Carrying the Responsibility Bias for the Team

Jonas Salk, the self-described creator of the polio vaccine, would be a terrible League of Legends teammate. Not just because he died in 1995, but also because he would probably constantly complain about his team and claim that he was having to carry them to every victory.

In his excellent book Give and Take1 psychologist Adam Grant writes about how Salk epitomizes a particularly annoying cognitive bias that has caused many gamers to roll their eyes whenever someone claims to have carried the team and to have done all the work. In the 1940s and 1950s the polio virus was a terror. In 1952, 57,000 cases were reported in the United States alone, causing 3,000 deaths and 20,000 cases of paralysis.2 Panic swept the public as children were kept from school and swimming pools were shut down for fear of contracting the disease.3 My own uncle had the disease as an infant and it left his entire right arm gnarled and useless for the rest of his life.

“We only lost that match because Heimerdinger fed Katarina and I couldn’t 1v9 on yasuo.”

(Thanks to “Riztro” for the LoLingo.)

Fortunately in that same year of the polio epidemic, development of an effective vaccine was being completed in Jonas Salk’s lab at the university of Pittsburgh. The vaccine was also the product of work done by dozens of people other than Salk, including six key researchers in Salk’s own lab –Byron Bennett, Percival Bazeley, L. James Lewis, Julius Younger, Elsie Ward, and Francis Yurochko.4 Not only that, but the testing and distribution of the vaccine was done by hundreds of thousands of volunteers and the March of Dimes charity.

Yet despite this, in 1955 Salk held a massive press conference where he took full credit for the polio vaccine and did not credit a single one of his coworkers, including (or rather not including) his six coworkers from the lab. Those collaborators left the press conference angry and hurt to the point of tears. The snub cost Salk his reputation in many ways. According to Grant it may have cost Salk a Nobel Prize and admission to the prestigious National Academy of Sciences –the last of which is an honor those 6 NPCs eventually earned for subsequent work.

I think many of us have seen this kind of behavior on a much smaller and thankfully much less consequential scale while playing multiplayer video games. We see teammates in DOTA2 or League of Legends who claim to have been solely responsible for the team’s victory. There’s even a term for it: to carry the team. Just the other day I was playing Overwatch and at the end of the match someone wrote in text chat that “FYI, we lost because our Roadhog sucks.” This despite the fact that I, the Roadhog player in question, had 4 gold medals for the most kills, most objective time, most objective kills, and perhaps most amazingly most healing done.

“We lost because our Roadhog sucks.”

As Adam Grant writes about Jonas Salk, one cause of these behaviors is what’s called the responsibility bias. It’s not Grant’s invention, but rather a well documented psychological phenomenon describing how we tend to exaggerate our own contributions to something and undervalue the contributions of others. What’s more, we tend to make internal attributions for our success (such as our drive, our skill, or our effort) and not make external attributions (luck, confluence of opportunities, lack of competition). We are biased towards doing this because we have a need to protect our self image.

In addition to wanting to protect our self-esteem and ego, another reason for the responsibility bias is that we simply have more information available to us about our own performance than we have on the performance of others. We know what we did because we were there when we did it. Other people, not necessarily. That Overwatch player who complained about my Roadhog play hardly ever saw the game from my perspective and had limited information about my play. He may have only been spectating me when I flubbed a shot or noticed me on the battlefield when I did something stupid.

Game designers can counteract the illusions and misjudgments created by the responsibility bias by sharing data on performance at the end of a match and taking subjectivity out of the equation.5 But such cognitive biases are strong and well entrenched, so sometimes you’re just going to have to put up with the whiner who thinks he carried everyone.

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Footnotes:

1. Grant, A. M. (2014). Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success. New York: Penguin.
2. Ibid., pg 79.
3. A misconception about how the virus is spread, as it turns out.
4. These are named NPCs, so you know they’re important.
5. To that point, the person complaining about my Overwatch play did so in a game mode where such after match information isn’t shared with other players.

2 thoughts on “Carrying the Responsibility Bias for the Team

  1. It looks like this is a topic that is becoming more obvious in the MOBA world. I quit playing League a few months ago because the constant harassment by my own team was getting discouraging.

    Perhaps it’s why Riot has decided to add even more information about the things that are hard-to-see, as you noted has been emphasized in Overwatch (http://na.leagueoflegends.com/en/featured/midseason-2017#team-contributions). It’s nice to see efforts being made to “counteract illusions and misjudgments”

  2. Nice article. It makes me wonder though, would it be useful to capitalize on the bias effect and push the needle even further to create dramatic tension? For instance, have missed shots and flubbed maneuvers shown to the other team after they were defeated. Would they focus harder on the next round to win or would they be exasperated that they could lose to a “bunch of clowns”. This replay information of the after action report is quite useful for influencing the players and maybe an audience.

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