Be Skeptical of the Obvious

Everyone in the village is terrified, including you. There is a werewolf on the loose, and every night another person is murdered. As a result, a hunting party is assembled to find and kill the werewolf. Every adult in the village is interrogated. 

Who could it be? One of your friendsSomeone in your own family? You must remember…a werewolf walks among us as a human during the day, only making the transformation into a bloodthirsty beast at night. Could the werewolf be…you? 

This is the premise of a game called Mafia, created in 1987 by a Russian psychology student named Dimitry Davidoff. He developed the game as an experiment to prove that an uninformed majority (villagers) will often lose against an informed minority (werewolf) despite the widespread belief that there is “strength in numbers”. 

After introducing the game to the Psychology Department at Moscow State University, it quickly spread to classrooms, dorms, and summer camps as a wildly popular party game because it is best played with at least 10 people. 

At the beginning of the game, each person picks a card that secretly assigns them the role of either one of two werewolves or one of many villagers. At “night” the two werewolves decide which villager (with eyes closed) to kill. During the “day,” the villagers open their eyes and must decide which villager to eliminate as a possible werewolf. 

While it is a generally accepted rule that a majority will overcome/overrule a minority, Davidoff’s experimental game aimed to prove that the opposite could be true by introducing one pivotal element – information. 

In the game, the two werewolves know they are the werewolves and, therefore, they know the rest are villagers. But the villagers don’t know who is a villager and who is a werewolf. Thus, it is an “informed minority” against an “uninformed majority”. 

So, which group do you think wins the game most often, villagers or werewolves? While most would assume the villagers, it is almost always the werewolves. The irony is that this runs contrary to what most people assume is true – that there is typically strength in numbers. 

In many areas, including business, bigger is not necessarily better. For example, in my industry, real estate firms are commonly compared (and judged) by the number of agents they have instead of how effective their agents are at selling homes, even though that is why real estate firms exist. Firms tend to focus on recruiting agents over helping the agents they have be better at selling homes. (I am a well-known critic of this “more agents” priority.

The result? Now I’m going to boast – a recent Phoenix metro study of over 10,000 MLS home sales showed that, on average, the 72SOLD member agents at Hague Partners (with about 300 agents compared to many competitors with 1000 to 10,000+ agents) sold homes considerably faster and at 7.8% higher average prices than their competitors. In other words, bigger real estate firms aren’t better real estate firms. 

Another illustration of “bigger is not better” occurs in the military, with dramatic examples going all the way back to the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BC. In that famous battle, a small Greek force held off a massive Persian army for three days due to the tactical brilliance of King Leonidas of Sparta, the triumph of information and strategy over size and force. This legendary battle is often used in military training to illustrate how to defeat an “overwhelming majority” with a more “informed minority”. 

Strength in numbers? Of course, sometimes. But not always. Often there is more strength in information and superior strategy. 

Are two heads better than one? Maybe. But not always. Sometimes two heads lead to confusion, delays, and absence of direction – when one smart, informed head will result in decisive action, rapid analysis, and quick pivots when appropriate. 

What I’m trying to say is don’t so easily fall for the obvious. The company that’s larger may not be better. The football team with bigger players may not be the winner. The politician who advertises more, or criticizes opponents more, may not be our best choice. 

It’s smart (and easy) to be skeptical of the unobvious. It’s smarter (and harder) to be skeptical of the obvious.