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Science Explains How to Win at Rock, Paper, Scissors

According to a new study, being less irrational will help you win at a game of rock, paper, scissors. We spoke to a professional player and the managing director of the World Rock Paper Scissors Society for more specific tips.
Photo by Amanda Worrall via Stocksy

A globe-spanning game with universal appeal, rock-paper-scissors (RPS) has been used to settle court disputes, decide million-dollar auctions, and, at least once, to dodge a ticket for underage drinking. Now, a newly released study, "Negative outcomes evoke cyclic irrational decisions in Rock, Paper, Scissors," says that in order to win RPS, humans should just stop acting irrationally.

But Douglas Walker, managing director of the World Rock Paper Scissors Society, feels a little bit differently. "Best of luck with humanity not being irrational," the administrator says over the phone from Canada. "Need we look any further than the political situation in your country right now to know that the world is not the most rationally functioning place?" He's right. This new investigation into RPS is just another in a long line of studies that prove humans are emotional beings and we make decisions as such.


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As the researchers on the RPS study note, "the data reveal the strategic vulnerability of individuals following the experience of negative rather than positive outcome." Basically, we're more likely to fuck up a game after we've already lost one. "These irrational decisions are driven by an emotional reaction to a negative outcome and leave people vulnerable to a smart opponent," researcher Dr. Ben Dyson told The Daily Mail.

According to the study, most people tend to repeat the choice (either rock, paper, or scissors) that wins for them until they finally lose with it. You also have a better chance of winning if you choose paper because, based on the trials, people pick rock the most.

While the study mentions an overrepresentation of rock, it doesn't actually break it down demographically. However, according to Walker, "younger, aggressive males favor rock extremely, and it happens much more [with them] than your average population." Women tend to prefer scissors, says Walker, "but not by as nearly as a big a margin as [that by which] men prefer rock."

These men are very likely to choose rock. Screengrab via YouTube

So how do you win a match? "The best way is to know your opponent," says Walker. "If you can size them up effectively, you've got a pretty good idea of what they're going to throw. Moreover, there's certainly a lot of gamesmanship—there's a lot of psychology that you can use to try and force a throw from your opponent."

Professional RPS player Jason Simmons agrees. "Influencing other players follows simple neuro-linguistic programming," Simmons—who is better known as Master Roshambollah—says. "Some players are more visual, others more verbal. An easy influence trick is to say the name of a throw just before the other person releases. Or, if they're more visual, you can flash the desired throw with your non-playing hand."

You could also go with a more passive strategy, as suggested by the study, by reading or predicting what the other player will do and responding to that. "Let's say a player just lost with rock. You know they're going to throw scissors or paper in their next game, so you throw scissors and you go for the tie or you go for the win," explains Simmons.

Or you can try the advice Walker gave me personally: "If you want to win a game, surprise a male, who is large and aggressive, and play paper. You'll probably have a close to 60, 65 percent chance of winning that opening throw."