10 Psychological Tactics Employed in Mafia

10 Psychological Tactics Employed in Mafia

The game of mafia was reportedly begun by a psychology department to help accentuate various methods of identifying visual and non-verbal cues often subconsciously conveyed through body language. So in online or forum mafia one looks for cues of language, grammar, and visual posting tells both for villagers and mafia. Some of these can be purposefully engaged, while others are often again subconsciously conveyed by players of either team.

Now, some purposeful psychology tactics may walk a fine line toward communication absuses, so when using them in gaming it is advised to tread softly with sensitivity to any genuine harm.

1) Projection
A very popular psychological tactic in mafia is to project player strengths or weaknesses from one target to another. As a defensive stratagem it usually involves denying one’s own impulses or qualities (both positive and negative) while attributing them to others.

The mafia may use projection as a way to deflect from their own shortcomings, putting an emphasis or blame on another player and highlighting (or making up) a negative aspect of another player’s behaviour. Or even projecting their own strength onto another player as a way of deflecting their own ability ‘in favour’ of some other player being a much more gifted mafia player.

But villagers may make use of this too, for the sake of the town team. It’s common, for example, in games where there may be a town cop/seer for other town players to adopt a pretence of the role and viewing claims, to ‘protect’ the real cop through distraction. It works for other power roles as well, and sometimes even claiming to be vanilla town right off can be a distraction to opposing players.

2) Gaslighting vs Positive Reality Support.
Gaslighting is a manipulation technique used to deny a person’s reality in order to make them doubt their own mind, intuition, and perception of events. The term comes from a play/movie where a husband dismisses as merely imagined his wife’s notice of the gas lights being dimmed, while he indeed inadvertently dimmed the lights by using gas lights elsewhere to search for jewels of a woman he has murdered. Gaslighting is often contrasted to the positive support of player ‘realities’, but that support can also be feigned and twisted to mafia advantage. In fact the two are often commingled so that it becomes confusing to separate harm from an appearance of support – a passive-aggressive chipping away of player confidences, tricking them into being unsure of anything.

Gaslighting too may take various forms.
a) Withholding / withdrawal / appeal to emotion.
This technique feigns a lack of understanding, with such posts as, “I’m not going to stay and listen to this garbage”, “You’re trying to confuse me”; “Are you trying to get me to rage-quit?”. It allows a player to throw a bit of a fit and stomp off.
b) Denial and/or Forgetfullness.
Akin to withdrawal, rather than holding back needed information, this technique denies or ‘forgets’ that factual events even happened. “What are you talking about?”; “You’re making that up”; “That was all just in your head”.
c) Countering.
We often see a countering of role claims, but this countering is where a player calls into question another player’s remembrance and presentation of past events. Again, an altering of what is ‘real’. “Pfft! You thought that last time and were sooo wrong!”; “You obviously never believed in me”; “Always with the negative waves – you see everything in the most negative way”.
d) Trivialising, Condescending, and Patronising.
This involves making light of a player’s contributions or insights, to intimidate them into losing confidence. “LOL, you’re just not very good at this, are you?”. Often this is conveyed as mere banter or joking, but always negative, and usually involving ad hominem attacks on a player, rather than directly on a player’s arguments or insights.
e) Blocking and Diverting.
This technique seeks to control the narrative, usually by changing the subject back to the victim’s own thoughts. We’ll discuss changing the subject again next, but here the purpose is to block or divert from a true subject with the purpose of driving the target bonkers. “Quit having a meltdown”; “Where did that crazy idea come from?”; “That’s just more of the same garbage you’ve been spewing”.

Again, we’ve focused mostly on the negative aspects of gaslighting used by the mafia or wolf team, but these techniques can also be effectively engaged by villagers to the benefit of town, sometimes deflecting wolfish purpose or aimed at town’s own, often as some weird meta-bonding ritual from game to game. Town players aren’t intent to drive other villagers crazy, of course, but neither ought they to blurt out town power roles or always everything they know. They may conveniently ‘forget’ facts or certain game mechanics hoping to trip-up a wolf. Just as mafia may stage fights within their ranks or bus a teammate, town too may fake a wagon on one they consider town to see who bites, faking a skewed view of reality. They may actually trivialise a fellow townie’s contributions in order to strong-arm a more unified town front. Or, they may purposefully divert a conversation they consider to be derailing town logic or efficiency.

3) Changing the Subject.
“That may be fine, but what I want to know is…” We just touched on one purpose of diversion, but there are many. Generally, mafia may want to change the subject anytime they see town congealing their focus or honing in on one of them. It can be a delicate dance though, as maybe any psychological tactic, for abruptly dropping one topic for another can be pretty obvious.

4) Frustrating conversations.
a) Spread-sheeting. Perhaps a better way of changing the subject is to attempt to do so with what would appear to be information helpful to town. Actually, I’ve seen this run the spectrum from absolute success to epic fail. Some overwhelm the conversation with facts, statistics, charts, or graphs. A degree of this can be needed for either team, though some sites have sought to minimise this as a gaming tactic, through automated factual reference – vote counts, player post isolation, game summaries, post count graphs, charting of player flips, claims, or game mechanic reveals, etc. But even automated services can be manipulated to frustrate conversational consistency or momentum. Overwhelming an opponent with procedural nuance and red-tape can put them off a coherence in thinking. Something like vote count analysis (VCA), for example, can be variously manipulated to highlight whatever a player may want to accentuate to their own ends, but with an air of purely factual presentation.
b) Condensing Time. Forcing time constraints is another way a natural flow of conversation can be frustrated. Demanding an immediate response can either trap a mafioso or frustrate a villager into making a decision of which they’re not entirely comfortable or ready to make. On the other hand, my personal experience has been that end of day (EOD) Chinese-fire-drills (cfd) have more often than not led to Town success.
c) Fluff. And my personal signature move is nonsensical or flavour conversations, aka “fluff”. This often frustrates logic players to no end. But as a mafia tactic it again is pretty obvious. So obvious in fact that I almost exclusively use it as a town tactic. I’ve actually caught a ton of scum this way, especially when I can get a known logic player to play along, or break them into a mafia slip. Even for the more fluffy players, mafia often trip themselves up in the more relaxed atmosphere fluff can sometimes provide. It seem less common these days though for GMs to incorporate game flavour as an actual advantage for those familiar with the particulars, so one making it a conversational nuance needs to do so with care.
d) Noise. Fluff is just one type of game noise that can both frustrate town and confuse the mafia. Games with little conversation or very limited noise can be difficult for either team, making it both hard for mafia to hide in the shadows and for town to learn much of anything. A better strategy for both teams is psychological noise. Town often uses noise to hide crumbs of special information they may have acquired through power roles they don’t want exposed to the mafia team. Additionally, the more players talk or post the more the villagers have to work with in sorting the participants. But mafia often employ ‘useless’ conversation to frustrate town, disguising it as best they may as scum-hunting. Inflating matters like in-depth discussion of what info may be gained by lynching who, trying to nail down game mechanics with only limited information, or claiming that assumptions made by a townie are actual knowledge which only a mafia would know, create empty noise that plays into town paranoia and misconceptions.

5) Nitpicking & Moving the goal posts.
Town sometimes get stuck nitpicking, but nitpicking and moving the goal posts is almost exclusive to the mafia team. Mafia don’t ever want villagers to truly succeed, so they’ll increase their ‘expectations’ to ensure town failure. Once this has happened they can then justify their disappointment in a town player(s). It’s the mafia way of conveying that a perceived town player might never be townie enough to other townies.

6) Love-bombing and devaluation.
Some players term love-bombing as mafia pocketing of a town member. One way or other this is likely the most common psychological tactic. It isn’t always an over-the-top love-bomb, but subtlety matching or mirroring an opponent’s reads or concerns as tactical empathy to gain a player’s trust and blend into town. It can sometimes be more overt in games to which I’m accustomed, where the game incorporates a player-elected town mayor with an extra .5 voting strength as a tie-breaking mechanism. The investment in pocketing is usually cashed in at some point, sometimes often, but then the tables can turn, resulting in mafia devaluing the reads and concerns of the pocketed player, often labelling them as being sheepish or followy.

7) Tag-Teaming.
The mafia usually comprise a team, and this can be used to full advantage. Too often the mafia fail to coordinate as they should in their private communications. Working as a team can have great psychological impact. The public forms of triangulation and band-wagoning are discussed below, but the mafia can do great harm to town through private coordination. This doesn’t mean to publicly jump to the defence of a mafia team member in trouble, but rather privately coordinate a strategy of distraction or deflection.

8) Halftones of suspicions.
Most villagers start the game with a level of paranoia – some among them mean them harm. Mafia often seek to subtlety accentuate this to psychological advantage, either by casting suspicion on the greater number of players or oddly enough on no one at all. Rather than fully commit to, “This player is definitely mafia”, they may claim, “I have reason to hold this player as somewhat suspect, or even 3rd party, but I may be mistaken”, or, “This player has both townish and wolfish qualities”. It’s easier to later then deflect blame if publicly contributing to a townie lynch.

Now, villagers often catch themselves doing this as well, 'cause no one likes to be wrong in eliminating a teammate, but townies actively involved in scum-hunting will usually be more decisive in their construction of arguments toward eliminating a player. Wolves usually like to slink around the edges of visible confrontation.

9) Bussing.
The antithesis to halftone suspicion is full-on bussing of a teammate for town cred. The more a mafia ‘proves’ their commitment to town the less likely they’ll be suspected of being mafia. Some mafia pick ‘fake fights’ with a fellow team member early on, so that if either wind up revealed, the other may gain some advantage in having seemed against them. LOL, I’ve even seen mafia players wipe out their entire team trying to ride that wave to final victory.

10) Triangulation or Band-wagoning.
We spoke of pocketing a player earlier, and of controlling the narrative. Adding a third town player into the mix that agrees with a mafia player against another town player is another tactic often worth the investment necessary to pull it off. I’ve seen this used by successful mafia game after game, esp. with the logical fallacy of “poisoning the well”, bringing irrelevant adverse information to bear against a player with the intention to discredit them. Use of a third person or even a community bandwagon to either validate a mafia-initiated element or blame shame a townie can often change the psychological dynamic of the entire game toward favouring the mafia, or really, either team. Additionally, if done correctly, a mafia can actually get townies to actively do their work for them, especially if a pocketed townie is naturally aggressive. This can distance the mafia from the actual harm or chaos generated. Things like asking a pocketed player to help iso (isolate) the posts of another townie, or research something brought up by someone else, or really anything the mafia knows will cause distraction or generate misinformation, can get town players actively working for the mafia.

Town almost always coalesce to triangulation or a mob mentality as well, but hoping for a positive outcome for the village. This, of course, can be more difficult though, unless a game involves communicative roles like masons, siblings, neighbours, etc. But if the village can develop a town core of three or more, it can be quite effective toward rooting out scum.


Initially, I was reading this as psychological tactics that are employed by the scum team, and was thinking “wait, any alignments do this”.

Sometimes, tactics described here are unplanned behaviors. Figuring out the motivations behind the behaviors can be a lot of effort fun!