Psychology of Board Games

Statistics and Speculations on the Behavioral Science of Board Gaming
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Don’t Read this Blog: How to Win Games with Reverse Psychology

Corey Butler
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Hey, it worked. How about that.

All kidding aside, is there any way to use reverse psychology in board games? Does reverse psychology even exist? Or is it just a myth or an urban legend? It's probably nothing more than pop psychology nonsense. You should stop reading now.

Reverse psychology, advocating the opposite of what you would like someone to do, is an attempt to manipulate behavior by exploiting the principle of Reactance. This is the common tendency for people to resist persuasion attempts by reasserting their freedom and control, "reacting" against an authority figure, and sometimes even doing the opposite of what was being suggested. Reactance is a legitimate psychological phenomenon, but it is somewhat inconsistent and unpredictable. This makes reverse psychology an inherently dubious technique. It sometimes works, but it probably fails just as often. In games and in life, proceed with caution.

That said, reverse psychology is potentially useful in any game that involves communication between players. This would include games like Settlers of Catan, where players discuss things like trades and where to put the robber. It would also include about half the Fantasy Flight Games catalog. I'm thinking of Twilight Imperium, Game of Thrones, and other multiplayer wargames with a diplomacy component. Any time players are suggesting actions for other players to take, there is an opportunity to use reverse psychology.

But how do we use it effectively, or at least as effectively as possible, given it's obvious limitations?

1. Choose your target wisely. Some of your friends might be more susceptible to reverse psychology than others. You probably already know which ones. Use it on them.

2. Create awareness. Let's say you want your opponent to make move X, but he or she isn't even looking at that option. It's worth a try saying something like, "Well obviously you don't want to make move X." This draws your target's attention to the move, and also might elicit some reactance. "You can't tell me what to do!"

3. Set the stage. You might need to establish a context to maximize the effect. For example, if you want to get wood while playing Agricola, first suggest that your opponent get wood. But make sure you make the suggestion immediately after a couple of ridiculous, joking suggestions. This may prime your opponent to see getting wood as an equally useless thing to do.

4. Exaggerate your preferred option. Maybe you are playing an auction game like Power Grid and you really want to win the auction you are initiating. You could try transparently praising the qualities of the plant. "Best coal plant in the game. The BEST. You want it, don't you?” Your opponents will sense you are trying to push them into something and back off, letting you purchase it cheaply.

5. Push your bluffs. This shows confidence and makes people doubt themselves. Say you are playing Scrabble and you just played a word of questionnable validity. If your opponent is looking suspicious, you should immediately take control and use a reverse suggestion. "Oh, you don't think that's a word? Ha, are you challenging? Go ahead and challenge it!"

6. Don't overuse it. Only use reverse psychology once or maybe twice during a game. If you do it too much, people will catch on and then it will probably be worse than ineffective. It will probably backfire. Then you'll have, wait for it... Reverse-reverse psychology.

7. Don't use it at all. Reverse psychology is sneaky, manipulative, and ethically questionable, as well as being only inconsistently effective. Maybe you shouldn't be using it. Honestly, I feel a little slimy after writing out these suggestions.

Reverse psychology has been used from time to time in marketing, often in an ironic or clever way. Patagonia ran a campaign a few years ago suggesting that people should not buy their jackets. Instead customers were encouraged to reuse and recycle, promoting an environmentalist message in the context of a novel and humorous sales pitch. As a consequence, Patagonia sold a lot of jackets.

Reverse psychology is used very infrequently by actual psychologists. One exception to this is a highly unusual counseling technique known as Provocative Therapy. The idea is to "attack" your clients and put them on the defensive, inspiring them to stand up for themselves and thereby get better. "You're right, your life is pretty much ruined, isn't it?" This is supposed to be done with exaggeration and humor, in a way that should lead clients to develop a healthier perspective on their problems. Interesting stuff. But like reverse psychology itself, I'm not convinced that it should be used very often.

Thanks for reading, but please don't subscribe to this blog. It's better to live your life by luck and not get notifications about updates, don't you think?
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