Law 17: Cultivate An Air Of Unpredictability: Keep Other’s In Suspended Terror

The 48 Laws Of Power Summary Series


“Humans are creatures of habit with an insatiable need to see familiarity in other people’s actions. Your predictability gives them a sense of control. Turn the tables: Be deliberately unpredictable. Behavior that seems to have no consistency or purpose will keep them off- balance and they will wear themselves out trying to explain your moves. Taken to an extreme, this strategy can intimidate and terrorize.”

Greene likens this law a lot to the game of chess. The beauty about the game of chess is that you don’t know what your opponent is going to do next. It’s inherently unpredictable.

Professional players will try and predict their opponents next move and make an educated decisions based on their analysis. Not knowing what’s going to happen next is synonymous of life. Not knowing what another’s next move creates, as this law states, “a state of terror”. Resulting in the combination of uncertainty, confusion and mystery.

This gives opportunists the upper hand, because if another doesn’t know what you’re going to do next, you hold the cards and you can make the offensive move first. To win at this game of life you have to be supremely patient; you must also possess enough foresight to plan ahead. The game is built on patterns. These patterns and sequences have been played before and will be played again, only this time, with slight alterations.

Keys To Power

One of the reasons humans are at the top of the food chain is because of the conscious control we have over our thoughts and actions. We possess the ability to express self-awareness.

Animals will behave instinctively in set patterns which we are able to predict in order to hunt and kill as needed. Human beings are lucky enough to have the capacity to not confine themselves so stringently to the patterns we see in the animal kingdom. We can consciously control our behaviour as needed in ways other animals can’t. Yet so many don’t. Many of us get stuck in a repetitive cycle of comfortability.

“Only man has the capacity to consciously alter his behavior, to improvise and overcome the the weight of routine and habit. Yet most men do not realise this power, they prefer the comforts of routine, of giving in to the animal nature.”

Understand: “A person of power instills a kind of fear by deliberately unsettling those around him to keep the initiative on his side. You sometimes need to strike without warning to make others tremble when they least expect it.”

This reminds me of a story Tony Robins told in his book ‘Awaken The Giant Within’. Every time Tony would go on his walk he would give a particular homeless man some money. He decided to make this a habit. One instance when he went to reach for his wallet he found he didn’t have any cash on him. Tony apologized, but the homeless man became aggravated and upset. Tony had conditioned the homeless man to receive money every time he passed him. The one time the homeless man didn’t receive it, unstable emotion and a minor conflict resulted.

If Tony had been more unpredictable with his actions and intermittently given money to the homeless man, than the above situation may have never occurred because he wouldn’t have known when to expect the stimuli. If the money was given sporadically, than the habit is never created as your constantly left on edge not knowing when the next reward will come.

This law states, “keep others in a suspended state of terror”. What does this mean?

“People are always trying to read the motives behind your actions and to use your predictability against you. Throw in a completely inexplicable move and you put them on the defensive.”

Example, let’s say you’ve maintained a habit within your relationship where the two of you have habituated yourselves to doing the same thing every week — you’ve become predictable.

By “throwing in a completely inexplicable move” you can create spontaneity, excitement and passion by stepping away from the same old habit and doing something you’ve never done before. This is how I interpret, “keep others in a suspended state of terror” — it can be a positive terror that can elicit excitement. Yet another reason how cultivating an air of unpredictability can work in so many varying ways.


In 1974 Muhammad Ali did this with George Foreman. Ali had a certain style of fighting that everyone knew him for. He moved and danced around a lot using his quickness to get the better of his opponent. Many were tipping Foreman to win because of his of massive power. Ali realised he needed to change his style of fight in order to have a chance at winning. Sometimes before fights trainers would loosen the ropes around the ring if the boxers were intending to “slug it out”.

Ali’s trainer did this before the fight, yet no one believed those were his real intentions. People assumed it a trick. To the world’s shock he changed his habit of 10 years of fighting. He went up against the ropes and slugged it out upsetting Foreman’s strategy. Foreman wore himself out by throwing punches wildly as Ali eventually knocked him out.

“The habit of assuming that a person’s behaviour will fit its previous patterns is so strong that not even Ali’s announcement of a strategy change was enough to upset it. Foreman walked into a trap — the trap he had been told to expect.”

Though there is another side of unpredictability:

“Too much unpredictability will be seen as a sign of indecisiveness, or even of some more serious psychic problem. Patterns are powerful, and you can terrify people by disrupting them. Such power should only be used judiciously.”

To reiterate, this cannot only be used to “terrify” but it can be used for positive things like creating energy, excitement and passion by doing things you’ve never done before.

Originally Posted

Self reflective writings & book summaries on philosophy, psychology and human behaviour.

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