not worry about this at all, and just have a thorough knowledge of policy and job descriptions.

I’m blanking now on exact scenarios but I feel like this has come up in tiffs I have had from time to time with my wife. Situations where it seemed to me she was “overplaying” in a sense, jumping on perceived motivations behind something I said or did, when in fact if she’d just responded to the literal meaning or the actual effect of the action things would have been fine. (TMI I know… :wink: ) Actually I know I have done this too, and have regretted it, reminding myself afterwards that I shouldn’t assume I know what’s going on in her head other than what she has actually said is going on in her head.

(Ahah I just remembered one situation. We were mad at each other about something or other, I forget, and we were also cooperating to clean up the kitchen. The high chair had food on it, I thought I’d totally cleaned it but she found some spots I’d missed. Then, later, as I happened to be in the area again, I saw that she’d missed some spots as well, so I cleaned them. Of course, knowing people are people you can guess she got angry at this, expressing the view that I was being petulant and taking out aggravation at her having caught me in my own initial failure. And indeed, I may have been thinking about that as I cleaned the spots she missed. But importantly, I didn’t say anything about it, and was carefully neutral in my manner as I cleaned it. The fact was, it had to be cleaned. We had like this big argument (which led to making up etc so please don’t worry, we’re fine…) which to this day I think was unnecessary because she had worried too much about trying to figure out what I was thinking, when we could have simply allowed the action to speak for itself, as one which caused the chair to be clean. So, as in the above scenarios, this seemed to me to be a case of someone overplaying, letting themselves get “out of position” so to speak, as a result of jumping at percieved plans or intentions when things could have gone better if they’d simply paid attention to actual possibilities and results.)

Here’s another: There was a recent thread involving a cop and a 12 year old, where the 12 year old was asking why the cop felt free to park on the sidewalk. The cop was clearly reacting to the boy’s perceived intention, and in my opinion embarrassed himself as a result, when the cop could instead have simply answered the request for a badge number and been on his way–because seriously, what could the kid actually do? Nothing. The cop overplayed and overreacted. Responding in the right way, btw, would have helped send a valuable message (whether the kid got it or not) involving respect for law and how to handle situations maturely (which, btw, I haven’t made this clear, but I do find I associate the principle I’m trying to articulate with a kind of maturity, but maybe I’m being a little judgmental or self-congratulatory when I think that way…).

Anyway, this (the idea of thinking in terms of possibilities and results instead of plans or intentions when in an adversarial situation) seems to be a general principle for living, but I don’t know that everyone agrees with it, and I don’t know for a certainty that it’s always the right idea. And it may be that it works for me because I’m not much of a mindreader, but others who are better at mindreading would need to use a different strategy.

I don’t know, I’m just throwing remarks out there. Is this something people discuss in some context or other? Am I on to something? Am I badly mistaken? What do you think?

ETA: It’s been years since I fenced but I seem to recall that in fencing, if you think you know what you’re opponent is intending, then you are likely setting yourself up for failure.

*Anyway, I know several people with this mindset at work. I myself sometimes think a person maybe has a grudge against me or something–but I make myself ignore this because either I’m right and I need to have a thorough knowledge of policy and job descriptions which will lead me to “victory,” or I’m wrong and I’ll have created an enmity where none needed to exist and I still needed a through knowledge etc etc.

Some relevant background: I am, in truth, extremely paranoid, and come from a long proud line of paranoiacs (crossing over the line into mental illness) so part of what may be happening here is just that I’m articulating a coping mechanism: knowing my own tendency to be paranoid perhaps I have tried to come up with ways to keep those tendencies from doing damage, by resolutely ignoring what these tendencies try to make me believe sometimes…


ETA: your methodology sounds reactive & passive. The other side of the coin is forcing situations to have outcomes or circumstances you create, control or manipulate.

I don’t think a blanket general principle would work best for all adversarial type situations. The more you know about your adversary the better your odds at calcualting the risk. Considering that your adversary might also know you and know you are anticipating his next move might make your policy the best all around but maybe not in all situations.

This doesn’t really fit what you’re asking, but your OP reminded me of the Actor-Observer Bias in psychology:

In other words, if I’m grouchy and short-tempered, it’s because something stressful happened to me or I didn’t get enough sleep last night. If you’re grouchy and short-tempered, it’s because you’re an asshole.

Some people have an internal locus of control. Others, an external locus of control.

One determines his behavior by what will work best for him, the other by what he thinks or sees others are doing or want him to do.

One is proactive and, as Winston Smith said, the other is reactive.

Yep, pretty much. We judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions.

I’m not really seeing how proactivity or reactivity, or locus of control, have much to do with what I’m talking about, but I could easily be missing something.

Take the simpler of the examples–the board game. If I “play the board” as opposed to “playing the player,” how does this make me any more reactive? In fact, I would think just the opposite if anything–by playing the board, one helps to ensure one is not reacting to someone else’s intentions and is instead using the tools on the board to enforce one’s own intention. That sounds proactive to me. That is–if indeed proactivity and reactivity are relevant to the method I was gesturing at in the OP.

This advice seems interesting and potentially valuable. Thanks, I guess.
However, most of your examples are more about “not overthinking something”.

You’re welcome I guess? And I disagree–for example, the police officer needed to do more thinking, not less. His was clearly a gut reaction.

A cold war intelligence maxim: “capabilities, not intentions.” Know what the opposition can do, spend less time and effort trying to guess what they intend to do (largely a waste of time, since people and nation-states can be unpredictable).

I shall immediately apply for a job with the CIA. :wink:

The problem being that they always assumed capabilities = intent. As in the example above, it’s Actor-Observer bias on a huge scale. We’ve got enough nukes to wipe out the world, but we would never hurt anyone (again… probably). You want nukes and you’re a maniac bent on genocide - why else would you want them?

Well, John Nash, it sounds a little bit like game theory.

Basically, it’s basing decision making or behaviors on mathematical probabilities risk vs reward and cost/benefit analysis.
The classic example is the “Prisoners’ Dilemma”. You have two prisoners being interrogated separately for a crime:

If neither confesses they both get 1 year in jail.
If one confesses then he will go free and the other will get 3 years.
If both confess, they both get 2 years.

For this particular rewards/risk setup, it is in the best interest for either prisoner to confess because they can’t guarantee the cooperation of the other. Confessing isn’t the best outcome, but it prevents the worst outcome.
Similar is the aforementioned Mutually Assured Destruction stalemate of the Cold War. In that case, both sides know that there is no way to start a nuclear war without suffering catastrophic losses.

A lot of gaming involves the meta-game: things outside the formal rules. This can involve bad sportsmanship – like turning the lights on real bright while playing chess, knowing that this irritates your opponent. This can involve neutral sportsmanship, like knowing your opponent is fond of king-side castling early in the game. Both are ways of “playing the opponent” as well as “playing the board.”

All you’re really doing is denying yourself the full range of the entire game-experience. By not doing tricky, manipulative things, you’re a more ethical person for it. By not taking the other guy’s state of mind into account, you’re limiting your strategic options. But there’s no moral cost or benefit.

It all seems vaguely autistic. If you play a person exactly the same way you’d play a computer…are you really playing a “person?”

On the other hand, why not? I’m sure you’re still just about as good a chess player as you would be if you did engage in deep modeling of the other guy’s intentions, because you can still deeply model what your own intentions would be if you were the other player.

If, instead of saying, “Is he going to take my knight?” you say, “If I were in his seat right now, would I take that knight?” then you are still engaging in a pretty strong game of chess.

This sounds to me like a helpful approach to interpersonal relationships, and I pledge to give it a try. My boyfriend has actually asked me to do this in the past (“Did I say XYZ? Then why do you think I mean XYZ?”), but it’s helpful to read the way you’ve explained it, Frylock.

This is a good strategy. This is what I would do in sports. You watch tape of other players to notice their tendencies and what to expect from them. Adjust accordingly. Then, you go out and play your game. Simple as that. Very effective, IMO.

Seems to me that studying the opponents’ tendencies is, in fact, “playing the opponents.” That’s part of the strategy that Frylock isn’t using.

Studying them to see how good they are, in an objective sense, is borderline; it could go either way in the context of the OP. Knowing that their goalie is blind in one eye tells you a lot about their defensive capability in an objective sense…but it is, also, somewhat playing the gamers, rather than playing the game itself.

In chess, you can pretend you’re playing a machine, and, to that degree, eliminate the “mind” of the other player entirely. Harder to do with soccer or baseball or whatnot.

In an interpersonal situation, I’d usually call this giving the other person the benefit of the doubt, or generosity of spirit. Some people are more naturally inclined toward ability to see the world this way. As I get older, I find that I am more capable of seeing a wide range of potential motivations in other people’s actions and to choose to operate as if there was as good a reason for most of their behaviors as I think there is for mine.