On being unpredictable and winning

C.K.W. de Dreu, J. Gross, A. Arciniegas, L. C. Hoenig, M. Rojek-Giffin, Daan Scheepers

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


In theory, it can be strategically advantageous for competitors to make themselves unpredictable to their opponents, for example, by variably mixing hostility and friendliness. Empirically, it remains open whether and how competitors make themselves unpredictable, why they do so, and how this conditions conflict dynamics and outcomes. We examine these questions in interactive attacker–defender contests, in which attackers invest to capture resources held and defended by their opponent. Study 1, a reanalysis of nine (un)published experiments (total N = 650), reveals significant cross-trial variability especially in proactive attacks and less in reactive defense. Study 2 (N = 200) shows that greater variability makes both attacker’s and defender’s next move more difficult to predict, especially when variability is due to occasional rather than (in)frequent extreme investments in conflict. Studies 3 (N = 27) and 4 (N = 106) show that precontest testosterone, a hormone associated with risk-taking and status competition, drives variability during attack which, in turn, increases sympathetic arousal in defenders and defender variability (Study 4). Rather than being motivated by wealth maximization, being unpredictable in conflict and competition emerges in function of the attacker’s desire to win “no matter what” and comes with significant welfare cost to both victor and victim.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)369-389
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Personality and Social Psychology
Issue number3
Early online date28 Nov 2023
Publication statusPublished - Mar 2024


  • behavioral game theory
  • predator–prey dynamics
  • testosterone
  • sympathetic arousal


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