Monday, November 5, 2012

Outwit, Outplay, Outcare?

My favorite class this semester is, hands-down, Intro to Psychology.  It's partly because I never have homework in that class and partly because Skiing & Snowboarding simply hasn't started yet.  But I'm also genuinely fascinated by everything I'm learning.  Today, we started talking about Social Psychology.  What do we think of one another?  How much do we let others influence the decisions we make?  How much do we trust each other?  Why do we follow rules and how do we treat those who break them?  We branched into morality in cooperative societies versus competitive ones, and I started thinking about Survivor.

image from
Behind those midriffs is a lot of serious psychology, I promise.
In fact, I would say that it's these questions of trust and morality and influence--and not tropical beaches and girls in bikinis--that are the reason why the reality show is still on the air after more than 20 seasons, and why so many other reality-TV competitions have been patterned after it.  It's brilliant, both in concept and implementation.

The show has grown and morphed over the years (also a key ingredient if you are to survive in entertainment), but the central formula has always been the same:  Take about a dozen and a half people out of this mostly-cooperative society we live in, and place them in a highly competitive one, where conventional standards are effectively defenestrated.  A society is created in which people aren't punished for behaving dishonestly.  In fact, such behavior is encouraged as a means of winning the game.

Hidden immunity idols, the occasional opportunity to betray your entire "tribe" or team to benefit yourself, and the ultimate truth that there can only be one winner demand that the game is played with an individualist mind.  People are reduced to the very bottom rung on Kohlberg's moral ladder:  How do I avoid negative consequences, and what's in it for me?

This is also the reason that people who come into the game sitting on the top rungs of that ladder, thinking in terms of what is truly and universally "right" or "wrong," or, more specifically, "I'm going to prove that the game of Survivor can be played with integrity," have doomed themselves before their feet ever touch the sand.  For that level of morality to work, you need a society that's cooperative, one that looks down on those who "play dirty" as it were, simply because it's "wrong."

But Survivor doesn't offer a sense of moral fulfillment as its grand prize.  It offers a million dollar check.  And we, as the viewers sitting comfortably in our living rooms, love to watch people deteriorate into animals.  Of course, the significant lack of any real clothing certainly doesn't hurt.


  1. Good blog Raz. Your comments about Survivor and degenerating morality reminds me of Lord of the Flies, my favorite character of which is the kid they nicknamed "Piggy." In the end, this bunch of marooned kids lost their civility and formed their own pecking order and formed their own society. Poor "Piggy" was picked on and then murdered.

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