Psychology of Board Games

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

Corey Butler
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Saint Paul
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A few weeks ago, I got a message from Jason Perez of the podcast, Every Night is Game Night. He wanted to have a conversation on the psychology of cheating. It sounded like an interesting topic, so I said yes. I'm really glad I did because Jason is a congenial host and I had a great time. I think I was a little more relaxed and probably on more familiar ground than the last time I did a podcast, which was about board game design. I honestly don't know much about board game design... Anyway, Jason and I are thinking of doing more shows together in the future, so let us know if you have any suggestions or other feedback. Here's a link to the podcast if you want to have a listen:

ENGN Episode 146 – Psych Chat: The Psychology of Cheating in Board Games with Dr. Corey Butler

Now you may recall (if you are one of my nearly half a dozen faithful readers), I discussed The Psychology of Cheating on this very blog exactly one year ago this month. Tempus Fugit, am I right? At that time I examined some polling data and argued that cheating was probably not very common and thus not much to worry about. Let's take a look at the graph I referenced:

From gallery of shotokanguy


See, most people don't cheat much, so it's not a problem, right? And why would anyone lie in an anonymous survey? Case closed, or so I thought. Then I read Dan Ariely's carefully researched and well written book, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone-- Especially Ourselves. Now I'm not so optimistic.

Ariely conducted a series of clever lab experiments in which he manipulated the opportunity to cheat. The participants in these studies solved matrix puzzles for real money, and some participants were allowed to score their own tests in such a way that they wouldn't get caught if they took advantage of the situation. So the question is, will people cheat under these conditions? Ariely found that cheating is extremely common, that most people cheat a little, but that extreme transgressions are relatively rare. So people take a little more money than they earned, but most of them didn't come close to the maximum they could have taken. It's important to point out that people are doing a balancing act here. They want the benefits of cheating, but they don't want to think of themselves as cheaters. That's why they "round up" a little bit in their favor but they don't loot the bank. That would be wrong!

For what it's worth, the graph presented above may indicate the prevalence of extreme, blatant cheating, but it almost certainly underestimates the rate of minor cheating. In a board game, these would be small transgressions, such as maybe not paying the right price for something or doing something out of turn. We may not even be fully conscious of our behavior or aware that it could qualify as cheating. To give an example from the podcast, I might make a small error that gives me an advantage in the game. Would I go out of my way to correct the mistake if I later noticed what I had done, or would I let it slide? And would I be more motivated to correct an error that harmed me rather than benefited me? Any asymmetry between these two scenarios could be considered evidence of cheating by omission.

But it's just a game. Unlike Ariely’s experiments, people don't typically win money when they play board games. Yet it still feels good to win, bad to lose, and terrible to come in last place, so the temptation and the possibility of cheating (just a little bit) are still there. Any time we play a game, self esteem and social status are potentially on the line, and these are huge motivations for all of us.

Shortly after I read Ariely’s book, I had the opportunity to join a four player game of Azul. I have to admit that as I watched everyone add their points from their tiles, I had a moment of doubt. Were they doing the math right? Were they fudging their scores a little? Perhaps games should be designed so that all scoring is publicly verified. Unfortunately this would slow many games down, so it’s obviously a tradeoff. What’s a game designer to do? If Ariely is right, make the scoring public so that no one is tempted.

Another approach would be to police the other players, or at least maintain some awareness. As Jason suggested in the podcast, if players (especially younger ones) are lacking in moral development, then it is important to (humanely) correct their behavior so the cheating habit doesn’t escalate. This approach is more about controlling bad apples than simply assuming that everyone is a potential cheater, as Ariely does. It’s a good idea, though our typical introverted board gamer might not want to deal with confrontations about cheating too often.

Clearly, this is not the final word on the topic of cheating, so listen to the podcast, tell us what you think in the comments, and watch for further conversations on the psychology of board games.
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