A New Study About Overly Nice People Has a Rude Awakening

December 23rd 2015

Betraying each other was a signature of Regina George and her gal-pal clique The Plastics in the 2005 film "Mean Girls." They gossiped, lied and stabbed each other in the back all while having a smile on their face. Although a fictional movie, the characters make a good case for anyone suspicious of people who are overly nice to each other.

Science is confirming why we might actually need to think twice about people who are just a little too nice. A new study published in Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics in Beijing found that people who are "excessively polite" were more likely to betray their peers than those that are less-polite, New York Magazine reports.

Turns out that one of the key signs of betrayal is politeness.

In an effort to understand betrayal, researchers studied the game of Diplomacy, a strategy game in which players act as countries in pre-World War I Europe and must form alliances to win. However, players do not have dice and there is no formal way to move things along. Instead, the only thing that players have at their disposal is their communication skills. As the game's title suggest they have to be "diplomatic" in order to form alliances and gather intelligence from each other. Players must enlist the support of others through "persuasiveness and cunning duplicity," according to the study.

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Researchers tried to see if they could foresee signs of betrayal based on players' language use. They did.

What researchers noticed was that players who were excessively polite in general were more likely to betray others. "In particular, imminent betrayal is signaled by sudden changes in the balance of conversational attributes such as positive sentiment, politeness, and structured discourse," according to the study's authors.

To illustrate this the study provided an example of an exchange between two players who were allied as the countries of Germany and Austria.

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!

As noted by the exclamation points, Austria is totally on board with Germany's plan! But immediately after this Austria suddenly invades Germany's territory.

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So what gives? According to Science News playing nice is a good strategy. No one expects anything and then at the perfect time, you can strike your opponent. Although betrayal is hard to explore and predict, a computer was able to predict when betrayal would happen 57 percent of the time during the game of Diplomacy. Now if only our hearts were that accurate.

While researchers found that it is possible for linguistic cues to indicate signs of betrayal it not these cues alone that predict betrayal according to Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, a computer scientist at Cornell University, who spoke with Science News' Rachel Ehrenberg.

"When I spoke to Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, he said that more important than the clues themselves is the shift in the balance of behavior in the relationship," Ehrenberg said. "Positive or negative sentiment of one player isn’t what matters, it’s the asymmetry of the behavior of the two people in the relationship. He likens the linguistic tells to body language: While you wouldn’t use it as a sole basis for decision-making, if you know how to interpret it, it might give you an advantage."

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