• December 6, 2021

The Science of Why Your Friends Shot You From an Airlock

Liars may not give off obvious cues, but innocent players aren’t completely rudderless. When we pick up on lies, it’s because we recognize information in the speaker’s claim that is contradicted by the howling of other players, or because we caught them leaping from one the vents on the Among Us spaceship. In Street’s Adaptive Lie Detector theory, he suggests that people adapt to rely on context to guide their credulity. And when we play a social deduction game like Among Us—or Street’s preferred title, The Resistance—we’re already apprehensive. Street owns 160 board games and many of them are social deduction games. Yet given his somewhat pessimistic view on human lie detecting abilities, I’m not surprised when he says his expertise fails to furnish an advantage on the tabletop.

Humans Are Not, In Fact, Rational

Another reason Among Us players make poor decisions is that the design of social deduction games confounds the resources in our brain. “They mostly challenge our wits,” says Celia Hodent, an expert in game user experience and author of The Psychology of Video Games. “More specifically, they challenge our attention. We need to focus on what’s going on, use our memory to connect the dots, while also engaging our logical reasoning and communication skills.”

While an Impostor can successfully frame another player, we are capable of making mistakes without their trickery. “Our perception is subjective, our attention resources are scarce, and our memory is fallible,” says Hodent. “We humans have a tendency to believe that we make rational decisions most of the time, when we are constantly influenced and misled by the numerous cognitive and social biases we have.”

Observers of social deduction games are regularly privy to information that escapes players, possibly because their attention is not being challenged in the same way. As a result, they have a front row seat to the formation of bad decisions. Playing Among Us, I have marveled at the mistakes that unfold after my assassination, as the remaining crewmates perceive each other’s behavior as “sus” instead of targeting the actual Imposter. In one of my games, I watched Sergio murder me! Someone even voiced their suspicion before they died. But for Will and Daisy, their respective denials only serve to entrench their misgivings about each other.

“We have a tendency to focus on, search, and remember information that validates our preconceptions,” says Hodent. “Once we have such intuition, it becomes very hard to consider information that is going against our belief.”

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Daisy and Will vote against each other without interrogating Sergio. In the end, says Hodent, “Sergio, just like a skilled magician, just needed to take advantage of humans’ implicit biases and brain limitations to keep the obvious unnoticed or unremembered.” Such occasions are simultaneously infuriating and beguiling. Moreover, those shortcomings ensure that a surplus of a crucial ingredient, surprise, greases the progression of every game.

Heuristics, Heuristics, Heuristics

We also use heuristics, or rules of thumb, when playing a social deduction game. “In Among Us, one of the heuristics that people have at their disposal is crewmate color,” suggests Jon Roozenbeek, a postdoctoral fellow at the Cambridge Social Decision-Making Lab.

In December, developer Innersloth revealed that some colors were more popular than others, with red, black, and white the most popular and lime, brown, and green the least. Meanwhile, as this Reddit post demonstrates, colors generate their own stereotypes. “Basically, not all crewmates are created equal,” says Roozenbeek. Another heuristic is the way players’ reputations can precede them. A spy in one game is not automatically a spy in the next, but we find it hard to shake that notoriety.

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