The Paradox of Polarization: Why the Most Variable Runner Wins the Race

In the world of racing, whether it’s horses thundering down the track or candidates vying for political office, the conventional wisdom would suggest that consistency is key. After all, shouldn’t the runner with a steadfast performance record be the one most likely to clinch victory? Surprisingly, a closer examination reveals a paradox: in races with multiple contenders, it’s often the most polarizing runner who emerges triumphant.

Let’s consider a hypothetical scenario involving just two runners: a high variance performer and a consistently reliable one. Both runners perform an identical average win rate over numerous competitions. The high variance runner dazzles spectators with sporadic bursts of brilliance, interspersed with occasional disappointments, while the consistent performer reliably maintains a steady pace, never veering far from its established standard.

On paper, their achievements are evenly matched, with each runner possessing an equal likelihood of securing victory in any given race. However, as we’ll soon discover, the dynamics shift when a third contender enters the race.

Now lets consider again a hypothetical scenario with three horses. The first horse again oscillates between stellar performances and disappointing showings, making it unpredictable on any given day. The second horse again, delivers a consistent performance in every race, maintaining the same pace without fail. Lastly, the third horse exhibits a moderate level of variability, occasionally outperforming the second horse but sometimes falling short.

At first glance, it might seem that the second horse, with its unwavering consistency, would have the upper hand. Yet, when all three horses compete against each other, an intriguing pattern emerges. The highly variable first horse, despite its unpredictability, stands a significant chance of winning. Why is this the case?


The key lies in the dynamics of variability and polarization. While all three horses may have comparable average performances, it’s the extremes – the highs and lows – that matter most in a competitive setting. In a race where victory hinges on outperforming opponents, being consistently average may not be enough.

When the unpredictable horse has a good day, it surges ahead, leaving the others in its wake. Conversely, when it falters, the remaining contenders – the consistent second horse and the moderately variable third horse – split the probability of success. This phenomenon illustrates how variability, rather than consistency, becomes advantageous in a multi-competitor race.

This principle extends beyond the racetrack, finding parallels in diverse domains such as elections, job interviews, and even dating. In scenarios where the objective is to stand out among multiple contenders, adopting an “all or nothing” strategy can be the most effective approach. The candidate or suitor who polarizes opinions, eliciting strong reactions from supporters and detractors alike, often gains a competitive edge.

In essence, the paradox of polarization challenges conventional notions of success. While consistency may be prized in certain contexts, it’s the variability and polarization that reign supreme when the race is crowded with contenders. As we navigate the complexities of competition and decision-making, it’s essential to recognize the subtle interplay between stability and volatility, and how embracing the unexpected may lead to unexpected victories.