Chocolate and Gold Coins

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Non-credible Threat

The non-credible threat is a strategy that youngsters learn very early in life and many hone the skill into true art. They learn that they can get their way on occasion if they make a threat to do something that would be essentially self-destructive. An example might be a child who threatens to hold his breath until he passes out unless the parent gives him what he wants. He probably wouldn’t go through with it, but one never knows. That’s why it is effective.

Parents use it on children as well. The parent might threaten, “If you don’t behave right now, we’ll just go right straight home.” If you are visiting Disneyland, this might not be completely believable, but maybe the child doesn’t really want to push his luck.

Indian parents are masters in the art. If they don’t like your new girlfriend and perhaps soon-to-be wife, they might threaten to disown you and never allow you to step foot in the house again. See Saket’s post to get a taste of this.

In game theory, the non-credible threat can be modeled as a simple two-stage game. First player two threatens. Then player 1 plays either “capitulate” or “non-capitulate”. If player 1 plays “non-capitulate”, then player 2 plays either “accept” or “reject”. Here are the possible payoffs for each player (player 1, player 2):

  1. (c): ( 1 , 2 )

  2. (n, a): ( 2, 1 )

  3. (n, r): ( -10, -10)

If they play the “non-credible threat” game only once, it is clearly irrational for player 2 to actually carry out the threat and reject the offer player 1 makes. But here is where it gets interesting: suppose everyone knows that player 2 is a hothead and not at all likely to use reason. Then they may believe that he/she will actually play “reject” and therefore decide it is best to capitulate. The point is that “irrationality” is rational if one plays the game often enough.

In the current controversy over IIPM vs. bloggers, Gaurav Sabnis resigned from IBM because he believed that IIPM students might actually carry out an non-credible threat to burn laptops in front of IBM. Was this a credible or a non-credible treat? Gaurav thought it was credible. But one wonders if IIPM students would really burn their nice new laptops.

Indians might be more inclined to issue and to capitulate to non-credible threats. Strikes (bundhs) are more common and more violent in India than in most western nations. Parents do issue the threat of disowning their children if they don’t marry a suitable boy or girl and some really do carry out this threat.

The point I want to make is that the person making the non-credible threat is really just a bully. He or she is trying to influence your life in a way that is unacceptable. And it is easy enough for people to kill off this nasty practice: throw the non-credible threat right back at the person making the threat. You can say: “okay, fine, I want to see the burnt laptops.” Or you can say, “Mom, if you don’t like my wife, I will not step foot in your house and you will never know your grandchildren.” We can stop the non-credible threats by simply insisting on resisting them. This is the point about non-credible threats, they often hurt the person doing the threatening. If he or she knew that no one would ever capitulate, they would never make the threats in the first place.

It isn’t surprising that Gaurav refused to delete his blog entries because he is a great lover of freedom and liberty (a libertarian) and he would not want to capitulate to the non-credible threat. But he did resign which meant the bullies didn’t have to actually burn any laptops. Too bad. If I were in that situation, I would have dearly wanted to see some burnt laptops. I would have wanted to see the bullies look stupid…just to teach them a lesson.


  • Michael,

    Great post. A similar thing happened to one of my friends a few years ago. He wanted to join the Army (US Army) and his parents (Indian immigrants) said they would "sever all contact with him" if he did that. He didn't join. Now I am pretty sure that the parents wouldn't have severed all contact with him, but the threat still worked.

    On a different note, I agree with you that IIPM would have been in a bind if they were forced to 1. burn the laptops or 2. break their word.

    By Blogger Vikrum, at 4:51 PM  

  • Hi Vikrum
    I think any good parent understands pretty quickly to only threaten what you truthfully intend to carry out and to not threaten a consequence way out of proportion to the offense. It may be that many of the Indian parents who do the "non-credible" threat will actually carry it out, but they are really hoping against hopet that the child will just obey.

    I think threats like this are a fundamental violation of a person's liberty. Once they are 18, you must accept people as they are and not make them what you wish them to be. Parents get 18 years to mess with you and then you're free.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 7:01 PM  

  • Michael,

    In the IIPM case, I suppose Gaurav would have wanted to see some burnt laptops too. But he wasn't allowed to go that far; he was sent a message by his managers on something on the lines of "It would be great if you had removed the posts, or else..." I suspect this because I know how managers in India work and they rarely take a stand on issues like this. Although the company in question is IBM, bear in mind that the uppermanagement is still Indian with a thinking on the lines of "Oh, if they burn our laptops, it will be a huge public relations disaster, or we are going to lose a client who just bought a bunch of laptops and potentially will be buying hundreds more in the future." In your game theory there is a third party involved too and things would have been certainly different had this third party had said, "Yeah, bring it on. Let's see some burnt laptops."

    By Blogger Ravi, at 11:49 PM  

  • Just to clarify, I did not think that they would actually burn the laptops. However I knew they would keep creating some nuisance or the other for IBM. Burning laptops was clearly a non-credible threat and I recognized it even then. But I was sure that even if I continued in IBM, called their bluff, and they didn't burn laptops. It didn't mean they would suddenly stop calling IBM. Maybe a protest march, maybe something a lot milder.... but they would have kept using IBM as my weakness.

    By Blogger Gaurav, at 12:59 AM  

  • as always, an interesting post, Michael. love the way you manage to link everyday social / personal interactins with a broader economic concept - and in a perfectly enjoyable manner. great stuff :)

    and you are so right about the non-credible threat... in case of parent-children relationships, it arises from varied expectations (some unreasonable)...

    in other less polite words, this is alos called blackmail - and of these, the emotional kinds is the worst - there is no way to call the bluff even when both parties are very aware of the bluff invovled...

    By Anonymous charu, at 1:13 AM  

  • Hi Ravi, Gaurav, and Charu

    Gaurav: Thank you for clarifying that point. However, I think you can see the potential bad precedent here. If a company doesn't like a blogger, they can pressure his employer with a protest. This could be bad for bloggers everywhere.

    My belief is that bullies need to carry out the threat. Then they look stupid. Sure, maybe your own company is inconvenienced, but why should they fault you?

    What if one political party wanted to fight another party by targeting the employers of their enemies. The employer may not want to get involved but the employer has a duty to protect the rights of its employees. They cannot get rid of employees simply because they have inconvenient politics.

    I admire the way you refused to delete entries in your blog. I just think that IIPM might have gotten off too easily.

    Anyway, the very best of luck in your job search. I suppose you should keep the identity of your next employer a secret.

    Ravi: Indeed, there was a third party in the game Gaurav was thrust into. It does make it more complicated. But I don't think that IBM really should have been a player except that they should protect the rights of their employees.

    Charu: Thanks for the compliment.

    The gamesmanship that goes on in Indian families is interesting. Somestimes it does amount to blackmail.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 1:50 AM  

  • Really good post. I reminded me of my aunt who told my cousin that she would leave the house if he married his girlfriend who belonged to another religion. Luckly he was able to convince her over the marriage issue and now they are married and have two kids.

    As for Gaurav, I think he did what he thought was right at that point. As for bloggers being pressured...sadly in our country "Freedom Of Speech" is mostly left for the History books.

    What is most upsetting is that even the Media is taking this issue very lightly. Most of the articles that i have read...does not talk anything about FREEDOM OF SPEECH. They have taken views of few lawyers..and they too only talk about imposing rules for blogging. Just imagine if they do set certain rules/criteria for blogging.....where the hell is this country heading !!!!!

    By Anonymous Sakshi, at 2:57 AM  

  • Hi Sakshi
    That is right, this is primarily a freedom of speech issue. That is why I said that if we capitulate to the bully, we lose our freedom.

    I would have hoped that India would follow the US precedent on blogging. There was a case where an anonymous blogger insulted a politician on a blog and that politician sue the internet provider to reveal the blogger and then sued the blogger. Initially the politician won but on appeal, the higher court said that nothing on a blog could be considered credible so nothing could be considered libelous.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 4:44 AM  

  • Great post, Michael. But I guess it might be difficult to gauge the threat credibility, depending on the strength of the threatener's will and / or mental stability. For example, if I were to say I'm gonna starve myself to death if you dont do this, it would probably not be a credible threat. Wheras if Mahatma Gandhi said that, he probably would do it because of his strength of will.

    Or in this case, IIPM, who knows, they might have been crazy enough to even do it, because they have shown themselves to be mentally unstable by doing everything they've done till now.

    By Blogger gawker, at 9:07 AM  

  • Hi Michael,
    Excellent post. Love the way you bring in game theory with these issues. It's just fantastic!

    I too believe IBM should've stood up for Gaurav. But here since there was no unequivocal support, so Gaurav had to resign. Things aren't so simple as we are imagining them to be from our bedrooms. And let's remember Gaurav had to take that decision within a day. So there was not much time to think ahead or strategise(i presume so). That's why even though we'd love to see IIPM burn their laptops, at the sametime I applaud Gaurav for his stand.

    Again, as gawker said, till now IIPM have shown themselves to be crazy jerks, and you never know they would've gone ahead with their plans.

    By Blogger Suhail, at 9:22 AM  

  • Terrific post Michael.

    This post is also apt in another way in that Thomas Schelling, a game theorist, just won a Nobel prize for Economics.

    suppose everyone knows that player 2 is a hothead and not at all likely to use reason....
    The point is that “irrationality” is rational if one plays the game often enough.

    There was a Slate article highlighting Schelling's role in the Vietnam war and how he tried to use the rational "irrationality" and did not quite succeed.

    The article


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:19 AM  

  • Hi Gawker, Suhail, and Swami
    Thanks for the kind words and compliments.

    Gawker: Indeed, a reputation for being "extreme" and not quite normal can help in bargaining. Perhaps that is IIPM's thinking. But then that doesn't market you very well.

    Suhail: I agree that it is easier for us to say what we would have done in such a situation because we didn't have to be in that situation. Gaurav was in that position and everyone applauds his bravery. But I don't like being pushed into making important decisions and if someone told me that I had to make my decision by Monday I would say, "No way, I need time to think."

    Would they have gone on with their threats, I doubt it. But one never knows.

    Unfortunately, I cannot see the link. But yes, the Nobel prize winners are game theorists. I didn't study much game theory in G-school and maybe that was a mistake, because I do like the simple games and the strategic element. In high school, I was a decent chess player.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 1:50 PM  

  • Obviously the IIPM geniuses have shot themselves in the foot. Disturbing accunts on how the degrees offered by IIPM have no value have now come out in the open. Really feel sorry for the kids 'studying' at IIPM. But the problem is , people are desperate in India - quality education is available to only a chosen few while the majority have no choice but join the likes of IIPM and so on. That is the bigger issue that needs to be tackled.

    By Anonymous Raj Mehta, at 7:07 PM  

  • Great post Michael!! I like the point you make -
    “irrationality” is rational if one plays the game often enough.

    Throwing the non-credible threat right back at the person can be a lose-lose situation in many cases - mainly becaause of the irrationality involved. We have a great example playing itself out on the world stage.

    Saddam thought the the threat from the US was non-credible, tried to call their bluff. Saddam's out, but the US is stuck in a quagmire over in Iraq.

    The "irrational" element of the North Koreans keeps the 6 party talks going despite its repeated failings. It is not easy to throw back a non-credible threat as you indicate.

    By Blogger Iyer the Great, at 9:55 PM  

  • Indian parents rule, when it comes to this kind of non-credible threats and emotional blackmail.........

    wonderful post.

    By Blogger Sunil, at 12:43 PM  

  • Just a stray thought: would Gaurav get noticed and the blogosphere stand so strongly in his support had he not resigned?

    I don't know. I just know that the events didn't snowball with his "disconnect cable" post, but with his "update" post.

    By Anonymous Niket, at 10:02 PM  

  • Interesting article,But Non - credible threat are not that effective this days. Most of the ppl hav learned to revolt or rather ignore the person threatning them. As far as Gourav's case goes he has gained lot of footage which which is very difficult to get. He could use it to his advantage. Way to go gourav and I truly appretiate ur stand.

    By Blogger Chandan, at 5:23 AM  

  • Hi Raj, Rahul, Sunil, Niket, and Chandan

    Raj: The publicity here I think will cause a lot of people to think twice about going to this and other schools of dubious credentials. In a few years there will be fewer but better schools in India.

    Rahul: Indeed two people making incredible threats is exactly how wars begin. But the alternative: appeasing the aggressor is just war deferred. And a war deferred collects interest just like a bill deferred.

    Sunil: Yes, I have heard many stories of the games parents and children play. Luckily for me, my wife's parents were not like that.

    Niket: Gaurav would not have been noticed as much the the story was going to be big anyway. The story was brewing over the weekend becasue the of the obscene comments on Rashmi's blog. The threat to Gaurav would have been big news as well. Infact, the news might have been bigger if the IIPM had staged some kind of protest.

    Chandan: Hopefully the non-credible threat will decline over time. Yes, we all applaud Gaurav and his refusal to bend to the pressure and delete his blog posts.

    By Blogger Michael Higgins, at 5:44 AM  

  • Isn't this in simple what we refer to as "bluffing" and "calling a bluff"?

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