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BBC’s The Traitors: how unconscious biases can impact who you think is guilty

BBC’s The Traitors: how unconscious biases can impact who you think is guilty

This article contains spoilers for the first five episodes of season two of The Traitors.

Subterfuge, betrayal, murder and money abound in the BBC hit series The Traitor’s, now in it’s second season. It’s no surprise that it has become a huge hit.

The basic premise of the show is that you have “the faithful” and “the traitors”. The game hinges on everyone presenting themselves as a faithful, but with the knowledge that there will be at least one traitor among them.

If the faithful manage to identify all traitors then they will share the £120,000 jackpot. However, if by the end of the game there are any traitors left, they will steal the jackpot from the faithful.

Once a day there is a “round table” discussion where players discuss who they think may be a traitor and vote to banish someone. This is particularly important given that each night the traitors can “murder” a faithful, who does not return to the game the following day.

However, this process is unlikely to rely solely on logical reasoning or tactical scheming. Implicit biases will always rear their heads.

A cognitive bias is a change in judgement based on characteristics or traits. Sometimes people are aware of their biases, so psychologists refer to these as explicit. However, most of the time people are unaware, and we refer to such biases as implicit.

Looking back to season one of The Traitors, many contestants were sceptical of a player called Tom because he was a magician, a job that is designed to deceive people. This ultimately led to him being banished from the game, despite being one of the faithful. This would be an example of explicit bias because the contestants admitted they made their decision based on Tom’s job.

Another contestant called Maddy pursued a vendetta against fellow player Wilf. However, this never gained support from the rest of the group as it was only based on her getting a “bad vibe” from him, despite her being correct that Wilf was a traitor. This could be an example of implicit bias, as Wilf’s popularity with the group appeared to save him from being banished right until the final hurdle.

Implicit biases like these can influence us in everyday life and, by definition, we are not aware of it. Here’s how they may be influencing decision making in the latest season of TV’s ultimate game of deception.

Handsome traitors

At the round table, aspersions are cast, guilt apportioned and suspicions aired. Every trait, behaviour pattern and word uttered is unpicked as the group try to work out who might be one of the traitors among them. Research shows there are things about a person that might make people think they are more or less guilty.

Take 22-year-old Harry, a conventionally attractive white man. His looks are a fortunate trait for Harry, as attractive people are often judged as having more positive characteristics such as intelligence and kindness. This is sometimes referred to as a “halo effect”. It may have helped make him the perfect traitor – he has sailed through the first five episodes undetected.

By contrast, Ash, a 45-year-old Asian female who was less conventionally attractive, struggled to deflect accusations from the rest of the group and was recently banished. Members of “the faithful” have questioned Ash over her interest in people’s votes during the round table events.

Granted, Ash was a traitor and we only saw a snapshot of the day’s events but, looking at the group’s reasoning, it is unlikely that she asked anything that others hadn’t. They were all there to find traitors or to masquerade as faithfuls looking for traitors. Harry had probably asked similar questions.

However, implicit biases involving age, sex, ethnicity and attractiveness could all have contributed towards Harry’s safety and Ash’s undoing.

Popular traitors

In episode three, another traitor named Paul was voted the most popular member of the group. Popularity has long been associated with attribution bias, which is the tendency to explain a person’s behaviour by their character rather than based on events that have happened.

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Likewise, affinity bias
is the tendency to favour people who share similar interests and experiences with us (who we have an affinity with). So being a popular, favourable character has perhaps protected Paul to a certain extent.

In episode four, contestants Zack and Jaz questioned Paul due to his calm and collected demeanour, claiming that this may be indicative of a traitor – an explicit bias. Luckily for Paul, the implicit biases mentioned seemed to save him.

Quite often in The Traitors, once someone’s name comes up at the round table, it is very difficult for them to defend themselves and suspicion spreads through the group. We have seen this herd mentality when banishing faithfuls Sonja and Brian, and when the group piled on traitor Ash.

However, when it comes to Paul, accusations seem to fall on deaf ears, and another contestant has even defended him, stating: “100% I think Paul is a faithful. 100%.” So, it could be that the implicit attribution and affinity biases have saved Paul, for now at least.

Whether we like it or not, by definition we are unaware of numerous cognitive biases that can influence our decisions profoundly. Sometimes they can help us, as we saw with Harry and Paul, and sometimes they can go against us, like we saw with Ash. The Traitors is just a game, but it is probably worth bearing in mind that these biases also exist in the real world and influence our decisions every day.


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