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Loki’s Wager: How to Defeat the Devil in the Detail

Macbeth is horrified. The prophecy was clear. He would never be defeated until the local woods came up to his castle. Trees could not move so surely he was safe, the tragic hero of Shakespeare’s famous play thought. Only now he’s facing the army of his adversary, which is advancing towards his castle using branches from the woods as camouflage. The devil is in the detail, as they say. And Loki’s Wager is a terrific illustration of that phenomenon.

In this essay, we’re going to explore the mythological fallacy about shortsighted agreements, misguided trust and losing one’s head. Things may seem simple enough. It’s only when the particularities catch up with us that we realise they are much more complicated.

What Is Loki’s Wager?

Loki’s Wager is a verbal fallacy that occurs when someone tries to obscure a concept by claiming it could not be defined. It’s of course named after Loki, the god from Norse mythology. As you may know from watching too many Marvel movies, Loki’s reputation was that of a cunning trickster. He loved to play pranks on friends as well as foes. The story that inspired our wager went as follows.

Loki made a bet with a dwarf named Brokkr. The Norse god wagered nothing less than his head. If he lost the bet, Brokkr could sever it from Loki’s shoulders. And low and behold, the divine prankster did lose. Although in a dramatic turn of events, he kept his head. And it wasn’t because Loki refused to accept the result.

Loki kept his head thanks to a cunning linguistic trick. The god was happy to oblige and have his head severed from the rest of his body. He only insisted that, in doing so, Brokkr must not take parts of his neck. But where exactly do the neck end and the head begin? The two couldn’t come to an agreement so the matter was discussed indefinitely.

Implications of Loki’s Wager

Loki’s Wager carries valuable implications, even for those who don’t put their own heads on the line. When applied to everyday life, there are three takeaways:

  1. Understand that agreeing to a deal is much easier than implementing what was supposedly agreed upon.
  2. Beware of linguistic stalling tactics used to postpone a decision or action by getting lost in semantics.
  3. Be wary of claims that something cannot be defined. It could be a ploy to shield an idea from criticism.

First and foremost, the phenomenon seems to be a linguistic battleground. The challenge comes down to delineating a concept and finding agreement before hands are shaken. Why this is so difficult becomes clearer if we think in terms of Sorites Paradox.

Sorites Paradox

The term Sorites is derived from Greek and means heap. The paradox poses the following conundrum. Picture 1,000,000 grains of sand. I would assume we can agree on calling this accumulation a heap of sand. Now imagine that we’re removing one of the grains. With 999,999 grains of sand left, does it still pass as a heap of sand? If yes, ask yourself how many grains need to be removed until the accumulation of sand ceases to be a heap. If there are 37,045 grains of sand left? Or 234? Or just one?

The problem boils down to the definition of the word heap. The extremes may be obvious with zero grains not being a heap and one million definitely being one. We may even agree on the exact number to satisfy the most ardent linguistic nitpicker. But then we haven’t talked about whether the grains must be stacked on top of each other or can be scattered around. Debating sand might seem tedious and irrelevant. But that might change once Sorites Paradox is applied to something you care about.

In an earlier post about mind-bending paradoxes, I used the example of someone installing a camera in their baby’s bedroom. It’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do. Until you wonder at precisely what age this practice becomes unethical. The same can be said about travelling. You wouldn’t claim you’ve been to Italy if you merely traversed Italian airspace. But does spending an hour on the tarmac of an Italian airport count? How about stepping off the plane? Or getting past immigration?

Implications of Sorites Paradox

There are again three takeaways from Sorites Paradox:

  1. Making sound judgments requires a painful amount of high-resolution thinking.
  2. While it’s easy to say what something is or is not at the extremes, it’s the cut-off point that’s hardest to pin down.
  3. More often than not disagreements come down to differing opinions on definitions of the key terms.

Similar to Loki’s Wager, the problem lies in the false assumption that it’s obvious what things mean. The solution then is to figure out what our counterpart has in mind; say when they talk about “having travelled to Italy” or “cutting off heads”. Preferably before a decision is made and by employing the art of negotiation.

Unearthing the Details Through Negotiation

Our goal is to nut out the details before shaking hands on it. At the same time, we want to make sure both parties are committed to implementation. One of the most valuable things I learned about negotiation is the importance of information management through a shift in focus from talking to listening.

Understanding Their Worldview

It’s what former covert CIA officer Andrew Bustamante calls Perception vs. Perspective. The idea is to gain an information advantage by setting your own perception of a person aside and seeing the world through their eyes. This includes the general state of your counterpart’s life and emotions or something as simple as “the stressor that they woke up to this morning” and “the stressor they’re going to get to sleep with tonight”.

Master negotiator Chris Voss goes one step further. In his book Never Split the Difference, he argues: Uncovering the pivotal unknown unknowns in a negotiation “very often comes through understanding the other side’s worldview, their reason for being, their religion” (both literal and metaphorical). Understanding what makes someone tick is a prerequisite for persuasion and for developing “options that resonate for them”. It can be the smallest clues that give away their beliefs and most sacred values.

Leveraging Their Worldview

Say we’re talking to a travel blogger about who has visited more countries. By paying close attention to what she says, we realise: This conversation isn’t about passport stamps, numbers or logic. It’s about what it really means to visit a country. The avid traveller made it her life’s mission to chase genuine experiences abroad. She’s an authenticity maximalist. If you haven’t touched grass, spoken to a local and attempted to order an espresso in Italian you don’t get to pin that flag on your suitcase.

Armed with such detailed insight, it becomes easier to persuade. Or, to channel Voss, to locate your own point of view within the worldview of your fellow traveller. Now we can emphasise the authenticity of our travel experiences. This way we’re much more likely to convince her. For instance that our six-hour layover at Rome airport was much more genuine than being locked up with other tourists in a Sicilian resort for a week.

Avoiding Bad Actors

There’s a positive side effect of the approach to uncover the unknown unknowns in negotiations. It inevitably alerts you to bad actors and their ill intentions. Had Macbeth understood the worldview of his prophets, perhaps he would’ve seen through their efforts to manipulate and corrupt him. Had Brokkr seen the world through Loki’s eyes, perhaps he would not have ended up debating anatomy forever.

Truth be told, Loki’s Wager is an extreme case of shortsighted agreements and misguided trust. So is Macbeth’s predicament. It’s quite simple actually. Don’t take advice from a bunch of ladies they call the “three witches”. And don’t engage with a guy who literally refers to himself as the god of mischief. In the same way, you’d be wary of a business called Cut-Throat Corp.

Closing Thoughts

Interestingly enough, the god is in the detail is the precursor to our idiom in the title. It’s a positive reading of the importance of particularities in solving problems rather than causing them.

By the same token, Loki’s Wager only works as long as the deceived speak more than they listen. A good heuristic would be to ask yourself: Which party profits more from the details of a deal remaining vague?

As painful as it is, it’s best to nut out the semantics beforehand. You can’t defeat the devil if you don’t know his whereabouts. And not making a deal at all is always better than making a bad one.