The first principle of this tactic is to create a situation where no matter what your opponent, or opponents, do – they lose.
There was the case of an officer in the Royal Air Force during WWII and who was shot down over South East Asia. The Japanese caught him and he was imprisoned as a POW (prisoner of war). He survived years of torture and depravation that included having the tips of his fingers cut off. However, he remembered a particularly unpleasant punishment that the Japanese would use to test the mental endurance of the prisoners. They would provide the chosen man with a bottle of water taken from the latrines and then force the man to work for hours in the sun. As the victim became dehydrated he had the choice to drink the “foul” water that could so easily lead to dysentery (that was very likely to end in death) or to die of heatstroke. Either way the victim lost.
The second principle of this tactic is that the recipient quite often believes that this tactic offers them at least a chance at success.
This is a particularly clever and distracting tactic – it is also one of the most unethical. It has been around for centuries but is well described in Frank Stockton’s short story by the same name – The Lady or the Tiger.
In summary, the story is about a young man who falls in love with the daughter of an all powerful and despotic king. The king disapproves of the relationship and sentences the youth to face the usual punishment.
Offenders are placed in an arena and offered the choice of two doors. Behind the one is the most beautiful lady in the kingdom while behind the other is a fierce tiger. If the accused chooses the door leading to the “Lady” then he is judged innocent and is instantly married to this most desirable woman. If he chooses the door leading to the “Tiger” he finds himself torn to shreds.
In the story, the daughter of the king knows what is behind each door and is tormented by both options. She must either watch her lover married to the most beautiful and desirable woman (someone she probably hates) or she must witness his horrific death.
In the story she gives him a signal that leads him to one of the doors but before the reader discovers what is behind the door the story ends. The question left for the reader to answer is – which door did she choose for him?
For years people have debated this story and argued over her possible choice. However, the hidden and tactical aspect that is often overlooked is this. Either choice that the youth makes will provide the king with a winning solution and, regardless of his daughter’s choice, she will lose. Is it not the most elegant and cruel of punishments?
In many ways the story is about a “no-win” situation. (The Lady or the Tiger) Perhaps one of the most famous of these is described in the book “Catch 22” – a book about WWII, by Joseph Heller. The relevant section is as follows:
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.
Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.
“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” [Yossarian] observed.
“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.
This text cleverly shows that some situations just don’t have a winning solution – unless you are the tactician that created it in the first place. It’s just like the game of chess and, in particular, the moment that the word “checkmate” is spoken. The principal of this tactic is that a situation is created where it absolutely does not matter what course of action your oppent chooses – they all lead to failue of one sort or another.
“Catch 22”, meaning a no-win situation, has entered everyday language but lacks the subtleties and sophistication of the “Lady or the Tiger”.
Although usually unrecognised, this tactic is used often. Taken from some unpublished memoirs probably pertaining to Operation Market Garden, a military context is as follows:
“This little bastard from the Dutch resistance had told us the road was free and easy and the Major thought we could just push on through. Just ten minutes after the bridge behind us blew up our Sherman’s were getting roasted by German 88’s. Us poor saps tried to create a defensive perimeter but were getting shot to Hell.
The Major was damn near pulling his hair out. To go left would lead us into a minefield, to go right would bog us down in a swamp. Anihalation or surrender – it was his choice. He chose surrender and I guess that’s why I’m alive to tell the tale Jacky boy. I’m glad, real glad I didn’t have to make that call.”
In business this tactic is often used by people in positions of power to damage those “ambitious” people below them.
One of the most common manifestations of this tactic is the “work harder or work elswhere” principle. In this case the manager sellects an individual that is a threat to their position and starts a process of gradually and deliberately overworking the target. If the individual fails to keep-up they are punished for underperformance if they succeed the manager benefits from the increased output and simply continues to increase the workload. Eventually the target becomes a work-driven automaton with no capability to think about their ambitions or they leave. Either way the target loses and either way the manager wins.
Everyday life is not exempt from this tactic. A certain teenager had started “hanging-out” with some other kids that his father believed were taking drugs. Effective communication has already broken down between the two. Rather than aproach the problem head-on the father chose to use a tactical aproach. He focused on the boy’s increasingly poor grades. His son could choose, he could spend just about all day every day studying or he could pay for his own colledge tuition himself by getting a job. If he chose to quit college he had to move back to his mother’s place in the country. No mention was made of his so-called friends but either way his son would simply not have the opportunity to hang-out anymore. His son believed that he could maintain his friendships and study but the reality was that as his grades improved and he spent less-and-less time at the clubs he found himself no-longer welcome.
In this case an unethical approach had a very ethical outcome. The components of this tactic are as follows:
- The tactician must have the power to enforce a defined set of options.
- The options open to the target must be limited.
- All options open to the target must “make them lose”.
- All options presented to the target must benefit the tactician.
- It helps if the target can be “fooled” into believing that one or more of the options is to their benefit.
Although this tactic has some similarities to the “Poisened Chalice” tactic, it is essentially different. The poisened chalice is something that seems good at first (a beautiful cup filled with delectable wine) but after the person accepts the cup and drinks from it he or she discovers that it is poisoned.