Psychology of Board Games

Statistics and Speculations on the Behavioral Science of Board Gaming
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The Psychology of Cheating

Corey Butler
United States
Saint Paul
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Why do people cheat at games, and how common is it? That's our topic for today. When I started looking for articles on the psychology of cheating, I found quite a lot of research on infidelity. Ok, interesting... but not exactly what I had in mind. Then I remembered reading Freakonomics several years ago and the economic analysis in that book about honor systems. Dubner and Levitt's case of the Bagel Man is a useful place to start. This is a guy who made a living selling bagels by dropping them off at office buildings with a box for people to put their money in. He did this for years, kept careful records, and found that most of the time he received about 90% of his payments. This correlates nicely with an informal study done by The Honest Tea Company which has also found that 90 to 95% of Americans are honest in low-stakes transactions.

The data we have about cheating at board games tell a similar story. According to one BGG poll, 93% of us are basically honest, reporting either very little or no cheating. This is reassuring for people like me who would rather focus on playing the game and not have to worry about keeping watch on everyone else at the table.

From gallery of shotokanguy

But what can we say about the 5.3% that report having cheated "many times", not to mention the frightening 1.2% that claim to cheat "regularly"? Antisocial Personality Disorder might be a factor in some of these cases. These are individuals who act deceitfully, have little regard for the rules and laws, and lack remorse for their actions. Fortunately, they make up only about 1% of the population, but it's interesting that this matches the statistic we have for regular cheaters. People who are not at the clinical level of Antisocial Personality Disorder may still have a Big Five personality profile characterized by low agreeableness and low conscientiousness. That might account for a few more percentage points.

I think we are making a mistake here if we focus solely on personality as the cause of cheating. As a social psychologist, I like to think about behavior in terms of Kurt Lewin's equation, B=f(P, S). This tells us that behavior is always a function of both the person and the situation. For example, anonymity (playing with strangers or online) and opportunity can tip the scales toward greater cheating. When strong incentives like money or grades are on the line, otherwise honest people might be tempted to cheat. Academic dishonesty is endemic in high schools and colleges, with a prevalence rate of 75% or more. These students are not all sociopaths. Situational variables are clearly important in determining the likelihood of cheating.

Now board gamers are generally not playing for money or grades, or bagels for that matter. Their motivation is psychological, related to self-enhancement and impression management. We all like to feel good about ourselves and look good in front of others. Indeed, self-esteem is a powerful motivation in social psychology, right up there with other core human motives like food and safety. We might predict that when people are feeling bad about themselves, they will be tempted to cheat. If their self-control is a little low, they will be more likely to act on this temptation. These fluctuating psychological states can help us make sense of the middle 29% in the poll, gamers who may have cheated a few times in the past, even though they are not habitual cheaters.

From gallery of shotokanguy

Cognitive dissonance theory suggests that once players make the decision to cheat, subsequent cheating could become more likely. Ironically, this could be the result of a guilty conscience. We can't go back in time and not cheat to rid of the guilt, but we can make ourselves feel better with rationalizations. "I only cheated a little, everyone else is probably cheating, I'm just evening things out..." Likewise, people using programs to cheat at online games could tell themselves it's not really cheating, or doesn't really matter, or it's just a way to play the game. These cognitions can become habitual, creating a vicious, escalating cycle of dishonesty.

But let's keep things in perspective. The vast majority of gamers don't cheat, at least not with any regularity. If you are playing a) in person, and b) with your friends, cheating should be very rare indeed. And if you do know someone who cheats, it should be easy enough to avoid them on game days.
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