'Survivor' psychology is subject of a class

Conflict: The hot show of the summer is seen as a window into human behavior.

September 05, 2000|By Randy Dotinga | Randy Dotinga,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

This fall, college students in Massachusetts will be spending time with the usual suspects from the summer of "Survivor": Rich, Kelly, Rudy, Susan and the 12 other visitors to a now-famous island called Pulau Tiga.

But the students won't be watching repeats of the hit TV show for fun. It will be homework, part of a professor's quest to explore the human mind.

"Survivor" is a bonanza of material about how people interact and make decisions in times of conflict, according to Tom Boone, a professor of psychology at Assumption College in Worcester, Mass.

"You can do it all with this little piece of video," he says. "$'Survivor' stresses the importance of social psychology. This was not won by the physically fittest person. It was ultimately much more of a social-psychological outcome."

"Survivor," of course, was the summer's must-see pop culture event. Show producers stranded 16 people on a tropical island south of Vietnam where they faced a variety of physical obstacles.

But the real challenges were mental. Each week the castaways voted one of their own off the island until they were down to two. Then a jury of seven chose the winner of $1 million.

At first, the castaways voted off their counterparts who were lazy, annoying or ill-equipped to handle island life. But over time, Boone says, other dynamics came into play.

What goes on in their minds?

Boone studies social dilemma theory, which examines why people choose to cooperate with each other. "It's really easy to explain aggression: It gets you what you want," he says. "It's hard to explain cooperation."

Boone cites a rock concert or sporting event as an example. "Inevitably, someone decides they want a better view, and they stand up. The outcome for that individual is better, but the problem is that if everyone does that, the collective outcome is worse," he says.

The job of social psychologists is to study what goes through the minds of those who make decisions in such cases, Boone says.

Why do some people always look out for number one, while others are more generous to others?

"People aren't always 100 percent rational. They adopt rules of thumb that take complex matters and make them much more simple, and then use these rules to guide their choices," he says.

Boone helped create a card game called "Trump" to analyze how people make decisions about cooperation. The game attempts to replicate the questions raised in the classic "Prisoner's Dilemma."

In the hypothetical dilemma, Boone says, two prisoners are interrogated separately and given a choice. If both confess, each gets five years in prison. If both insist on their innocence, they'll each get two years on minor charges. If one gives up the other, the accuser will be released and the other will get 10 years.

When a pair of subjects repeats the dilemma over and over again, they each learn the other person's strategies and try to adapt by playing along or rebelling.

Similar dynamics were at work on "Survivor," where some castaways joined alliances while others kept their own counsel and ultimately were voted out, Boone said.

One contestant, a neurologist named Sean, initially chose a strategy of voting people out in alphabetical order. But four castaways used this to their advantage by secretly allying with the oblivious Sean and overpowering the competition.

"What Sean didn't realize is that by being pacifist, he allowed the wolves into the fold," Boone says.

The show also reveals how people use visual cues to decide whether to trust others, he says.

In general, race and sex are big factors in decision-making, but "attractiveness is much bigger," he says. "The people who are cute and fuzzy have a much better life because people respond to them better."

The politics of "Survivor" have fascinated other experts. Gene Ondrusek, a San Diego psychologist who traveled to the island to counsel the castaways, says colleagues are interested in using the show as the basis for research.

"It's the sort of social psychological experiment that you couldn't create in a clinical setting," he says.

Chris Crandall, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Kansas, says anyone who studies "Survivor" must realize that it is not truly a "reality show."

"In every case, the people who are on these shows know they are going to return to a life that is more normal. People in their everyday social lives don't have that relief."

Even so, he says, "they're still people and use the rules of people to negotiate the situation."

Boone says he will make sure that students think about the staged nature of the show. But he added that television is an excellent resource for the study of human behavior.

"Any social psychologist who's not hooked into popular culture is missing the boat, in my opinion," he says.

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