Sarah Channon looks at the social game of Survivor by exploring aspects of successful relationships.
A Relationship, Not a Date: The Survivor Social Game
In South Pacific’s Albert Destrade, Survivor cast a dating coach: somebody who was literally paid to teach people how to form social bonds with others. As might be expected, on day one, Albert got into a majority alliance with the trust and respect of everybody in it.
By day thirty-five, that same alliance despised him, and he narrowly avoided being voted off when Brandon naïvely gave up his immunity necklace. Albert made it to Final Tribal Council but only as a goat to be inducted into the zero votes club. What went so disastrously wrong?
Thirty-nine days is a long date.
In his exit press, Albert said: “[Dawn and Whitney] knew they were going home that night. They said, ‘Thank you so much, you’re the only person playing the game, if you make it to the end, we’re voting for you.’ How does it go from that to calling me sleazy and not voting for me?”
Albert blamed Ponderosa campaigning, although Sophie explained: “I threw Albert under the bus a lot at Tribal Council, saying how sleazy he was because he was too smooth.”
Ponderosa would have given the jurors ample time to compare notes on Albert’s social techniques. Jim’s Final Tribal Council question asked Albert to trash talk his opponents, but Jim added a qualifier: “If you start with a compliment… that will lose my vote.”
Without thinking, Albert began his reply with a laugh and: “I love this question. I love how you’re playing the game.”
You can google “how to be charming” and get a number of common, effective tips: smile, make eye contact, make physical contact, use compliments, use a person’s name, etc. All of these become noticeable after a few weeks of living together, and in the paranoia of Survivor, they start feeling insincere.
A similar request to Jim’s happened in Philippines’ Final Tribal Council, when Malcolm told Denise not to nod along with what he was saying. While it ultimately didn’t hurt Denise, you can see her trying (without great success) to stifle her nods. Her ingrained habit was seen as a therapist trick. The other players wanted to see the “real” Denise.
As usual, where South Pacific is concerned, it was Sophie who put the best perspective on it. She was Albert’s closest ally, and in her Reality News Online exit interview, she described their partnership: “We were in some weird Survivor marriage. We had our honeymoon. We had the marriage period. Then we had the 80-year-old bickering. There’s a great online clip of me complaining how he can’t make a fire. The bonds you form are so intense, it makes sense we had a relationship that went on fast forward.”
It’s often said that Survivor is a marathon not a sprint, but it would be more accurate to say: Survivor is not a date; it’s a relationship.
Charm might get you into a relationship, but it won’t make it last. There is no point at which a relationship is ‘safe’. Whether you’ve been together one year or thirty, you can go from soulmates to on-the-rocks in a matter of months if one or both partners isn’t investing in that relationship. The same applies to Survivor: you need to keep reinforcing your alliance, no matter how secure it was yesterday.
I’m no Denise Stapley… I’m strictly an armchair psychologist. I have been in a relationship for fifteen years, but my husband has refused to give me a reference for my expertise in this field. Most of what I know comes from talking to friends whose committed relationships fell apart. Basically, if you’re in actual need of relationship advice, talk to a professional. (And if you’re in actual need of Survivor advice, at least get a second opinion.)
In my entirely unqualified opinion, this is the secret to a successful relationship: Sex and difficult conversations. You need to keep having both for the relationship to survive.
At this point, you’re probably wondering how you are supposed to apply this to Survivor. More specifically, you’re curious as to where I’m going with the sex thing. So let’s start there.
Sex. It’s not just for clickbait.
Clearly (and contrary to Nick Maiorano’s Twitter claims), carnal relations with Survivor allies are neither practical nor recommended. I should also point out that sex means more than simple intercourse, and that it’s entirely possible to maintain a successful relationship without sex; many couples do. But sex is a shortcut to several positive effects that are vital to a relationship.
We’re not talking about personal gratification or any sort of quest for a better orgasm—all good things, but not strictly relevant. (Don’t worry, Google has those questions covered too.) What we are talking about is ‘making love’… quite literally.
Sex triggers the release of oxytocin, which is popularly known as the love hormone but also encourages feelings of trust. If you have any interest in a crossover of Survivor with neuroscience, go and read the wiki entry on the psychological effects of oxytocin, particularly with regards to in-group and out-group empathy. Oxytocin is exactly the hormone you want surging in your allies.
Fortunately, sex isn’t the only way to trigger oxytocin. There are other methods, but notably these are mostly extensions of charm tips: physical touch, eye contact, compliments. Like anything else, repeating one technique automatically will have the opposite effect. Change it up, and build on what’s gone before. If you’ve been flattering your ally in private, start making similar compliments in front of the rest of the tribe.
Notice the trap? This behavior can reveal your alliance. You don’t want the rest of your tribe knowing how close you are to a player. If you expand on your social techniques, you risk your alliance becoming so obvious that it makes you a target. Yet if you don’t build on your relationship, then your ally might lose trust in you as the game progresses. Nobody ever said Survivor was easy.
Take sleeping together. (Platonically. Usually.) Boston Rob taught us to discover alliances by seeing who slept next to each other in the shelter. Therefore, the shrewd survivor keeps distant from his or her closest ally overnight. However, sleeping together is ideal for sustained physical contact, and if your ally isn’t getting that oxytocin boost with you, they’re getting it with somebody else. Players might not be sleeping together because they’re allies… they might be allies because they’re sleeping together.
Beyond direct oxytocin release, sex has a few other perks for bonding—and yes, many of these result in an oxytocin rise as well:
Sex rarely looks or sounds as good as it feels. You and your partner are putting your lumpy, wrinkly, flappy bits on display, you’re making embarrassing noises with bodily fluids, and the less said about your O-face the better. These aren’t the parts you dwell on, but they’re what make sex so intimate. Your partner is sharing their physical secrets, and how you receive them will have a definite influence on your relationship.
There probably aren’t a lot of physical secrets in Survivor camp life either, though stripping naked has not had the best success in winning allies over. However, laying yourself bare on an emotional / psychological level is the ultimate gesture of trust in a game so riddled with deception. Your ally is more likely to believe and / or forgive an in-game lie, if you have shared something of your private self with them. Jurors certainly place weight on who the finalists “really are” and penalize any perceived façades.
Bonding is always a two-way street, of course. If your ally shares something with you, treat their secrets with care and acceptance, whatever they might be. It’s not exactly as touching a moment in Cagayan when Jeremiah admits that he’s a model as it is in Kaoh Rong when Jason opens up about his autistic daughter, but Jeremiah was just as gratified by his tribemates’ appreciation for his life beyond the game.
2. Caring for Others
Despite popular depiction, simultaneous orgasm isn’t worth the effort of achieving it. So in your average sexual encounter, there is a natural give and take as the focus shifts from pleasing one partner to pleasing the other. Doing something for somebody else—preferably without being asked—is one of the best ways to prove you care about how they feel.
This can manifest in many ways on Survivor, but perhaps the most underrated is hair-braiding. Almost every season, we see long-haired castaways show up to challenges with their hair braided—often one tribe will have its own particular style. We rarely see the braiding itself, but somebody has spent a good ten minutes, maybe longer, doing another person’s hair. That’s sustained physical contact (oxytocin, ahoy!) and a great opportunity for social chitchat. At the end of it, the other person not only has their hair out of their eyes and off their neck, they also feel better about their appearance—probably a bigger morale boost than we realize when you’re living in dirt.
Amber braided hair in All Stars. When Shii Ann was furiously scrambling to save herself, Amber wouldn’t give her any more hope than the rest of the tribe did, but she sent her to the jury with flowers in her hair. It would be a close vote for Amber’s win, and no juror would be more complimentary about her game than Shii Ann.
In Game Changers, Cirie was the hair braider. She started out doing the girls’ hair, but when they got shuffled to the Tavua tribe, Ozzy let her do his flowing locks in the same style as Andrea and Sarah. This put him into an in-group of “Braid Buddies” as Andrea termed them, but it also marked a shift in his relationship with Cirie. They had started the game in a rocky place, wary of each other; after their sojourn on Tavua, they were close allies.
The “braid buddy” bond wasn’t enough to stop Sarah going behind Cirie’s back to blindside him, but as somebody who has given Ozzy a lot of grief for his social game, I owe him plaudits for this. Ozzy can survive perfectly well on his own and often seems like he’d prefer to. Getting Cirie to do something personal for him let her know that he valued her and gave her more security in their relationship.
3. Shared Euphoria
The climax of sex is more of an individual experience, but the post-orgasmic endorphin rush is an excellent opportunity for bonding, whether via talking or touching. Both partners are happy, and neither is trying to get something out of the other; they’re simply sharing the afterglow.
We feed off each other’s moods, so if we’re with somebody who is having fun, that increases our own happiness, which increases theirs. It’s hard not to like somebody more after that sort of positive feedback loop. This applies to any sort of good time. (It’s important for couples to have non-sexual fun together as well.) While you can and should create fun around camp, the best fun available on Survivor is on reward.
Objective reward tactics are to choose your companions strategically, so you conceal your true alliance while making sure the wrong people aren’t gathered back at camp to strategize against you. However, Stephen Fishbach has warned us that close allies might not stay close allies if you go off and have fun with somebody else. It’s tantamount to infidelity.
Giving up rewards might seem like a convenient solution, but the payoff is rarely worth the sacrifice. South Pacific’s Albert and Blood vs. Water’s Monica gave up rewards, but the beneficiaries were suspicious of their motives, and it didn’t score them any jury votes. As counterintuitive as it sounds, they might have earned more goodwill had they rewarded fewer people but enjoyed that reward with them.
While players often use a reward for a (relatively) private strategy session, there’s something to be said for making them a time out from the game. Some players find it easier to come out of their shell when the game is suspended. It was hardly a reward, but Adam and Zeke have told us that the hurricane evacuation in Millennials vs. Gen X probably saved Michaela from being their first boot. She had struggled socially at first, but once they were forbidden to talk about the game, she started joking around, raising both tribe morale and her own social stock.
The best example of bonding through reward might be the Aitu Four in Cook Islands. Fresh from the shock of Candice and Penner’s mutiny, they spent an afternoon hanging out in bathrobes, eating muffins, reading letters from home and becoming one of the tightest-knit alliances that the game has seen. Yul’s better known for his logic, but he absolutely understood the emotional impact of that day, and he used it to keep his alliance committed to each other against apparently insurmountable odds.
Ultimately, there’s no straightforward answer for whom to take with you on reward, but there are a lot of conflicting factors. Picking who you will have the most fun with isn’t as bad an idea as it might seem. Any moment you enjoy with your allies is a moment well spent.
Of course, any relationship must weather bad times along with the good. As fantastic as sex is, it doesn’t usually solve problems. That’s where the difficult conversations come in…
Taking the Elephant out of the Room.
By difficult conversations, I don’t necessarily mean arguments. I mean the things you don’t want to talk about, but not talking about them is hurting the relationship. While you can replace sex with other activities and still achieve the same effect, there is no substitute for difficult conversations.
After Zeke was outed in Game Changers, he was left in a very emotional place. Andrea was the one person who knew his life outside of the game and how it might be affected. Zeke was surprised and hurt when she made no attempt to check in with him after that Tribal Council. Instead she went straight back into game mode and lost Zeke’s faith as both a friend and an ally.
It’s hard to blame Zeke for not explaining himself to her. He had said that he wanted to get on with the game, and admitting that he was struggling after all would have been admitting a great deal of vulnerability. Typically, you only expose yourself so deeply to your closest friends, and there’s no indication he and Andrea had ever been such confidantes.
Outside of the game, Zeke could have avoided Andrea for a while, given himself space to get over it and move on with the friendship. Inside the game, that wasn’t an option. Unable to talk it through, each made a botched attempt to blindside the other. Although they patched things up long enough to regain the majority, their relationship had deteriorated to such an extent that the tribe voted off Zeke to keep the peace.
This is Zeke. A player who prides himself on staying objective and logical. We’re all vulnerable to our emotions, and it’s tough to be honest about that with yourself, let alone somebody else. But there will always come a time when you have to admit it to your partner, because bottling it up and getting over it isn’t going to happen no matter how much you want it to.
Honesty and communication are the most straightforward principles to grasp but the hardest to execute. You don’t have to tell your partner everything—even in the most committed relationship, you’re entitled to some personal privacy—but you have to be able to tell them anything.
Talking about it won’t always resolve the situation. Sometimes it might hurt your partner, and require follow up difficult conversations as they process it. Sometimes you will already know that nothing can be done to fix the situation, you just have to push on through it. But if you are sharing your life with another person, then they have a right to know your emotional state. If your relationship is worth anything, you’ll want to support your partner through their bad times, too.
How much can this apply to Survivor, when only one person in the alliance can win? More than you might think. Contestants do come to genuinely care for each other, and we have seen several examples of this: from the Tocantins cast giving Taj the family reward to Adam and Jay’s tears in the hammock.
Taking things more cynically, a lot of this goes along with our sex tips for increasing oxytocin: intimacy and caring for others. Survivor may be an individual game, but until Final Tribal Council, you’ll need to keep your numbers loyal. In Kaoh Rong, Michele found herself nodding and smiling to Nick instead of saying how she really felt. Their alliance did not survive her first temptation to flip on him.
Belief that your allies don’t respect your opinions is one of the leading causes for flipping in Survivor. Sometimes the strategy discussion happens without you, and you are told who to vote off rather than being asked your opinion. (Carolyn, after the tribe swap in Worlds Apart.) Sometimes your alliance values a completely different gamestyle to you. (Cochran, in South Pacific.) Sometimes your alliance values one person’s thoughts over everybody else’s including yours. (Candice, in Cook Islands.) In every case, a player felt that their voice was not being heard and so they had no agency within their alliance.
You might want your allies riding your coattails, but don’t let them feel that way. Keep track of how frank your conversations are, and take any evasiveness as a red flag.
Full candor may seem illogical, but it’s another resource at your disposal. In some of the closest alliances we’ve seen (Yul and Becky, Dawn and Cochran), one partner went so far as to discuss with the other how best to gather votes at Final Tribal Council. Not every alliance can reach that level of trust, but it’s not a bad position to be in. Denise and Malcolm were open with each other for the entire game, and she would have gone to the end with him, despite the threat he posed before the jury. When Malcolm prevaricated on a final three deal, Denise realized he was going to betray her and made her own move against him.
Adam took candor a step further and openly told several players that he would work with them for a vote or two but he wouldn’t go to the end with them. As frustrating as this was, players knew where they stood with Adam, and his willingness to be frank made it easier for them to reciprocate. This didn’t always pan out when it came to making moves, but it left him in excellent standing with the jury. That’s how you do difficult conversations.
There’s no step-by-step how-to for either Survivor or a relationship. It’s always going to be case by case. So I shall leave you with one last tip: the best sex comes not from something you’ve read, but from something you and your partner chance upon while fooling around with each other. Whether it’s a lover or an ally, go forth, have fun, and discover for yourselves how best to nurture your relationship.