7 things I learnt by playing “Secret Hitler”

Recently I had the chance to play “Secret Hitler” surrounded by people that I truly admire for a different variety of reasons. I used the opportunity to experiment and learn about human dynamics.

Secret Hitler is a role-playing game that includes deception. You can either be playing as a liberal, as a fascist or as Hitler. The President rotates over all the players and can nominate a chancellor that is then voted by everyone in order to accept the cabinet or not. Liberals can win by passing liberal legislation on the parliament or killing Hitler, and the fascists win by either nominating Hitler as Chancellor after some fascist regulations have passed or passing their own bills. The fascists, as conspirators, know each other and Hitler, while the liberals and Hitler himself don’t know the role of anyone else. Of course in order to win, both sides need to deceive their counterparts, and keeping your role secret is a must to play strategically.

I conducted this experiment in two different sessions. The first I played seriously, and I managed to win every single game I played, even though I did not manage to play as a liberal, I won as regular fascist and as Hitler. During the second session, even announcing that I was A/B testing this game, I played as if I would be absolutely clueless, to see the different reactions. One day passed in between in order for people to forget my behaviour from the first game session. On the second session, I lost all but one game, and I barely played at all. More on this later.

Here is the list of things that I learnt from playing this game under these experimental circumstances.

1 – Loud people will be always listened to first

The “Charisma Bias” is defined as the fact that we tend to value more the opinion of outgoing and loud people. The louder people will usually have the first word in a discussion, regardless of whether they have facts or not, or whether they are saying anything that adjusts to logic. The danger comes when the loud people has an agenda that does not align with the general interest or they are just clueless and pretending to know.

Amongst the bad traits of people that are favoured by this bias, lack of focus and clarity are commonly cited, but the most dangerous in terms of social dynamics is what is called the ability to create “yes-people”. These people turn admirers into followers, which will never challenge their authority. That’s dangerous.

2 – Deceiving is a skill

It is a universally accepted fact that lying is a learnt skill. According to a study of the University of Toronto under professor Kang Lee, only 30% of verbal 2-year-olds lie, while at age 4 that number rises to 80% and between 5 and 7 to 100%.

Lying is a learnt skill, and also can be trained. If you want to have a chance at winning this game, it is a must. In real life, the lack of ability to lie can be even considered a sign of autism, as it is considered a basic social skill and necessary to establish and maintain relationships.

If you want to increase the chances of your lie being accepted it is important that you keep it short, with at least amount of detail as possible and plausible. On the physical side, it is important that you don’t show signs of nervousness. Indicators of intimacy (nicknames, initiating touch or standing closer, for example) can be also exploited in order to make things believable. It is much easier for the liar to trick people that has a romantic interest on them.

Knowing this, it seems obvious that you can develop deception as if it was a skill. Also, you can develop detection skills the same way.

3 – First impressions can dictate your destiny

The psychological literature recognizes the “First Impression Bias”, which applies to most social dynamics in life. This first impression can affect the expectations that we have on the relationship or on its outcomes.

This becomes very obvious in this game. Where I was questioned and acting totally clueless, I very rarely would play again in the whole round of the game. This effect would be lasting, so it would apply to subsequent rounds. Imagine that applied to a whole lifespan.

4 – Failed relationships are very powerful

Trust is the strongest social binding agent. Takes ages to develop and can be destroyed in one second. In the context of this game, the moment you are caught in a lie, the effect lasts for a long time, likely for the whole session.

A relationship failing usually implies loss of trust. There are plenty of things that exist under the hood and that can affect the outcome, from romantic rejection to just previously caught lies. All these affect the amount of trust that a person is able to potentially deposit on one relationship. In the case of the game, whether the person believes what the other person say. In real life, the consequences can be dramatically different, even affecting outsiders to said relationship.

If a person is subject of violations of trust in a more or less regular way, that can have a very long lasting effect that can affect even all future relationships, even to the point of generating, for example, social anxiety or stress.

5 – You don’t know people’s reactions

It is generally established that there are different factors that affect the reaction of a person under pressure. Personality is one factor that has a definite influence. Especially the axis of “negative affectivity” vs. “stability”, that relates to the amount of response that a specific person shows to a stimulus under a certain level of stress. The importance given to the attached goal, in the case of the game whether winning or losing, has also influence on the response. Goal conflicts also can potentially occur, and people can generate different outcomes. Some people also know how to trigger stress, which they can use in their favor to get closer to the goal. On the contrary, social support acts as an stress antagonist. In the game, people agreeing with your position can be considered a way of obtaining social support.

By playing a few rounds it can be seen that some people just don’t get aroused at all and try to explain their position calmly while others just start shouting and heavy breathing when they are accused of something, especially when unfairly. Yes, once again, people are different.

6 – Make an effort to listen to everyone

According to the research made by Joseph Newman from the University of Wisconsin, while not existing a difference in terms of IQ between introverts and extroverts, introverts tend to make less mistakes.

As you can imagine, by pairing this piece of information with the first point, there is a risk when not taking the quiet introverts into consideration when taking decisions. That said, listening to them requires an extra effort, and going the extra mile in order to give them time and space so they can digest the information and express their thoughts. This was very easy for me to see when playing.

For introverts, it is easy to feel overwhelmed and not listened to as well. As has already been said, we live in a world that favors the loud people, after all. Some techniques to consider in order to include introverts in the decision making process is having agendas for the meetings, clarify roles and responsibilities or asking them directly for their opinion instead of expecting them to talk by themselves.

7 – Chaos will always be present

In the context of the game, and plenty of times in life as well, chaos is unavoidable.

The general consensus seems to point that uncertainty and the randomization of the common processes tend to make us favor emotional responses rather than rational responses.

It becomes then very easy to stop taking “facts and logic” into consideration and just act based on emotion. This idea can as well be easily exploited by people that is savvy enough throughout the process of deception. Most of the time, in the game, the people that were trying to be rational and use logic were not considered so much inside of the game as those who were just playing on emotions. Hence, plenty of bad decisions were made.

Leadership and the ability to listen to everyone become crucial at this point. The chance of making a good decision relies on the ability to remove emotion and stay analytical, which is just the opposite of what was happening in the game.