No-win situation

A no-win situation, also called a "lose-lose" situation or a "Catch-22", is one where a person has choices, but no choice leads to success. If an executioner offers the condemned the choice of dying by being hanged, shot, or poisoned, since all choices lead to death, the condemned is in a no-win situation. Simply put, this bleak situation is one where no matter what choice one makes, the result from choosing either one will be the same: nobody wins at all.

Less drastic situations might also be considered no-win situations: if one has a choice for lunch between a ham sandwich and roast beef, and the person in question is a vegetarian or is allergic, that might be considered a no-win situation.

Carl von Clausewitz's advice never to launch a war that one has not already won characterizes war as a likely no-win situation. An example of war as a no-win situation is the Pyrrhic victory, in which a military victory is too costly to actually be a real "win". Looking at the victory as a part of a larger situation, the situation could either be no-win or a win for the other side than the one that won the "victory". For example, the "victorious" side may have accomplished their objective, but the objective may have been worthless, or the side accomplishing it may have lost their strategic advantage in manpower or positioning in the attempt.

In game theory

In game theory, a "no-win" situation is one in which no player receives a benefit from the situation; the situation generally impacts players in a solely negative manner. This is a common situation, usually due to:

  • unavoidable or unforeseeable circumstances causing the situation to change after decisions have been made
  • Zugzwang, as in chess, when any move chosen will leave one worse off than before they moved.
  • a situation in which an individual has to accomplish two actions which are mutually dependent on the other action being completed first, or that are mutually exclusive (a Catch-22)
  • a wrong evaluation of the situation
  • the best decision for individuals leading to a suboptimal result for everyone involved (as in the "Prisoner's Dilemma")

In history

In pre-Reformation Europe, accused witches were sometimes bound and then thrown or dunked in water to test their innocence. It was believed that a true witch would float (calling upon the devil to save her from drowning). So, those that floated were considered guilty and were executed, while those that drowned were considered innocent although they had already died—thus, a no-win situation for the accused.

In fiction

  • A no-win situation has become part of the Star Trek mythos in the Kobayashi Maru scenario. In this test, a cadet assumes the position of commander on a starship that intercepts an SOS from an allied ship in enemy territory. If they choose to ignore the SOS, the ship is eventually attacked and destroyed with no survivors. However, if they decide to enter enemy territory to try to rescue the other ship, they find that the SOS was a trap, and they are attacked and destroyed by overwhelming numbers of enemy ships. The cadet is not made aware until after the fact that the simulation is impossible to win, and it is considered a test of character.
  • In the film WarGames, the expression "no-win situation" was interpreted quite literally in regard to a possible global nuclear war. An artificial intelligence program named "Joshua", which had assumed control over the United States nuclear arsenal from the WOPR supercomputer that operated it, attempted to start a nuclear war against the Soviet Union, believing it was playing a game. The protagonist was able to get Joshua to play itself at tic-tac-toe, and after hundreds of instantaneous stalemates, it started to simulate all the strategies it had developed for nuclear war. Discovering that every single strategy led to the extinction of mankind, it determined that "the only winning move is not to play," and stood down from commencing its real attack.

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