David And Goliath: The Art And Science Of The Underdog

“You can compensate for talent with effort (and strategy).”

In his 2009 New Yorker article, How David Beats Goliath, Malcolm Gladwell points to a group of ill-trained female basketball players, who, despite facing more talented competition, advanced to the California state championship.

The story is about more than pure luck, it is about strategy.

In order to beat superior opponents, the women upended the notions of how defense should be played — they played a full-court press, which is basically unheard of because it is so physically taxing and, well, a lot of hard work.

Underdogs win more than we think. They often do this by replacing ability with effort and figuring out new ways to play the game.

Not content with an article on the subject, Gladwell has spent the last three years “investigating, and expanding on, these ideas: moving from basketball to warfare, to crime-fighting, to invention.”

In this interview, he sits down with The New Yorker’s Nicholas Thompson to talk about the art and science of the underdog.

If you look at wars between Davids and Goliaths, which we define as countries where one country is at least ten times bigger than its opponent, and you look at the last four hundred years or so of those kinds of battles, Goliath wins something like 66 percent of the time, which is astonishing. 34 percent of the time someone who is one tenth the size of their opponent wins. … but the more interesting thing is in those instances where the David refuses to fight by the same rules as Goliath, in other words refuses to fight in a conventional war, they win the majority of the times.

Gladwell is onto something.

In his book How the Weak Win Wars, Political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft looked at every war fought over the past two hundred years between strong and weak combatants. Goliaths, he found, won in 71.5 percent of the cases. That is a remarkable fact. In conflicts in which one side was at least ten times as powerful as its opponent—in terms of armed might and population—the weaker side prevailed almost a third of the time.

In the Biblical story of David and Goliath, David initially put on a coat of mail and a brass helmet and girded himself with a sword: he prepared to wage a conventional battle of swords against Goliath. But then he stopped. “I cannot walk in these, for I am unused to it,” he said, and picked up five smooth stones. He decided to wage an unconventional battle.

What happened, Arreguín-Toft wondered, when the underdogs likewise acknowledged their weakness and chose an unconventional strategy? He went back and re-analyzed his data. In those cases, David’s winning percentage went from 28.5 to 63.6. When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win, Arreguín-Toft concluded, “even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.”

Arreguín-Toft discovered another interesting point: over the past two centuries the weaker players have been winning at a higher and higher rate. For instance, strong actors prevailed in 88 percent of the conflicts from 1800 to 1849, but the rate dropped very close to 50% from 1950 to 1999.

What explains these results?

After reviewing and dismissing a number of possible explanations for these findings, Arreguín-Toft suggests that an analysis of strategic interactions best explains the results. Specifically, when the strong and weak actors go toe-to-toe (effectively, a low n), the weak actor loses roughly 80 percent of the time because “there is nothing to mediate or deflect a strong player‘s power advantage.”

In contrast, when the weak actors choose to compete on a different strategic basis, they lose less than 40 percent of the time “because the weak refuse to engage where the strong actor has a power advantage.” Weak actors have been winning more conflicts over the years because they see and imitate the successful strategies of other actors and have come to the realization that refusing to fight on the strong actor’s terms improves their chances of victory.

But not everyone wants to risk losing unconventionally. The theory goes that if you compete conventionally and lose, tough luck, but if you compete unconventionally and lose, well, you might lose your job. This might be a reason that competition between lopsided opponents is so, well, lopsided. As the famous economist John Maynard Keynes said: “Worldly wisdom teaches that it is better for reputation to fail conventionally than to succeed unconventionally.”

Still curious? Check out my post on strategy and pick up a copy of How the Weak Win Wars.