Friday, May 18, 2007

Don't 'Lord' it over Survivor

Though I missed every episode this season (and for that matter the last 12 seasons), last Sunday I watched the Survivor finale—and it was surprisingly good. And not just because it was entertaining. I'm about to argue it's as valuable culturally as any science documentary or novel.

Snort in scorn if you will, but bear with me for a specific comparison. Take the novel Lord of the Flies, which has obvious parallels with the show and was in fact largely its inspiration. The author of this novel, William Golding, won a Nobel Prize largely because of it. You might consider this recognition that the book is among the best humanity has to offer. In contrast, many pundits use Survivor as an example of the worst humanity has to offer, classifying it as the lowest common denominator, as bad as a show can get, or as outright silly and stupid. Is Survivor obviously less valuable to society than Lord of the Flies?

It helps the comparison that the premises are so similar. In both cases, people are out of their usual element trapped in a more primitive environment, and we're intrigued. What will happen? And right away, Survivor has a straightforward advantage: It's real. Actual people are competing for an actual million dollars. Golding's characters on the other hand are figments. Maybe Golding gets it all wrong.

In the book The Nurture Assumption, Judith Rich Harris argues that Golding does in fact get things wrong. For one, he has the boys using glasses that correct near-sightedness to focus the sun and start a fire—an impossibility, as only reading glasses correcting far-sightedness converge light. But of course Survivor and Lord of the Flies are interesting for their psychology, not physics. Here, Harris claims that Golding wrongly has the younger boys isolating themselves, as little boys will seek out boys a few years older even when they're treated poorly.

A more serious mistake made by Golding, according to Harris, is how the groups evolved. It's said that before reaching the island Jack knew—and was a leader of—several boys from their school choir, yet early on these boys disperse and later side with Ralph, whom they didn't know. The boys also implausibly ignored class, though the novel takes place among British students in the 1950s and they come from different schools and have different accents. Then—perhaps the biggest flaw—well after the two groups were formed, the boys in Ralph's group one-by-one switched sides to Jack's.

A social psychology experiment conducted in the 1950s by Muzafer Sharif and collaborators actually looked to test conclusions about group dynamics drawn from the novel, and they found a fundamental problem. The experimenters randomly selected boys from the same area (Oklahoma), age (11), family background (White Protestant), and IQ (average to above average), and they were taken to what they thought was a normal summer camp, but was instead a carefully planned experiment. They were divided randomly into two groups, but the groups did not know about each other. As soon as the two groups discovered each other, however (this happened before planned), the boys quickly identified with their group, with one group suggesting to run the other off the camp. After one group lost a baseball game and destroyed the other team's flag, the other group raided their cabin at night and stole a pair of jeans, which they tore up and used as their new flag. The next day the other camp retaliated with a bold midday raid and destroyed much of the first group's cabin. The experimenters were relieved when the next phase arrived, where the two groups would be 'peacefully' joined and noncompetitive actitivites were planned. However, the groups were not easily forgotten (and remember the boys here are more similar than in the novel). Even after efforts to unify the camp, the boys still identified strongly with their original groups, and in the mess hall a food fight broke out between the two groups. All of this suggests that at the core of Lord of the Flies is a basic flaw. The boys' leaving Ralph's group to join Jack's was central to the plot, and here we see that intergroup conflict simply doesn't happen that way. The groups would have been stable.

Of course, we can't expect novelists to be social psychologists, and there are still reasons to enjoy Lord of the Flies—Golding's use of language, literary allusion, and symbolism, for instance. Still, we expect novelists to be keen observers of humanity, and that supposed insight is partly why Golding won the Nobel Prize. To be fair, there are non-trivial psychological aspects that Golding did get right. He has the boys first kill a pig (gradual disinhibitation) and then transform their appearance (making them more anonymous) before they start killing each other. The importance of disinhibitation and anonymity have support in Philip Zimbardo's research, most famously the Stanford Prison Experiment. It's also to Golding's credit that he inspired the above studies—and Survivor.

Which brings us back to the thesis. Survivor, unlike a novel, can't get anything wrong, because it just reports what happens. The worst it can do is be predictable. But Sunday's show was not predictable. Even long after events played out, it's apparently still not clear what each character should have done.

One surprise was a fifty-year-old computer programmer named Yau-man. He didn't seem to fit in—the rest of the cast were younger—so people expected him to be voted out early. He won many of the challenges, however, often using basic knowledge of physics (dropping a box on its corner, its weakest point), and bold moves (putting himself on 'Exile Island' which led to another immunity). He also made strong allies, and at the beginning of the finale he was among the last five. In the previous show, with six left, Yau-man made yet another bold move: He offered to give the $65,000 truck he just won as part of the show to another player, who called himself Dreamz, in exchange for Dreamz' 'immunity necklace' if he won it when there were four left. Dreamz was known to be poor (he grew up homeless) and he wanted the truck, and he also was strong and stood a good chance to win a challenge. Dreamz accepted the offer. But he would get the truck no matter what happened—it was only his word he could offer, and he had already betrayed others along the way. Yau-man won the next immunity challenge (a blindfolded maze race), and in the following challenge (holding yourself up on a wet incline) it came down to just Dreamz and Yau-man. Yau-man would either hang on to win, or Dreamz would win and would give his immunity to Yau-man. Yau-man had very impressively guessed which round he would need help, and who best to give it to him!

But then things went all wrong for Yau-man. He held on the wet incline for a while longer, but then fell off. Afterward he high-fived Dreamz, but then he didn't say anything when Dreamz wore the necklace around (the vote wasn't until the next day). He eventually approached Dreamz and asked that if, for some reason, he decided to keep the necklace—though he didn't think that he would—would he at least vote for someone else? The next day at 'tribal council' Yau-man was prompted to address Dreamz, who still wore the necklace. Yau-man was calm: He said simply that Dreamz had made a promise and that he thought Dreamz would do the right thing. Dreamz looked conflicted, but then he decided to keep the immunity necklace, and Yau-man was voted off. The next day the winner was picked from the remaining three by the players already voted off, and another player, Earl, was picked unanimously.

At the end of the show, the cast was in agreement that Yau-man was a great player. Not only did he win many challenges, but he was well liked. Indeed a vote at the final ceremony revealed that if Yau-man were one of the three remaining he would have won. The fansite calls Yau-man one of the greatest players ever. Curiously, no one, including the other players and those on CBS's Survivor message boards, apparently not even Yau-man himself, seems to notice that at the end Yau-man made a fatal mistake. His loss is either seen as bad luck, or as a failure to read Dreamz's character correctly when he made the initial offer.

My take is different. With Yau-man and Dreamz left at the last challenge, Yau-man could have won. His first mistake is debateable, but I think he should have let go—making it clearly purposeful—just after Earl did. That would show his confidence in Dreamz. Of course, if he thought he could hang on to win, then he should've done that, but he didn't hang on for much longer, and Dreamz is strong. Whatever. Maybe it was worth a shot. But an undeniable mistake—his biggest—was his plea to Dreamz to not vote for him if he kept the necklace. What he said, in effect, was that it wasn't a big deal if he kept the necklace. Yau-man gave up his biggest weapon: outrage. Yau-man should have had Dreamz think he would be outraged if Dreamz reneged, and this would have made it emotionally more difficult for Dreamz to renege in the moment. More importantly, Yau-man should have made Dreamz realize that everyone else—particularly those voting—would be outraged too, and that Dreamz would have no chance of winning. That was the beauty of Yau-man's offer! He might have tried to make the truck offer contingent on Dreamz giving up his immunity, in which case if Dreamz decided to pass on the truck then it just would have been a calculated move and no harm done. Even in that scenario, Dreamz likely would have lost in the end because he betrayed multiple people. In the actual deal he at least had a chance to redeem his character. So Yau-man had everything stacked in his favor. That he didn't get the necklace is largely his mistake. It's possible that a clearly thinking Dreamz still would have reneged to gain the difference between second or third place and fourth place (around $40k), but he thought he had a chance of winning the million and he was still conflicted. The boy needed a wake-up call, but Yau-man stood idle!

Of course, it's a lot harder to realize this in the heat of the moment then for me to armchair some days later. But even after some time still no one else seems to see Yau-man's mistake. In the live ceremony that occurs months (guessing from the weight gain of the players) after the vote, Dreamz was asked why he betrayed Yau-man. His response was that it was (only) a game, and people seemed satisfied. Many on the CBS message boards used this refrain when defending Dreamz as well. At the ceremony Dreamz was also repeatedly asked if he planned to renege all along, though this possibility was highly implausible—why didn't he immediately tell Yau-man 'sorry but I'm keeping it' right after winning the last challenge (the only chance to give that move a modicum of respect)? Instead he was clearly wavering (which would be bad enough even if he had given Yau-man the necklace). The wavering continued even at the final ceremony as he skirted the above question. Dreamz finally produced an answer and sank even lower: he answered, unconvincingly, that he had planned the betrayal all along. The logical next question went unasked: Why did he think he had a chance of winning after betraying Yau-man? Instead the host asked the other runner-up, Cassandra, if she believed Dreamz' response, and amazingly she answered yes (though not explictly, which left open, slightly, the redeeming possibility she just felt sorry for him). The show was flirting with travesty. But worst of all, no one asked Yau-man why he didn't try to get Dreamz to see the futility of his betrayal and its lasting damage to his reputation.

So the show fails at its own analysis—but overall it succeeds, because it provides such rich fodder. Let's return to the defense that Survivor is only a game. What can this mean? The phrase is a reminder that nothing of value is at stake. You might hear it after a softball game, say, and there it would be true—winning a softball game is not worth much. But in this 'game,' Dreamz cheated Yau-man out of a lot of (actual) money. He broke a deal worth $65,000. Is this any different than if Dreamz had broken a similar verbal agreement off the show?

I'll answer that with another, more provactive, question: Should the soldiers in Abu Ghraib face criminal charges? In both Abu Ghraib and the set of Survivor the environment is otherwordly. In both, there's a question if 'normal rules' apply, and there's an implication that maybe they don't. But while things do seem different, and we wonder how we would act in their place, in the end we recognize that the consequences are still the same. So while most people don't consider the U.S. soldiers' torturing inmates in an Iraqi prison as bad as torturing random people off the street, nonetheless those soldiers are in jail. Likewise, though Dreamz will not be judged as an outright con artist, many people (though curiously not Yau-man) will, justfiably, judge Dreamz as though he basically cheated Yau-man out of the same truck off the show. In both cases, we feel safer in our judgment because they should have known better. It was being recorded and possibly could (or in the case of Dreamz, certainly would) be broadcast!

Even if you disagree with my analysis, you should see that Survivor, despite its flaws, provides nontrivial food for thought. So why is Survivor so often disparaged? My theory is that, in one form or another, it's elitism. First, the show is not high culture. Indeed, at times it's downright hokey—e.g., the extinguishing of a flame to signify a character's 'death,' the way they take the contrived elements ('tribal council') so seriously. Second, the show is popular, and I think pundit-types often have an elitist bias against pop culture. Third, the show seems easy to make. Once the formula is in place—and even here the formula is borrowed—to make new shows one only has to pick some people and a place. Critics often point at Survivor catering to our 'base' elements, like greed, and this too is meant to suggest the show is too easy. Novel writing, by contrast, is seen as arduous, and most people can't do it competently.

I tried to find a cultural event that fits the above description and yet escapes serious criticism. I came up with a televised sporting event, like football. While no one would consider football high culture, I submit football is far less likely than Survivor to be seen as a bad reflection on our society. But why? It too is just a game. It's in fact easier to make from a production standpoint. The players make more money than contestants of Survivor, and they switch teams often for purely financial reasons (and without condemnation). It's very popular—indeed the Super Bowl is the most watched television event. The main difference, I think, is that only a tiny fraction of people can compete in professional football, whereas just about anyone could compete in Survivor (though not necessarily win). The answer again is elitism. The term is not necessarily perjorative; why shouldn't we care more about the extraordinary?

But ultimately I do mean that elitism here is a problem. I think a snobbish aesthetic is making some people miss the extraordinary in Survivor. It's the situation, rather than the people that is extraordinary, however. Most of us will never be faced with such a competition for a million dollars, and it's likely we would not guess correctly how we would respond in every situation. Told about the Stanford Prison Experiment, for instance, people claimed that they would never commit the acts that people just like them ultimately did. And though the situation of Survivor is extraordinary, the basic problems—how to make friends, to be liked and respected, to read others, to strategize in a complex social web while still justifying yourself to others—are in many ways at the heart of everyday, well... survival.


Blogger Julie Mac said...

You should definitely borrow some of my Survivor seasons on DVD to watch while the little one is asleep. I have been obsessed with the show since the very beginning. This past season, which fascinated you so, was easily my least favorite season of them all. So you are bound to enjoy classics like Survivor Pearl Islands, Palau, and Australia.

-Julie Mac (Heather's Pal!)

1:43 PM  

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