The science of rock, paper, scissors

Ben Dyson in the Department of Psychology shares what we can learn about decision making from simple games in the fourth Science Connects webinar.

Andrew Lyle - 28 July 2020

It’s a tried-and-tested way to resolve a stalemate. Not sure which of two restaurants to order food from? Need to decide which team goes first? Play a quick game of rock, paper, scissors. But the simple game can also teach us about human decision-making, as Associate Professor Ben Dyson explains in a new Science Connects webinar.

“On the one hand, the game appears quite simple and most people know a version of it,” said Dyson, in the University of Alberta’s Department of Psychology. “On the other hand, the strategies and decisions made during the game can be very complex. Because the game can be played over and over again, it helps us to highlight the dynamic nature of behaviour and how the feedback we have received in the past influences how we act in the future.”

While there are only three options available to players in the game—and a purely random choice should result in a one-third chance of winning—we typically do not pick from those three options with equal frequency, explained Dyson. 

“Often when we play games we are thinking about two things, maximizing our gains and minimizing our losses,” said Dyson. “And it turns out that in this instance the only way to guarantee that you will avoid being beaten—to minimize our losses—is to play randomly.”

But instead, our choices often manifest in a win-stay dynamic, where players tend to stick with a strategy if it results in a win, and a lose-shift approach, where they change actions following a failure.

“The experience of success and failure appears to have distinct neurological and cognitive consequences,” said Dyson. And while rock, paper, scissors is a simple game, this psychology behind our decision-making and how we learn from failure can be applied to a variety of situations—from gambling to education.

“To get good at something, we need to experience failure more often than we experience success, especially during the earlier stages of our learning. How we deal with and ultimately overcome failure seems to be a key feature in determining decision-making quality in lots of different domains.”

If you couldn’t make it to the live webinar, watch the full recording to hear from Dyson. And check out recordings of all our Science Connects webinars online.

Visit our calendar to find information on similar events, including live talks and webinars, or check out the Office of Alumni Relations’ On Demand offerings. 

Want to learn more about the Canadian Arctic, mountains, and other science topics? We also offer many free Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) to keep you learning and engaged, like Astro 101, Bugs 101, Dino 101, and Mountains 101. For information on how these courses align with Alberta’s K-12 curriculum, please see this useful guide.