It offers neither the narrative escapism of Cyberpunk 2077 nor the anxiety antidote of 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 locked-down friends across the country every week. It’s a game of suspicion, and somehow, thus one of excitement and connection, which is a bit of a paradox—but one that can be explained by some insights into human psychology.
A social deduction game, the essential rules of Among Us are straightforward. Players are either categorized as innocents or as spies. Most are innocents, and their goal is to deduce who the spies are before the spies kill them all. In Among Us, the innocents are Crewmates and the spies Imposters, and the intrigue takes place on a spaceship prone to sabotage. Launched in June 2018, it was a surprise hit of 2020; US representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar played it on a Twitch livestream in October, and in November it broke half a billion monthly players.
It’s a game that, though periodically silent, demands that you talk. Perhaps it’s no wonder, then, that Among Us took off in a year of experiments in remote society, as we all ran out of things to say over Zoom. But what explains the gravitational pull of this social deduction game? Why do players frequently make bad decisions? And why did my own friends collectively vote to eject me, while I was diligently refuelling the engines?
Liar Liar Pants on Fire
Well, for one thing, humans are generally terrible at identifying lies. For Chris Street, a cognitive psychologist and expert in lie detection at the University of Huddersfield, social deduction games are variants on the classic guessing game: Which hand is the coin in?
What at first appears to be a simple “this one, not that one” decision invites a spiral of second-guesses. “What if they are bluffing, but they know that I know that they are bluffing?” says Street. “Social deduction games frame the penny problem in a more structured world, where there is useful information to be gleaned if you pull at the claims around the table and find out which unravel.”
Where liars can use any number of persuasive tactics to build trust, from pretending to complete tasks in Among Us to denouncing other Imposters, figuring out who is a spy need not be simply a case of refining your bullshit detector.
“I think we all hope for some hidden secret ability to root out the truth by detecting subtle behaviors and tells,” says Street. “Reality is less forgiving. Across many research studies over the decades, our best estimate of people’s lie detecting ability is ever so slightly better than guessing, with an accuracy of 54 percent, when 50 percent could be achieved by guessing at random.”
While there is research suggesting that liars give off behavioral cues—one influential paper claims that bluffers tend to tell simpler stories with narrower vocabulary and more negative emotion words—Street ascribes this skein of psychology largely to the realm of TV. “Popular fiction tells us that there may be subtle indicators of deception in the liar’s behavior,” he says. However, “when we lie, we do not give ourselves away so easily. If our lies were so readily detectable, we would likely choose not to lie in the first place.”
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.”