A few key signs betray betrayal

woman holding knife behind her back

While people are often blind to imminent backstabbing, signs of its approach leak into conversations.


Whether it’s Katy Perry poaching dancers from once-BFF Taylor Swift or Clytemnestra orchestrating the murder of her husband Agamemnon, betrayal is a dark, persistent part of the human condition. Unlike garden-variety deception, betrayal happens in established relationships, destroying trust that has developed over time. It’s usually unexpected, and it yields a unique, often irreparable, wound. In fact, betrayers have a special place in hell, literarily: In Dante’s Inferno, they occupy the ninth and final circle; mere fraudsters dwell in the eighth. 

While most of us are familiar with betrayal, investigating it is really hard. (Consider all the complications of a study that asks people in trusted relationships to betray each other.) Case studies of real betrayals can provide insight after-the-fact, but without a time machine, finding studies that reveal big picture patterns about the lead-up to treachery are scarce.

“We all know betrayal exists,” says Cristian Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, a computer scientist at Cornell University who spends a lot of time thinking about what language reveals about relationships. “But finding relevant data is really hard.”

So when Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil heard about a Diplomacy, a strategy game rife with betrayal, he figured it might serve as a good proxy for real life treachery. And he was right: Studying the patterns of communication between the players revealed that betrayal is sometimes foreseeable. But like many relationships that collapse in betrayal, teasing out what goes wrong and who is at fault isn’t so easy.

Unlike Risk and other war games, Diplomacy is all about, well, diplomacy (John F. Kennedy and Henry Kissinger reportedly were fans). Set in Europe before World War I, the nations/players have to form alliances to win. But chance is removed from the equation; players don’t roll dice or take turns. There’s only diplomacy: a negotiation phase where players converse, form alliances and gather intelligence (these days, typically online), and a movement phase where everyone’s decisions are revealed and executed all at once. Betrayal is so integral to Diplomacy that, as noted on a “This American Life” episode, stabbing an ally in the back is referred to by the shorthand “stabbing.”

Danescu-Niculescu-Mizil, colleague and fan-of-the-game Jordan Boyd-Graber, and colleagues examined 249 games of Diplomacy with a total of 145,000 messages among players. When they used a computer program to compare exchanges between players whose relationships ended in betrayal with those whose relationships lasted, the computer discerned subtle signals of impending betrayal.

One harbinger was a shift in politeness. Players who were excessively polite in general were more likely to betray, and people who were suddenly more polite were more likely to become victims of betrayal, study coauthor and Cornell graduate student Vlad Niculae reportedJuly 29 at the Annual Meeting of the Association for Computational Linguistics in Beijing. Consider this exchange from one round:

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!

Austria’s next move was invading German territory. Bam! Betrayal.

An increase planning-related language by the soon-to-be victim also indicated impending betrayal, a signal that emerges a few rounds before the treachery ensues. And correspondence of soon-to-be betrayers had an uptick in positive sentiment in the lead-up to their breach.

Working from these linguistic cues, a computer program could peg future betrayal 57 percent of the time. That might not sound like much, but it was better than the accuracy of the human players, who never saw it coming. And remember that by definition, a betrayer conceals the intention to betray; the breach is unexpected (that whole trust thing). Given that inherent deceit, 57 percent isn’t so bad.

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.  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.

More work is needed to explore whether these patterns exist in real life. And while the research did reveal some patterns, it can’t say anything about cause and effect or who is at fault. Perhaps, for example, the extensive planning of the eventual victims came off as super bossy and frustrating to the eventual betrayer. After all, Clytemnestra’s betrayal of Agamemnon came after he killed their daughter Iphigenia. That kind of bad blood may be unforgivable. 

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