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Decision Making: How To Solve The Mexican Standoff

        posted by , April 08, 2013

If you've ever seen an action movie this decision making dilemma will be familiar.

In a duel, it's an advantage to shoot first. However if three opponents duel (truel), it's a disadvantage to shoot first. If A shoots B, C will shoot A.

mexican duel

Definition: Mexican Standoff

A Mexican Standoff is a three person gun duel. According to standard game theory, the first person to shoot is most likely to lose. The person they shoot at is also likely to lose. The third person has the best chance of winning.


In movies, someone usually gets nervous and shoots first. But how does it work out in real life?

Game Theory & The Mexican Standoff

Game theory assumes that all players act in their own best interests. It also assumes that players follow the rules of the game (e.g. they must shoot at each other).

In other words, game theory assumes that people can't see beyond the game.

According to game theory each player will calculate his or her chances of winning with variables such as shooting accuracy and distance.

The person with the best overall chance will be most likely to shoot first (even though shooting first is a distinct disadvantage).

Superrationality & The Mexican Standoff

Superrationality is a decision making technique that solves complex dilemmas such as the Mexican Standoff and Prisoner's Dilemma. It's considered an alternative to game theory.

Superrationality assumes that players can get beyond their self interests to seek an optimal solution for everyone.

If all the players of Mexican standoff are superrational, they will walk away from the standoff because they realize the game is to no one's advantage. They can see beyond the game.

Logically, the Mexican standoff should end peacefully because nobody has incentive to shoot first. If the players are superrational that's exactly what happens.

Superrationality doesn't make for a good movie.


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