Why You Suck at Rock, Paper, Scissors

By Jamie Condliffe on at

There’s no better way to settle an argument than a round of Rock, Paper, Scissors. But while you might think you have fool-proof set of tactics, a new study reveals why many of us are so poor at the game.

Fundamentally Rock, Paper, Scissors is a game of pure chance. If you forget about the psychology of the game, the best tactic would be choose to rock, paper, or scissors randomly, but equally often. But psychology does enter into the game, and a new study published in Scientific Reports reveals how human emotion can lead you to defeat.

The researchers, from University of Sussex in the UK and Ryerson University in Canada, had people play a computerised opponent which took a purely random approach to the game. But the team found that players didn’t take a random approach at all. They found that human players seem to fall into a trap where they continue to play using the same item if they win, but switch if they draw or lose. It seems that people ‘downgrade’ their item (i.e. they switch from, say, Rock to Scissors) if they lose but ‘upgrade’ (from Rock to Paper) if they draw.

As the researchers note, the “data reveal the strategic vulnerability of individuals following the experience of negative rather than positive outcome.” In other words, the reason you suck as Rock, Paper, Scissors is because you’re human and losses cause you to rethink your strategies — often badly — in the heat of the moment.

It’s easy enough to try and implement the results for yourself next time you play, though:

  • 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.

Whether it will work or not? That depends on how rational your opponent is. Good luck! [Scientific Reports via Discover]