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What is a No-Win Situation

Arun Prabhu Jun 22, 2019
In his book "On War", Carl von Clausewitz asks the reader to never start a war if you're not sure you will win it. All unstable and unsure things have a strong chance of falling into a no-win situation.
Whatever he said or did, Mr. Carl perhaps never had a girlfriend who asked him if she looked fat. It is the one question that all guys know and hate to be asked and all girls hate to ask. Therefore here is a better explanation of the concept of a no-win situation.
If you say yes, she kills you, if you say no, she thinks you're a liar. How about falling for your best friend's girlfriend? Now, that's a disaster. Whoever you choose, you lose the other. The no-win situation arises just anywhere, be it political affairs, talking to seniors in the office, even NASA's best astronauts face it at least once.
It's the classic Catch-22 situation that frustrates even the smartest minds. In essence, a no-win situation is the ultimate experience of frustration and eventual resignation. Frustration, because any options available dismiss you equally, and resignation because you have no option to back out of it or pull through.
This can be known as the moral dilemma with a dead end, the way out that you just don't want to take, but all the other bridges are blocked or burned down. It's like being chased by angry militia out to kill you, and the only escape route is through a dense field of land mines, or having the option between consuming cyanide and cobra venom.
In either case, both ways lead to death. The optimist would pick cyanide to reduce the pain, but whatever you do, you still die. The concept of the no-win situation works on so many levels in so many fields, you'd start to wonder the true meaning of life all over again.

Types of No-Win Situations


'Catch-22' is the term coined by Joseph Heller, who wrote a novel of the same title. It is regarded as one the best literary works of the twentieth century and it describes the no-win situation to the fullest. A catch-22 situation arises when you face a dead-end situation that often comes with trying to foresee as precisely as one can.
Therefore, before you even take a decision, you end up with knowing that you lose one thing or the other. The famous example from the book is given through the character of U.S. Air Force recruit, John Yossarian.
Now, John wants to opt out of a particularly suicidal mission, and the only way to do so (apart from cutting his own arms off) is to be proclaimed insane and therefore unfit to fly by the medical team. The problem confounds because of the results of his decisions:
  • If he accepts the mission, he would be called mad by his superior, because of the deadly nature of the assignment.
  • To be declared medically crazy, he had to go and ask the doctors to check him. The doctors will think he, in fact is not insane, just because he asked to be evaluated. He would thus be declared fit and have to fly the mission anyway.
This brings us to the eventual no-win situation; asking for a mental check up would be considered 'fit to fly', not asking for a check up would lead to 'fit to fly' again, because if he hasn't been checked, he's not proven crazy. And therefore, any pilot would have to fly to their possible deaths.

Cornelian Dilemma

A concept simple to understand, but impossible to get out of unhurt would be a Cornelian dilemma. IT involves human emotions and the conflict that they provide to the person in question. The sufferer is caught in between two choices, where each choice would hurt either him/her or someone else linked to the situation.
No matter what you choose, you will end up losing something or someone. You'll find tons of examples on the Cornelian dilemma in the movies, where the protagonist will have to choose between the love of his life and the way of life that he holds dear to himself, or someone forced to kill someone in exchange for the life of their loved one.

Game Theory

Mathematical game theory states the outcomes of a situation, based on the amount of interaction between the players, the level at which they know each other's strategies and their own personalities. The game theory can be applied pretty much anywhere, from military actions to a simple social interaction. There are two major branches of the game theory:
Cooperative: A cooperative gameplay happens if all players' decisions are affected by including the others' decisions, like a binding commitment.

Non-Cooperative: Game theory dictates non-cooperative gameplay, as all players' take decisions independently, with no external influences.
Depending on the kind of theory in play, there are certain fixed formats of gameplay, like zero-sum, non-zero sum and simultaneous and sequential game. The no-win situation here occurs either as the loss of resources (non-zero sum game), or the equilibrium in results that occurs, irrespective of the decisions or changes in decisions (zero sum game).
  • Zero-sum: Here the resultant resources each player earns is equal (that is, zero), no matter how deviant their decisions are. That is, whatever you lose or gain is balanced out by the other player's losses or gains. A good example of this would be a game of poker, where your winnings are exactly equal to someone's loss.
  • Non-zero sum: Here the total resource count is not equal or zero. This happens in most observations on game theory.
  • Simultaneous: Here, two players move at the same time, and even if they don't, only the end result is known to each, making it effectively a simultaneous game.
  • Sequential: Here players move with the knowledge of previous moves, regardless of the credibility of the knowledge.

Nash Equilibrium

This is a more neutral concept from non-cooperative gameplay. If all players making a decision arrive at a point they know each other's gameplay very well and no changes in decisions, in any way, can affect the outcome to a more favorable one. Here, all players eventually stand neutral, because they know that they would be worse off if they make any changes.
If in case the Nash equilibrium happens, there would be two ways in which the game might, 'change':
  • All parties stuck in equilibrium would start competing in another field. This may or may not end up in another draw (a point to note here is that Nash equilibrium happens in very rare cases).
  • All parties agree to settle for equality. Now the catch here is, there may be a possibility to improve outcomes for all players if all are in equal agreement terms, but most of the time, the sense of distrust previously (in the name of competition) generated prevents this.

The Prisoner's Dilemma

This is one of the most famous examples of game theory, which shows the high probability of two players (prisoners) ending up in jail by resorting to a non-cooperative game. If played in cooperative mode, both prisoners leave Scott free, but if the iterative version (multiple trials) is played, this outcome does not happen after a few trials.
Two people are caught at a robbery and are taken to the police, where they are kept in separate cells and interrogated. Neither has any contact with the other after arrest, even during the interrogation. Bear in mind the people caught are actually the robbers, but lack of evidence compels the police to contradict.
But the two detainees are conveniently not told of this lack-of-evidence part by the police. The two are now asked (separately) to confess their crimes, or rat out the other prisoner.
  • If both the prisoners do not confess, the police let them go free (win-win).
  • If both confess, both get 1 year in prison (lose-lose).
  • If one rats the other out, with the other confessing or not, the latter gets 10 years in prison. Here, one leaves free, while the other is jailed (win-lose).
If both rat each other out, both get 10 years of prison. In this case, it's a total lose-lose, but at least they get something to talk about for 10 years! Here's why the situation is mostly "lose-lose":
  • If neither confesses, there is a high chance of the situation entering an iterative mode. Both will leave free of charges and probably commit another crime. If they are caught here, they are questioned again, this time with more pressure. The procedure enters a loop, with an eventual lose-lose outcome.
  • Chances of only one prisoner defecting on the other are too slim, since both of them know each other. Ratting out on the other is the option to increase their payoffs; the other goes to jail, while the former loses the police behind him and gets the entire portion of the robbery (if they managed to hide it). Thus, both of them do it and ending up losing.
All in all, the no-win situation is pretty harsh to be in. No one wins it!