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Here's why you're so terrible at rock-paper-scissors

(And how to win).

FIONA MACDONALD
18 MAR 2016
 

Scientists think they've figured out why so many of us are so bad rock-paper-scissors, which is really nothing more than a game of pure chance.

That means if we just randomly selected rock, paper, or scissors in equal amounts, we'd statistically have the best chance at winning. So why does it feel like we still lose most of the time? Researchers have revealed that, like the silly humans we are, we screw it up by overthinking it and letting our emotions get in the way.

 

Scientists from the University of Sussex in the UK and Ryerson University in Canada put this to the test by getting 31 undergrad students to play several rounds of rock-paper-scissors against a computerised opponent, which naturally took a totally random approach to the game.

Of course, each person has their own strategy, so the researchers were never expecting the students to play in the same random way as the AI did (even though that would have been better). But they were surprised to see a pattern emerge based on how well the participants were doing, which suggests that a range of psychological effects could be influencing our choices.

They found that when the students lost, they 'downgraded' their next item selection (for example, from rock to scissors, or scissors to paper), but if they won, they were more likely to keep the same item for the following round. If there was a tie, they usually ended up upgrading (e.g. rock to paper).

Not only that, on the whole, people tended to slightly over-select rock - perhaps rock is seen as 'stronger', the researchers speculate. 

"The data reveal the strategic vulnerability of individuals following the experience of negative rather than positive outcome," the researchers write in the journal Scientific Reports.

In other words, when we lose, our emotional response causes us to rethink our strategy in the heat of the moment, often with negative outcomes.

 

That might all sound like an interesting waste of time, but the point of the study wasn't really about rock-paper-scissors, but to find out more about how perceived wins and losses influence our decision making, which could lead to better negotiating or debating strategies for high-stake situations, such as politics.

The research only involved a small sample size, so we can't read too much into the results without further experiments to confirm them, but it's always interesting to get insight into why people do the things they do, especially when there's risk involved.

And before you get too sad about your outcome-influenced human brain, don't be, because you can also use this knowledge to win - both at rock-paper-scissors and in life.

As Jamie Condliffe explains for Gizmodo, based on the research, this simple strategy should help you outsmart your opponent:

  • If your opponent wins, upgrade from the item they played.
  • If your opponent loses, use the item they played.
  • If you drew, downgrade from the item they played.

Use this information wisely. And if that still doesn't work, here are some other science-backed tips (or maybe it's time to play another game).

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