Game theory shows that Chinese generals were right

To bluff, or not to bluff? That is the question
[Via Science Blog –]

Economist Christopher Cotton from the University of Miami (UM), uses game theory to explore two of the most famous military bluffs in history. The findings are published in the current issue of the Journal of Peace Research.

The study is one of the first to use game theory to assess the Chinese military legends of Li Guang and his 100 horsemen (144 BC), and Zhuge Liang and the Empty City (228 AD). The stories appear in modern day translations of Sun Tzu’s fundamental book on military strategy “The Art of War” to explain what is meant by deception.


The key they found was not to pretend to be strong when you are not but to make the opponent worry about the army’s strength. Making the strength ambiguous – could be large or could be smal – makes it more likely that the opposing army will retreat.

Uncertainty increases the chances of the bluff working. So presenting contradictory information will make people more likely to wait and see instead of confronting.

This seems to be applicable to other areas, such as climate change. The strongest group – the thousands of climate scientists and their supporters – is up against a much smaller group that works simply to confuse the issue, making it hard to create a sure victory for the stronger group.

Pretending to be large and strong while also sending signals of weakness is the best strategy when you have nothing. Strong armies do not need to do that.