The science of why your friends pulled you out of an airlock
It neither offers the narrative escape of Cyberpunk 2077 nor the antidote for anxiety Animal Crossing: New horizons. Instead, the game makes me stressed, paranoid, and frustrated. And yet, since last fall, I’ve been playing Among us with friends locked up across the country every week. It’s a game of suspicion, and in a way, therefore, of excitement and connection, which is a little paradoxical – but which can be explained by a few glimpses of human psychology.
A game of social deduction, the essential rules of Among us are simple. Players are classified as innocent or as spies. Most are innocent people and their goal is to figure out who the spies are before the spies kill them all. In Among us, the innocent are Crewmates and the Imposters spies, and the storyline takes place on a sabotage-prone spaceship. Launched in June 2018, it was a surprise blow from 2020; U.S. Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar played it on a Twitch Live Stream in October, and in November, he beat half a billion monthly players.
It’s a game that, while periodically silent, requires you to talk. It is perhaps no wonder, then, that Among us took off in a year of experiences in a remote society, as we all ran out of things to say about Zoom. But what explains the gravitational pull of this game of social deduction? Why do players frequently make bad decisions? And why did my own friends vote collectively to eject me, while I diligently refueled the engines?
Liar’s pants on fire
Well, on the one hand, humans are generally terrible at identifying lies. For Chris Street, a cognitive psychologist and lie detection expert at the University of Huddersfield, social deduction games are variations of the classic guessing game: In which hand is the coin?
What at first appears to be a simple “this one, not that one” decision invites a spiral of second-guessing. “And if they bluff, but they know i know they are bluffing? Street said. “Social deduction games frame the penny problem in a more structured world, where there is useful information to be gleaned if you shoot the claims around the table and find out what outcome.”
Where liars can use a number of persuasive tactics to build trust, from pretending to performing tasks in Among us To expose other imposters, figuring out who’s a spy doesn’t have to be just a matter of refining your bullshit detector.
“I think we all hope we have some hidden secret ability to root out the truth by detecting subtle behaviors and telling stories,” Street says. “The reality is less forgiving. In many research studies over the decades, our best estimate of people’s lie detection ability is slightly better than guessing, with 54% accuracy, while 50% could be achieved by guessing at random. “
Although there is research suggesting that liars give off behavioral cues – an influential article complaints that bluffers tend to tell simpler stories with narrower vocabulary and more negative emotional words – Street attributes this web of psychology largely to the realm of television. “Popular fiction tells us that there may be subtle indicators of deception in the liar’s behavior,” he says. However, “when we lie, we don’t give up so easily. If our lies were so easily detected, we would probably choose not to lie in the first place. “
Liars may not give obvious clues, but innocent players are not completely rudderless. When we discover lies, it is because we recognize information in the speaker’s statement that is contradicted by the screams of other players, or because we have caught them jumping out of one of the vents on the Among us spatialship. In Street’s Adaptive Lie Detector Theory, he suggests that people adapt to rely on context to guide their gullibility. And when we play a social deduction game like Among us—Or Street’s favorite track, Resistance– we are already worried. Street has 160 board games and many of them are social deduction games. Still, given his somewhat pessimistic view of human lie-detection capabilities, I’m not surprised when he says his expertise doesn’t provide an edge on the table.
Humans are not, in fact, rational
Another reason Among us players make bad decisions is that the design of social deduction games confuses our brain resources. “They mostly challenge our minds,” says Celia Hodent, game user experience expert 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 engaging our logical reasoning and communication skills.