In simple dyadic games such as rock, paper, scissors (RPS), people exhibit peculiar sequential dependencies across repeated interactions with a stable opponent. These regularities seem to arise from a mutually adversarial process of trying to outwit their opponent. What underlies this process, and what are its limits? Here, we offer a novel framework for formally describing and quantifying human adversarial reasoning in the rock, paper, scissors game. We first show that this framework enables a precise characterization of the complexity of patterned behaviors that people exhibit themselves, and appear to exploit in others. This combination allows for a quantitative understanding of human opponent modeling abilities. We apply these tools to an experiment in which people played 300 rounds of RPS in stable dyads. We find that although people exhibit very complex move dependencies, they cannot exploit these dependencies in their opponents, indicating a fundamental limitation in people’s capacity for adversarial reasoning. Taken together, the results presented here show how the rock, paper, scissors game allows for precise formalization of human adaptive reasoning abilities.
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