The Allure of Social Deduction Games

From Mafia to Among Us to Secret Hitler, social deduction games are all around us. But why are they so intriguing and how do they work? Read here to find out!

The Allure of Social Deduction Games

Cover Image Credit: Natikop (DeviantART)

What is Social Deduction

The word 'deduction' might bring to mind investigative mysteries and the infamous Sherlock Holmes stories. Deduction is the act of coming to a conclusion based on logical reasoning. Social deduction is best known as a category of board games and video games in which it seems 'deduction' sometimes goes out the window. These games are immensely popular, especially since COVID-19 affected the globe, and are based on the idea that there are two groups of players, one good and one bad. The good must try to deduce the identity of the 'bad' players as a team and eliminate them by exposing their evil identities.

Sound familiar? Maybe you are thinking about the mega-popular game that gained huge traction when the world went into lockdown in 2020: Among Us. It follows the same logic laid out above. Most members are innocent crewmembers that must try to identify the imposters through reasoning while the imposters must divert attention from themselves to survive and evade being sus(picious). But Among Us is far from the first of its kind.

Social deduction games have been popular for a long time and are largely traced back to Dimitry Davidoff, the creator of the game Mafia. Davidoff created the game in 1986 as a psychology student at Moscow University.1 The game works on the exact same principle; there is a group of innocent civilians that are being 'killed off' by a few mafia members at night.2 During the day, the players must discuss amongst themselves to decide who is part of the mafia and attempt to catch them before the next 'night’ while the mafia members, hidden amongst the group, must evade capture.

Mafia is primarily an in-person party game but there are also many online games that have gained popularity like Among Us and board games that have been converted to online games like Werewolf, Secret Hitler, and Coup.3 Whatever the format is, it seems that social deduction games are on the rise and a big part of these games is for players to figure out which one of their friends is a liar.

How Do Social Deduction Games Work

We all have that one friend who thinks they have the best lie-detector; you’ve probably heard them brag about it at all your game nights or even when they inevitably spoil the plot of mystery movies! But social deduction games have a lot more going on than just relying on your internal lie-detector, it relies on factors that you might not have thought about. A mathematical study on Mafia found that if the mafia members are the square root of all the players (e.g. 9 total members and 3 mafioso), both mafia members and villagers have an equal chance of winning.2

Even for our friends that have decent lie detectors, they may not get all the credit for figuring out who is the werewolf or mafioso because psychologist Simon Moore says that an outright lie, as compared to an exaggeration, causes a greater physiological response.1 This means your heart-rate, blood-pressure, and breathing will be more obviously elevated.1

Sorry friend, it might not be your skills that are detecting the lies, but just science! Lies may also be easier to spot because faking emotion is notoriously difficult according to psychologists.1 Even with these tactics, however, cognitive psychologists say that people’s ability to detect lies is only 4% better than guessing (with guessing having a 50% chance of accuracy and ‘lie detection’ having 54%).4

Research also suggests that lying takes time as reaction time is delayed for people that lie, even when they are told to evade suspicion.5 It’s even more interesting that we are so bad at detecting lies when we lie so much more than we think; one study found that 60% of people lied at least once during a 10-minute conversation!6

Why so Competitive?

These games raise a lot of questions. Why do you keep trying to murder your friend at night? Why did you say Red was the imposter even though you know they were fixing cables? And, why now? Why are games like Among Us so popular right now?

It seems that perhaps competition is what makes certain games enjoyable for us, because we are constantly challenged.7 This phenomenon has been studied in video games as researchers found that playing against an opponent, real or AI, creates a competitive and thus engaging environment for players.7 Competition is the fuel to our fire. We always want to be one-up-ing our peers.

A study which surveyed 275 students and faculty at the Harvard School of Public Health found that nearly half the respondents would rather earn a $50,000 annual salary if others would earn $25,000 over earning $100,000 if others would earn $200,000.8 We are so competitive that we would rather lose out on $75,000 a year rather than look less than our peers! So, it’s not difficult to understand why games bring out our competitiveness: we all want to prove that we are better than our peers by winning.

As for why we fake outrage and try to lie our way out; psychologists say it is because faking emotions is quite difficult so the next best thing is object, and lie, lie your way out.1

"It was what poker would be if you didn't play with a deck of cards, but bet solely on other people's bets. It shouldn't have worked, but it did" - Andrew Plotkin1

Plotkin is the creator of Werewolf, which started as a variant of the Mafia game. He seems to explain our questions quite well, we play on other people's bets. We go based on who we are playing with, how trustworthy we think they are, and maybe based on this popular colour chart to know who's sus and who's not.9

Source: AmongUsLaFlame. "Colour Stereotypes! (Based on what I have seen)." Reddit, Sept. 12, 2020,

The popularity of social deduction games is clear, they make us use our brain in a fun way and bring out our competitive (sometimes ugly) fighter spirit. With nothing to do except sit at home and watch the news, games like Among Us give us something else to think about and allow us the vital interaction we crave without the obligatory small talk we hate. Research in games is being done everyday and you can easily be a part of it! Check out some of the studies below to contribute to research on games to gain cash and rewards.


Connects the community with research. Honeybee is a web and mobile app to participate in research, discover yourself, and earn cash and rewards.


1.         Robertson M. Werewolf: How a parlour game became a tech phenomenon. Wired UK. Accessed June 3, 2021.

2.         Migdał P. A mathematical model of the Mafia game. ArXiv10091031 Phys. Published online March 12, 2013. Accessed June 3, 2021.

3.         mrixrt. Among Us | Psychology, History & Math of Social Deduction Games.; 2020. Accessed June 8, 2021.

4.         The Science of Why Your Friends Shot You From an Airlock | WIRED. Accessed June 8, 2021.

5.         Suchotzki K, Verschuere B, Van Bockstaele B, Ben-Shakhar G, Crombez G. Lying takes time: A meta-analysis on reaction time measures of deception. Psychol Bull. 2017;143(4):428-453. doi:10.1037/bul0000087

6.         UMass researcher finds most people lie in everyday conversation. EurekAlert! Accessed June 8, 2021.

7.         Vorderer P, Hartmann T, Klimmt C. Explaining the Enjoyment of Playing Video Games: The Role of Competition.; 2003. doi:10.1145/958720.958735

8.         J. Solnick S, Hemenway D. Is more always better?: A survey on positional concerns. J Econ Behav Organ. 1998;37(3):373-383. doi:10.1016/S0167-2681(98)00089-4

9.         r/AmongUs - Colour stereotypes! (based on what I have seen). reddit. Accessed June 8, 2021.