The Empty Fort Strategy

Sometimes the best thing to do is nothing at all. And there’s a legitimate reason why.

Tell somebody to do something, and they won’t want to do it.

Tell them not to do it, and they’ll want to.

Sound familiar?

If you’re sensitive in nature, do not read the rest of this post.

(Seriously, don’t.)

In 195, Shandong, Eastern China, military general Lü Bu was gathering his armies.

He amassed 10,000 soldiers to attack opposition warlord, Cao Cao.

With the imminent attack unknown to him, Cao Cao sent his own soldiers to collect grain.

So he had less than 1,000 men with him in his fort.

Against the impending 10,000 soldiers that were to descend on the fort, he was far from well defended.

When Lü Bu showed up at the empty fort, Cao Cao had to react.

Desperately, Cao Cao sent all civilians to defend the fort. He even ordered women to guard the walls. The fort’s gates were still open!

Cao Cao was in trouble.

But then, something remarkable happened.

To the west of the fort was a ditch channelled with water. To its south a deep forest.

A sight that troubled Lü Bu. He suspected there was an ambush, and that Cao Cao was trying to trick him into attacking.

Lü Bu was smart, and he knew that Cao Cao was too. So the advancing army fled.

Of course, there was no ambush.

The next day, Lü Bu’s army arrived back at the fort, noticing that there were significantly more people visible at the fort, this time with the gates closed.

This looked like normality. With more soldiers, Lü Bu’s time to attack was now.

But as he attacked something else remarkable happened.

This time, Cao Cao had set up an ambush and Lü Bu’s men fell into this trap. The attacking army was defeated and Cao Cao successfully defended his fort.

In an unbelievable tale of reverse psychology, the concept is now coined “The Empty Fort Strategy.”

This is an extraordinary story, but the psychology involved isn’t so extraordinary. It’s actually quite common in all walks of life.

It’s common in business too, even though it’s a risky strategy to attempt.

And there’s overwhelming evidence to support the fact that reverse psychology motivates people to behave a certain way.

It has a motivational strength to it. It engages people’s personalities.

It creates an unconscious motive which causes people to take notice and act.

A controversial and unwanted story might create intrigue and a desire to learn more.

The unwanted story then becomes popular. Popularity then builds as the story spreads and more people begin talking about it.

But like almost any strategic manoeuvre, and marketing tactic, it requires timing.

If Cao Cao’s fort was always empty, then eventually it would be invaded.

But in this instance, reverse psychology, unknowingly on Cao Cao’s part, prevailed.

The successful execution of The Empty Fort Strategy, and more commonly reverse psychology, is at a specific time depending on the environmental factors.

Of course, such a strategy is based on deception. And deception can be perceived as unethical.

But are chess players and poker players unethical, or strategic? I’ll leave that for you to decide.

However you see it, look at your own experiences and assess the situations you’ve been in.

If you resist something it usually persists. Try to be happy, and you’ll always be sad.

In psychotherapy, doctors use paradoxical intention – the deliberate practice of a neurotic habit or thought to identify and remove a problem.

In other words, you fix a problem by making it worse.

So if you can’t sleep, you’re advised not to sleep. Where eventually, you will sleep.

Accepting fate, you often avoid fate.

Achieving more by actually doing less. Or nothing at all.

Reverse psychology.

I urge you to tread with caution here, but also, realise that reverse psychology is everywhere.

That has worked in business situations like it has done for Burger King, Zoopla, Selfridges and Audi.

And will keep doing so for brands and marketers in the future.

The Empty Fort Strategy dictates this.

Was this useful? If so, please help share by Tweeting this! Or, maybe you shouldn’t…

25 thoughts on “The Empty Fort Strategy

  1. Yes, you’re very correct. At times, we need to keep calm and relax for solution to an impending challenge to surface.

  2. Thanks for popping by and following my blog on food and travel! Love this story. It came from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms? A fabulous Chinese classic full of intrigue and clever strategies. I love Cao Cao. 🙂

    1. Hi Ee Waun. Thank you – I came across it in the Thirty-Six Stratagems. It’s a great essay with lots of interesting tales including this one which I wanted to pass on for this exact reason!

Leave a Reply to Gareth Roberts Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s