It’s believed that any dispute, big or small, can be settled through a game of rock-paper-scissors.
It’s simple, really. Like flipping a coin or drawing straws, rock-paper-scissors (otherwise known as RPS) is a fair decision-making method between various parties. There’s equal footing since everyone has the same, equally random chance of winning.
Or is it?
The $20 Million Auction Dilemma
In 2005, Takashi Hashiyama was in a bind. As CEO of the Japanese television manufacturer Maspro Denkoh, he decided to auction off the corporation’s collection of Impressionist paintings, including works by Cézanne, Picasso, and van Gogh.
Hashiyama contacted the two premier auction houses, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, for proposals. Although both auction houses provided extensive plans on how they would market the collection and maximize profits, Hashiyama still couldn’t pick. Finally, he asked the two houses to make a decision using rock-paper-scissors.
Now that the two auction houses were faced with this challenge, they had one weekend to pick their weapon. Kanae Ishibashi, president of Christie’s in Japan, spent the weekend researching the game before she consulted the 11-year-old twin daughters of Nicholas Maclean, the director of their Impressionist and Modern Art Department.
The two girls were the perfect experts, as they played the game almost every day at school. Based on their experience, they suggested “scissors” based on the rationale that everyone expected Christie’s to go for “rock”.
Sotheby’s, on the other hand, took a very different method. As Blake Koh, a specialist in Impressionist and modern art at Sotheby’s, said, “There was some discussion, but this is a game of chance, so we didn’t really give it that much thought. We had no strategy in mind.”
On tournament day, Christie’s went with “scissors”, beating Sotheby’s “paper”. As a result, Christie’s won millions in commission from the $20 million auction.
The Evolution of Rock-Paper-Scissors
According to the book “Wuzazu” by Chinese Ming Dynasty writer Xie Xhaozhi, rock-paper-scissors’ origins go back to the Chinese Han dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD). The game was known as shoushiling, or “hand command”.
Eventually, the game made its way over to Japan, where it became known as sansumi-ken, or literally “three way deadlock.” By the early 20th century, RPS had spread to the west due to contact with Japan. A reader wrote in to The Times in 1924 in Britain about how she witnessed such a game being played in Japan. Although some explanation was needed, the game quickly became popular with the British public.
Later, magazines and newspapers elsewhere caught on to the game. In the 1933 edition of Compton’s Pictured Encyclopedia, RPS was described as a common way to settle disputes between children in Japan, and perhaps a good practice for American children too.
Over time, other weapons and variations of the game came into use:
- In Japan: a supernatural fox known as kitsune beats the village head, village head beats the hunter, hunter beats the kitsune.
- In Japan (again): village chief beats the tiger, tiger beats the village chief’s mother, chief’s mother beats the chief.
- Malaysia: stone beats bird, bird beats water by drinking it, and water beats stone because the stone sinks in water.
- Indonesia: elephant beats man, man beats earwig, earwig beats the elephant by crawling up his trunk and eating his brain.
Today, RPS has morphed into a competitive sport of sorts with tournaments around the world. Championships get broadcast on sports networks, and prize winnings can reach $50,000.
RPS is popular globally amongst both adults and children and is one of the few sansumi-ken games to make it to modern audiences. Perhaps its appeal lies in the fact that it’s easy to learn and understand.
The Psychology Behind a Simple Game
I had first discovered the complexity behind rock-paper-scissors at a group lunch. One of the people sitting at the table was passionate about RPS. In fact, he loved the game so much that he happened to bring along his guidebook.
“Can I see it?” I asked.
Gladly, he passed it over. I glanced at the cover, turned it over, and then casually flipped through it. “Isn’t rock-paper-scissors just a game of chance?” I asked nonchalantly.
“Uh oh,” someone sitting nearby said.
The owner of the book said nothing as he glared at me.
Since then, I’ve learned that RPS isn’t simply a game of chance. There are strategies involved. Strategies, which if used correctly, can lead to greater wins in the long run.
Here are a few:
1. Beginners often choose to open with rock because it’s perceived as a strong move. If you’re playing against a beginner, paper is a good first move since it beats rock.
2. Expert players know that rock is too obvious, so they’ll likely choose a different move of either paper or scissors. A good first move against an expert is scissors. At worse, you’ll tie if the expert goes with scissors.
3. Winners repeat what helped them win. If they played rock and you chose scissors, go for paper in the next round.
4. Losers choose a different move from what made them lose. So if the person lost with rock because you played paper, the player will likely choose paper (the next action in the RPS sequence) in the following round. The best strategy for you is to go with scissors.
The interesting thing about RPS is that it’s perceived as simple, or even easy, yet there’s a high degree of complexity to it. There’s a deep level of psychology involved to RPS – one that isn’t obvious at first glance. If you’re a novice, you don’t realize what you don’t know until you become more experienced in the game.
Lessons on the Invisibility of Success
The interesting thing about success is that most of it is invisible. No one sees the rejection letters, the hours of training, or the turmoil involved. People only see the most obvious parts and make assumptions based on that.
But assumptions are often wrong.
We assume based on our own experiences, or we shape our assumptions to improve our sense of self. These assumptions affect and even hinder our chances at success. Given this, here are some lessons from the invisibility of success:
1. Everyone struggles, but you don’t see it.
The good news is that you can apply this knowledge to your own situation. Whenever you struggle in an endeavor, know that everyone struggles, even when it doesn’t look like it. Whenever you read up on someone, you only see the successes, the highs, the achievements.
Like playing an instrument, people who are skilled in an area make something intensely difficult look easy. You don’t see the hardships, mistakes, and sacrifices involved in getting to that stage. You don’t see the number of people who have dropped off and quit at each stage along the way.
It means you should expect something to be hard. Expect those moments when you feel like giving up. Expect those times when you reach a roadblock. Because everyone, no matter who they are, faces those critical points where they must decide what to do next.
2. There is more than one way to succeed.
Despite your best efforts, you didn’t get what you wanted. You tried at something, and no matter what you did, the results were far from ideal. When we’re so focused on attaining that one thing that we want, it feels like there isn’t anything else left.
However, there’s more than one approach to success. In nature, there’s a funny little animal called the common side-blotched lizard which illustrates exactly that through its mating strategy, which is similar to RPS.
Here’s how it works: there are three different morphs of male common side-blotched lizards. They each have a strategy in competing for mates where one type beats a second type, but is outperformed by the third type:
- The “ultradominant” orange-throated male lizards have multiple female lizards in their territory and are able to steal mates from the blue-throated males, but are susceptible to having mates stolen from the yellow-throated males.
- The “dominant” blue-throated males have only one female lizard, so they are better able to catch yellow-throated males in their territory, but are susceptible to having the mate taken by the orange-throated males.
- The “sneaker” yellow-throated males mimic female lizard mannerisms to enter the territory of the first two, making it easy to enter the orange-throated’s territory, but are likely to be caught by the blue-throated males.
In a nutshell, orange beats blue, blue beats yellow, and yellow beats orange. So what do colorful lizards have to do with you? It means that there is more than one way to succeed in an endeavor.
Sometimes you need to change up your strategy. Or maybe you need to change the area that you focus on. Just because you don’t like running on the treadmill doesn’t mean you can’t go hiking instead. Just because you got rejected from medical school doesn’t mean you can’t open up an ice cream shop instead.
3. External forces play a large role in our behavior.
Subconsciously, we’re primed to behave in certain ways in response to environmental stimuli. If someone does something, we react to that person in ways which we might not even be aware of.
Priming is often used by RPS players to lead an opponent towards choosing a particular move. For instance, you can subtly mention scissors in a conversation to your opponent, or make the scissors gesture when explaining the game beforehand. Doing so will influence your opponent to think of scissors and more likely to throw that down as a weapon.
In anything we do, it’s automatic for us to look to our environment for cues. We look to our peers for reference on what’s normal and what’s not. If we do something against the grain, we feel uncomfortable and pressured to conform.
Your environment affects your level of success. So if you want to increase your chances of succeeding in a goal, immerse yourself with people and places that will point you in the right direction.
Success Has Many Layers
Everyone celebrates success.
We cheer for the winners, the top performers, the trophy holders. We remember them at their best, when they’re at the pinnacle of their achievements.
However, like the rock-paper-scissors game, we underestimate the layers of complexity beneath the surface. We forget that underneath are years of toiling, struggle, and the hardships necessary to get to that point. And so, when it’s our turn, we don’t understand how difficult it is.
But it also means that you are more capable than you think. You can do more than you imagined if you respect the discipline and difficulties involved. Once you do, you know that an achievement worth celebrating doesn’t come easy – yet to everyone else, they only see the tip of the iceberg.
Book referenced: The Official Rock Paper Scissors Strategy Guide by Douglas Walker