In Mean Girls, Regina George and her crew are always smiling and dishing out compliments to people’s faces, while conniving and talking trash behind their backs. It might be fiction, but it turns out to be true that people who seem overly nice may not be as friendly when your back is turned.
A new study published in Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics in Beijing and reported in New York Magazine suggests that excessively polite people are more likely to betray their friends than marginally polite people.
In fact, it turns out that one of the key warning signs of betrayal is politeness.
Researchers rounded up players for Diplomacy, a strategy game in which players act as countries in pre-World War I Europe and must form alliances to win, in an effort to get a glimpse into what makes human beings betray each other. To me, it sounds like a boring Survivor with less nudity. Probably.
In Diplomacy, there are no dice or any formal ways to move the game forward, so the pace and structure is entirely determined by the level of communication between players. As suggested by the name of the game, people must be able to form alliances in order to gather intelligence from other players, and the study observed that it also required the ability to enlist the support of others through “persuasiveness and cunning duplicity.”
The bottom line is that the researchers observing the game could foresee betrayal based on the language use of the players.
According to the study’s authors:
“In particular, imminent betrayal is signaled by sudden changes in the balance of conversational attributes such as positive sentiment, politeness, and structured discourse.”
This exchange between two players illustrates their point:
Germany: Can I suggest you move your armies east and then I will support you? Then next year you move [there] and dismantle Turkey. I will deal with England and France, you take out Italy.
Austria: Sounds like a perfect plan! Happy to follow through. And—thank you Bruder!
So Austria is totally on board for this alliance, right? I mean, there are even exclamation points!
Not so much. Immediately after the exchange, Austria very rudely invaded Germany’s territory. It seems off, but, according to Science News, playing nice is good strategy. Your allies don’t see anything amiss, which gives you the element of surprise when it’s time to attack. Although betrayal is hard to explore and predict, during the game a computer was able to predict it 57 percent of the time.
If only there were a way to apply this to the online dating process. Here’s hoping!