The Judo Principle

The principle of judo is to use your opponent’s strength against him, by guiding it rather than resisting it.  A recent Australian campaign against reckless driving, aimed specifically at young men, has adopted the same approach with respect to cognitive biases.

The traditional campaign, emphasizing the risks involved with speeding by showing graphic road crashes, was ineffective.  This is as would be predicted by evolutionary psychology.  Young males of many species engage in risky behaviour in order to signal their extraordinary prowess to women.  A man who succeeds, mates, and one who fails might as well be dead anyway, in evolutionary terms.  The traditional campaign assumes that young male speeders don’t realize their behaviour is risky, when in fact they speed because it’s risky.  I wouldn’t be surprised if the campaign actually increased the incidence of dangerous speeding by young men.

The new campaign encourages women to signal a small penis by wiggling their pinky at speeders, a sign which apparently signals a small penis.  This hits the mark, in evolutionary terms.  But will it work?  If women in fact find men who are successful risk takers to be more attractive, I doubt that an advertising campaign will make men believe otherwise.  If the campaign succeeds it will be a fascinating example of the triumph of culture over nature.  It’s worth a try.

Anyone have any other applications of the judo principle?

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  • Greg Marsh

    Professor David Yoffie, at Harvard Business School, has extended the Judo metaphor to cover a broad range of business strategy situations.

    See, for instance: and his main book on the subject,

  • Women might well find men who signal their willingness to take risks more attractive, but taking your general selfish gene interpretation a stage further they presumably prefer men to choose risk signals that do not fatally endanger the women as well. Merely demonstrating to the women that their own changes of reproducing are hardly advanced by encouraging men to involve them incidentally in fatal car accidents may generate the necessary encouragement.

  • Biomed Tim

    “Young males of many species engage in risky behaviour in order to signal their extraordinary prowess to women.”

    That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s effective. Not all risky behavior is created equal: some confer physical rush, some confer financial rewards, and some bring death. Nowadays, the simple act of “driving fast” (on the street) probably doesn’t signal “sexy” as much as other endeavors, like “driving fast on a racetrack because I’m a professional racecar driver” or “skydyving because I’m semi-athletic and rich enough to afford it.”

    I think evolution rewards risky behavior but also adjusts for changing times.

  • Norman Siebrasse

    The last two comments address the evolutionary explanation for risky behaviour. The general premise of evolutionary psychology is that we have evolved psychological traits that were adaptive in the evolutionary environment, which is taken to be a hunter-gatherer environment. If this premise is correct, it does not follow that women prefer men who exhibit risky behaviour only if that behaviour does not endanger the women, unless male risk taking behaviour in a hunter-gatherer society normally, or at least often, involved danger to women. I doubt this is true, though it is ultimately an empirical matter. If male risk taking normally did not involve danger to women (and assuming the signaling story more generally is correct), then women would be unlikely to evolve biases that discriminated between male risk taking that did or did not involve risk to themselves.

    Biomed Tim suggests that evolution adjusts for changing times. Certainly evolution implies adaptation to change, and in some cases the rate of adaptation is high, but the rate of adaptation depends on the strength of the selection pressure and the nature of the mechanism mediating the adaptation. There almost certainly no gene for a psychological trait such as risk preference, but rather a complex of genes governing hormone production and brain development which together results in the psychological trait. Whether such complexes adapt quickly is an empirical question, but, as noted, the usual view is that the couple of millennia (at most) since we departed from a hunter-gatherer life-style has not been sufficient to displace adaptations which developed over prior hundreds or thousands of millennia.

  • Biomed Tim

    “as noted, the usual view is that the couple of millennia (at most) since we departed from a hunter-gatherer life-style has not been sufficient to displace adaptations which developed over prior hundreds or thousands of millennia”

    On a related topic, Jake Young at Pure Pedantry thinks Evolution can be Really Really Fast, based on this Study.

  • Yes, as I said, “in some cases the rate of adaptation is high.” The most famous example is the evolution of the spotted moth in response to soot pollution during the Industrial Evolution in England. “The Beak of the Finch” by Jonathon Weiner is an excellent account of studies showing rapid (though small) change in beak length of Galapagos finches in response to drought. The question is not whether evolution is sometimes fast — it is. The question is whether evolution of human psychological traits is sufficiently fast that we are now primarily adapted to a agricultural or industrial or post-industrial life-style, rather than a hunter-gatherer life-style. Most people think not.

  • Doug S.

    The physical evolution of our brains is much slower than cultural evolution; cultural evolution doesn’t require changes in DNA. Much like something like cocaine can co-opt brain mechanisms to produce non-adaptive outcomes, ordinary cultural influences can also induce us to act in ways that aren’t good for our genes. Celibate Catholic priests are one example of culture overruling what may be considered a fundamental biological urge, as are people who go on hunger strikes for a cause. People today might be running on basically the same hardware as our hunter-gatherer ancestors, but I believe that we are likely running very different software.

  • Simulated sexual selection (contrary to the actual likely responses of women) might work. This matter of male risk might actually be a runaway effect due to sexual selection: the human equivalent of a peacock’s tail, and just about as helpful…

  • Simulated sexual selection (contrary to the actual likely responses of women) might work. This matter of male risk might actually be a runaway effect due to sexual selection: the human equivalent of a peacock’s tail, and just about as helpful…

  • I agree that culture can potentially override nature. How easily it can do so is an open question. That’s why it will be interesting to see if the new Australian advertising campaign works.

    I don’t really consider hunger strikers to be an example of culture at work, since it is largely an individual phenomenon, and individual departure from normally adaptive behaviour is nothing unusual — it is the basis for selection. I do take celibate priests to be an example of a cultural phenomenon. As I understand it, that illustrates only a partial triumph of culture, as I believe that priestly celibacy has been largely nominal for much of the church history since it was introduced. The details would certainly be an interesting case-study.

  • Cliff Styles

    If a particular way of being risky to signal studliness now provokes contempt in women, why would the adaptive response not be to engage in some other kind of risky, signalling behavior, such as even riskier driving?

  • Re the above comment, perhaps then we need to make worthwhile accomplishments far riskier.

    Possibly we could award PhDs to as we do now, but randomly execute every tenth person who passed their oral examination? Say whoever was the most nervous? (We would have lost Wittgenstein this was, however.) Maybe follow up the reward of every Nobel prize with an even-odds-probability-of-survival drop from a helicopter into the Baltic sea?

    It would be better to put the risks on the younger males, of course – so how about a public whipping if you can be proven to have studied or attended classes, with young scholars being at risk until, say, 30 (when it’s legal to know something)? Until then they have to sneak in and out of libraries under the shocked and admiring gaze of young females (who would be allowed to open books whenever they want.)

    There’s a science fiction story there for anyone who wants to write it…

    More reasonable (perhaps) would be a series of contests of knowledge or debating skill in which the winners were well rewarded, but the runners up almost as badly punished. I think the kids would go for it, judging by who’s watching reality television.

  • anonymous

    Note that a rational person would not engage in risky behaviour, since that’s a horribly inefficient strategy as far as mate attraction is concerned. At a purely rational level, women do not care about their partner’s risk preferences; and the desired emotional response can be replicated through advertising-like techniques. This is the same Judo-like approach being used at a different level.

  • I have lived on my sailboat since 1992. I find that male signaling strategies on the water bifurcate: there are sailors, and there are powerboaters.

    The extreme male powerboat signal of prowess is the “cigarette boat”, a fast, penis-shaped, expensive, and dangerous vessel. The female guests aboard my sailboat often wag their pinkies at passing “penis boats” as they call them, and make jokes about the small size of the operator’s manhood.

    So far as I can tell, their disdain has not reduced the number of cigarette boats, or the high accident rate associated with them.

    I think powerboat and sailboat signaling constitute two different languages. Not much information crosses that barrier.

  • Norman Siebrasse

    Bob Knaus makes an excellent point about bifurcated signaling strategies. It’s been a while since I’ve read the evolutionary psych. literature on risk taking by juvenile males, but believe it may have focused on chimps. Humans are different because many fathers make a significant resource contribution to child rearing. Women want physically high quality men, who will pass these qualities to their children, but, unlike chimp females, they also want men who will actually be around to help raise the kids. This creates a tension with respect to signaling physical quality by risk taking. I suppose, women should ideally want men to signal quality by successful risk taking and then settle down to a more cautious life-style upon having children. Casual observation suggests that this is indeed what a lot of women want, and the apparent fact that men typically become more cautious with age suggests that this preference may have had an impact. But I expect that male risk preferences nonetheless persist to a large degree because the physiological mechanism mediating risk taking behaviour are not precise enough to adjust fully for age / marital status. That implies the signaling dilemma is a real one. It certainly seems plausible that bifurcated strategies would result, which fits with Bob’s observation about sailing/powerboating. Does anyone know of a more rigorous analysis of this type of model?

    Bob’s point that powerboat and sailboat signaling constitute “two different languages” is also very interesting. My impression is that in the culture/nature debates we tend to think of the two as being in opposition: the usual question is whether culture can ‘overcome’ inherent traits or biases. But it also seems plausible that culture and normal might reinforce each other. Given that the fundamental tension is real, why shouldn’t we expect culture to lead to bifurcated strategies just as readily as nature? Why shouldn’t the two reinforce each other, with two sub-cultures to go along with the two ‘natural’ strategies?

  • Doug S.

    Culture leading to bifurcated strategies? Reminds me of jocks vs. nerds…

  • anonymous

    I suppose, women should ideally want men to signal quality by successful risk taking

    No, women do not “want” men who engage in risk-seeking behaviour: they just have an impulsive emotional response to them. This is a critical distinction, because the woman’s position with respect to her impulsive preferences is exactly analogous to the man’s impulsive tendency to engage in risky behaviour. If this advertising campaign is any indication, culture (in the form of persuasion technology) will favor a single, long-term/rational strategy.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    Your description of tension in women’s decision-making process seems to leave out their procreative option of opportunistic cheating.

  • Hopefully Anonymous

    Your ideas are interesting in that I think in the welfare states many of us live in today, the avoiding punishment incentives to performance aren’t as strong as the positive incentives.

    At the (rather large) bottom of the economic heirarchy of living humans, there are fairly strong incentives to maximize performance -avoidance of starvation and death of self and family.

    But among people with top talent, the negative incentives are fairly low. The problem with executing the bottom 10% of Ph.D. candidates is that it could create more of a problem reducing the number of people willing to become Ph.D. candidates. I’m not completely worried about losing a Wittginstein in that process for 2 reasons: (1) we’d have to weigh overall efficiency gains vs. loss of Wittginstein, and (2) we’d have to weigh the degree to which -prepare for mixed metaphor- Wittginstein just had the tallest boat in a rising tide, and used that position to pick low-hanging philosophical fruit that some other philosophy Ph.D. would have picked for us otherwise.

    A question would be how to increase negative incentives against non-performance on the most talented humans, without discincentivizing them against revealing their talent to us in the first place, to the degree that such increased negative incentives would in fact increase their positive contributions for the rest of us (or at least for you and me Russell).

  • Norman Siebrasse

    H.A. – Yes, I did omit discussion of opportunistic cheating by women, even though it is certainly an important element in a full picture, because I was focusing on bifurcation in men’s strategies.

  • An element perhaps missing from the discussion is that men also admire men who take risks. Various cultures throughout history often have archetypal male heroes who are risk-takers. Men seek the admiration not only of women, but also of other men. From an evolutionary psychology approach, one could suggest that in order to secure sexual activity, males need not only impress females but also establish dominance among other males, perhaps by demonstrating superior physical prowess — something difficult to do without taking risks.

  • Norman Siebrasse

    It does seem plausible that risk taking might have evolved in part to impress other men, so long as the risks in question were less than the risks of involved in personal combat. And that does seem likely, or else men would just fight it out over women rather than engaging in signaling. Of course, many species do just fight it out — so I wonder why some species apparently evolved signaling strategies as well?

  • Robert

    The irony is that he is probably speeding/acting out because of the exact same “signaling” that is now quite ironically intended to shame him into lawful behavior. The government’s support of the notion that there could theoretically be nothing more shaming (worse than public stockade of public shackles in the town square) than the fact of this linkage of less than adequate masculinity with the size of the organ, lends further fuel to the fire of such young boys. “You know how important it is” is the message which creates the same problem of shame and inadequacy on the part of those who may not have felt the need to engage in the behavior if the worth and virtue of their masculinity was not unnaturally linked to the male sexual organ’s arbitrary size. I’ve got buds w/ big ones (in part from testosterone…obviously) who are far more aggressive than shy-guy men with smaller penises. This is an example of how deteriorated, berzerk, and out of control we’ve become. Growing up in a small town in a very rough-neck part of the Western united states I used to cringe at the “No Fat Chicks” bumper stickers. And when my mother’s “boyfriend” would haggle her about going on a diet… (we’ll we won’t say what happened to his car) it really bugged me as an adolescent boy being raised by a single mother. My sister couldn’t have benefited from that stuff either. I was the only “man” of our house. My dad has a very, very large penis. What was the “size” of his pathetic failed masculinity? And my mom was hot (by Cosmo magazine standards) when he left w/ other “stud” buddies to hunt or whatever. For every non-speeder man with a smaller “urination organ”, for each guy sitting on the sidelines who by chance is small… you just criminalized/punished him by demeaning (and linking to some degree his social worth and presumed “virtue”) to something he was born with. Many guys won’t even care. But thats not totally on whose behalf I’m writing this. It’s bad enough (and i don’t know aussie tv… but ‘yall watch are hollywood orgy of sex/violence) when it is a private tv show filled with sexual imagery and objectification but now the government apparently has lended it’s “big hand(s)” to the cultural stew. The pre-pubescent children whose sexual boundaries are crossed by this subconscious metaphor and submliminal “messaging”: you have not only demeaned the boys, but you have … like a child-molester in a certain way… sexually violated the innocence of children by bringing this into their young minds and hearts. Even when patriarchy was the norm, things never went so far as to infect the public mind and involve kids. You see that’s where I draw the line. Adult men and women will always be in a crazy tango… But if you stand around, and i know i only sometimes have the guts to say this when not on a discussion board, if you stand around and do nothing, soon enough… well. You’re a pervert child molester yourself. Period. My opinion of Australians (and most parts of America are the same so ‘aint feigning no self-flattery …this is your language right?…) is much less than it was 15 minutes ago.