Have you ever played the party game, “Mafia” or as we played it “Villagers and Terrorists”? Seven of us drew lots secretly. Two received chits assigning them the character of terrorist while the rest got the role of villagers. At the start, everyone closed their eyes. Only the terrorists opened their eyes to identify each other while the villagers remained ignorant of who was a villager or a terrorist.
Everyone then opened their eyes and the people started discussing who they thought was likely to be a terrorist. The game proceeded in rounds where everyone would vote one person out of the game. The villagers would win if they managed to vote the terrorists out while the terrorists won if they remained in the game till they outnumbered the villagers.
A simple game, but it generated some intense conversations as we started pointing fingers of suspicion at each other.
This is a game about deceit, about being able to find one another out. Every time I have played it, I have learnt something new about myself and my friends.
- We are not rational people. But we rationalize like pros. Everyone tried to be cool, detached and logical. Everyone failed. Gut feelings abounded. As soon as A voiced a suspicion about B, B would form a suspicion about A. But when asked to explain why, they brought out seemingly clear rationalization even though it has nothing to do with what was actually happening. Even when I stumbled across a valid clue and deduced the correct answer, I could forget its significance in the ensuing noise of opinion.
- We don’t know our friends or even spouses as well as we would like. When we played the first time, I consistently failed to spot my wife as an adversary. I just wasn’t used to distrusting anything she said to me. Other couples pointed out supposedly uncharacteristic and suspicious behavior in each other often ignoring their real adversary. We consistently thought we could catch each other better than we managed to.
- We are swayed by herd instinct. Try going against the tide and people start suspecting you. Its much easier to go with the majority flow and rationalize it away as the wisdom of the crowds.
- We can evolve our thinking. When we first started playing, the terrorists were caught quickly. But over time, they learnt to stop giving out tell tale cues till they were winning every time. One favorite tactic was for the terrorists to avoid pointing out anyone for suspicion. By staying aloof and they avoided drawing attention to themselves and when they sensed public opinion moving against anyone, they joined the mob to evict that player. After a while, people began getting suspicious of anyone who remained too quite to begin with or who changed his vote depending on popular opinion.
- Instinctive judgments aren’t always bad. As we started getting over some of our hangups and most obvious cognitive biases, we became more accepting of our instincts. Sometimes our subconscious picked up something our rational brain couldn’t explain. We also respected each others’instincts and gave space for people to voice their feelings. These weren’t taken at par with rational arguments, but definitely deserved a place of mention and could serve as the basis for deeper investigation.
The thing of course is that while this is all fine in a game, how do the biases thrown up by the game affect our daily life without our knowing it?