Idol Attraction

In the final installment of this blogging series looking at the gender disparity in finding idols on Survivor, I take a look at the psychology of how men and women approach the game, give my personal theory on the issue and suggest how both future female players and production might be able to redress the balance.

In case you missed the first two parts:
Women and Idols: a Survivor Player’s Guide – In consultation with former players, I compile an in-game perspective of looking for idols and experiencing gender issues.
The Evolution of Idology – Jeff Pitman breaks down the main statistic into more detailed ones.

There’s a lot of information there, so I’ll try and recap the relevant bits as I go. Bullet points are our friends!

As far as searching for an idol goes, both Jeff’s statistics and my player survey indicate that finding an idol takes more time than the fandom has previously acknowledged—it’s usually days not hours before the first idols are found. Because of this, any time restriction to a player—no matter how inconsequential it may seem—puts that player at a disadvantage. Likewise, players who are motivated enough to find an idol that they ignore time restrictions (e.g. production requests to delay a search until a camera crew is ready) have an advantage over more cautious players.

Jeff eliminated “restricted-access” idols (e.g. ones on Exile Island) from his research, leaving only those that theoretically anybody could find. Therefore, the most likely answer to why men are finding more idols is that men are spending more time looking for idols. Does the logic follow that men are more motivated to find idols? The player survey presented a view that men are generally more confident in the game, many women feel restricted by gender roles, and women tend to focus more on the social game.

An Egocentric Game

I referenced one particular player statement in my previous blog, that more men don’t comprehend or “don’t give a crap” how looking for an idol is perceived by the rest of their tribe.

What that player is describing is egocentrism: the failure to recognise that your point of view differs from another person’s. Your average human learns to distinguish between their perspective and those of others around the age of four. However, we’re all guilty of moments of egocentrism in our adult lives. The egocentric idol-hunter is focused on their goal instead of worrying about how they are viewed by the tribe.

This brings us to the crux of Survivor, the paradox that makes it so consistently fascinating: it is simultaneously an individual game and a social game. To play Survivor well, you need a balance of egocentric and sociocentric—i.e. looking at things from the perspective of the group—gameplay

N.B. I am not using these terms in a clinically psychological sense, especially when referencing gameplay. Sociocentrism is typically used to describe putting the group’s needs ahead of yours, whereas on Survivor, you want to consider the group’s perspective in order to meet your needs. If I describe a player as egocentric, I am not saying they are incapable of empathy nor that they never use empathy in their game; I mean that they are more likely to be focused on their own perspective and needs—possibly to the exclusion of those of the tribe.

  • Egocentric gameplay is about your personal game, being the hero of your own narrative. It is accomplishment-based.
  • Sociocentric gameplay is about managing the perceptions of the other players: making sure your allies are comfortable and paying attention to your reputation within both the tribe and the jury. It is status-based.
  • Egocentrically, you want to find an idol. It gives you a tool at your disposal, an advantage over the other players and potentially an opportunity for a big move later.
  • Sociocentrically, you don’t want to search for an idol. This behavior may make other players wary of you, weakening your position in the tribe.

Ergo, the more sociocentric a player is, the less time he or she will spend looking for an idol, so we would expect more idols to be found by egocentric players.

Does this theory bear out with the four players who have found three idols in a single season (here’s a stat Jeff Pitman prepared earlier): Russell, Tony, Tai, and Ben?

Russell and Tony certainly fit the description of egocentric players, but it is less obvious with tender-hearted Tai. Indeed, his first Game Changers idol was found for the tribe. For his other idols, however, based on what we saw in the episodes, Tai was driven by a need to find them that blocked out everything else around him (and had similar moments with other aspects of the game). As for Ben’s game, there was a fairly dramatic switch from focusing on alliances to focusing on idols.

You can be a sociocentric player and have success finding idols. Indeed, this year alone, Dom, Wendell, Davie, and Nick all maintained strong social games alongside the idols and advantages they found. It’s open to interpretation to what extent they are egocentric players who use sociocentric strategies or vice versa.

Is it possible to find idols sociocentrically? Yes. Beyond Tai’s example above, a fair amount of idols are found via a group effort: such searches reduce or nullify the target of looking, and when players are looking together (rather than alongside each other), they strengthen social bonds even if they don’t find the idol. That’s sociocentric strategy. Of course, in these scenarios, whoever finds the idol has a decision to make: In Heroes vs Villains, Russell concealed his find from the clue-holder, Danielle, and left her looking in vain; in Caramoan, Erik decided the clue conferred ownership and handed the idol straight to Andrea. Many finders in this situation have taken the attitude that it is a group idol, continuing with sociocentrism—at least until the idol needs to be used.

Most idols are not found in a group search, and the most successful idol-finders typically find their idols alone. Logically, it makes sense that there are more opportunities to go out alone and look compared to coordinating a group. If you are exclusively taking sociocentric tactics, you may still be at a disadvantage.

I would also suggest that idols have simply become more attractive to an egocentric player over the past ten seasons, and they have gradually increased their efforts to find one.

The Evolution of the Idol: a Timeline.

I wrote about this in considerable depth back during Millennials vs Gen X; We don’t have time to rehash that, so let’s hit the highlights.

Russell Hantz pioneers a more aggressive method of finding and playing idols. Later players adopt his method for searching for idols without clues, but idol-holders remain cautious about playing them.
The common idol strategy at this time is to hold onto it until it is no longer valid for the sake of keeping that variable out of the game. No player has ever won after being saved with an idol; instead winners have typically used them as a social tool: providing motivation for their allies.
Malcolm Freberg and Reynold Toepfer revisit the concept of playing an idol then finding another, as well as more creative ways of using an idol to get around a majority. This time, later players start implementing the strategy, aided when…
Aggressive and theatrical idol play is validated once and for all by Tony’s win.
Mike Holloway becomes the first player to directly save himself by an idol and go on to win. Up until this point, there was some debate if jurors would vote for a player who had (effectively) been voted out. This also shakes the commonly held view (supported by Malcolm’s Caramoan stint) that an idol can only extend your life in the game for three days.
When Jeremy repeats Mike’s precedent the very next season, the perceived value of an idol skyrockets.

In a little over ten seasons, idols went from social bait to a voting shield and weapon combined. They became a Big Move, a point on your Survivor résumé. They became an egocentric strategy.

This then is my theory: it’s not that men are finding more idols, it’s that egocentric players are finding more idols… and apparently, egocentric players are more likely to be male.

Are Men more Egocentric than Women?

While the survey suggested that your average male Survivor is more egocentric than your average female Survivor, it’s far from a controlled study. I suspect that the statement is too much of a generalization to be useful anyway. For example, I’d say Sarah Lacina had a very egocentric focus but used sociocentric strategies, while Adam Klein was much more conscious of how other players viewed the game… yet he was the one who found idols.

What might be more relevant is this study which found, in stressful situations, men become more egocentric while women become more empathic. Psychology shorthand for the difference is that men have a “fight or flight” response while women “tend and befriend.”

Survivor is designed to be a stressful situation, and the fear of being voted out is a key motivator. If the players I talked to are representative, most players still consider an idol’s greatest importance to be saving somebody from the vote—in other words, their stress response will be a factor in looking for one. So here are some hypotheses based on that study:

  • Women may improve at the social game when targeted, while men may get worse.
  • Women may be more likely to fall into the trap of wanting somebody from the alliance to win, while men may stay more focused on their best individual path.
  • Women may assess their position in the game based on how the tribe views them, while men may assess it based on quantifiable power (in either allies or advantages).
  • Men may see immunity as the most viable strategy to escape the boot, while women may have more faith in their social bonds.

Again, these are generalizations. It’s easy enough to find in-game examples both for and against these theories; it would be a far more difficult task to go through and categorize every player’s responses, which is what we’d need for a clear dataset. (Hey, Pitman! I’ve just had a great idea for next offseason…) Actual psychologist, Amanda Rabinowitz also pointed out that because social expectations for men and women are different, a given man could have the same awareness of the tribe’s perspective as a given woman yet still make different social choices.

However, let’s explore that last theory as a factor in the gender gap: under the stress of a target, women prioritize alliances over idols, while the reverse is true for men. (N.B. Multiple female respondents to my survey did say they stepped up their search for an idol when they were targeted. I’m theorizing that men may be quicker to do that and/or that women may still put more effort into their social game rather than going all in on the idol.)

Target Conditions

What targets do women commonly report experiencing? (All of the below came up in the player survey and are also frequently brought up by female players in post-game interviews.)

  • Players are targeted for looking for the idol itself—not gender-specific but integral to the issue.
  • In the tribal portion of the game, women are more likely to be targeted as the weakest challenge performer on their tribe (something that is itself subject to gender bias).
  • Some women feel restricted by gender roles at camp and/or targeted if they go against these expectations.

These targets are all very much in play at the time most idols are being found: the pre-merge. (Citation: Jeff Pitman, obviously.) I’d also theorize that the more men there are on a tribe (and the more secure those men feel) the stronger gender roles and their restrictions would be—thanks again to Jeff Pitman, we know that on your average season, men outnumber women between day 4 and day 30, if not longer. At the pre-merge stage of the game, not only are there fewer women to find idols, but those women will be less willing to spend time looking.

One counterpoint to this is that more women than men have found jungle-hidden idols/clues in the first three days: Kelley (Cambodia), Carolyn (Worlds Apart), Sabrina (One World) and Kristina (Redemption Island). Jeff Pitman noted that when working with such small numbers, these might be a statistical anomaly, but let’s analyze their cases.

Kristina played in the immediate Post-Hantz stage of the game when searching for idols without a clue was an exciting new strategy but had not yet been stigmatized—she became the precedent for that. Perhaps Sabrina, just two seasons later, also wasn’t conscious of the target of idol-searching, but it’s notable that she had a majority alliance before she began searching and was in an all-female camp. As for Kelley and Carolyn, they reportedly found their clue/idol very quickly and were never seen to be looking. It is very possible that they still prioritized their social games over idol-hunting and simply got lucky with the latter.

The other way of looking at this particular statistic is why don’t more men find idols in the first three days? Dan (David vs. Goliath) managed it in a group search, while Dom (Ghost Island) did a night hunt. Perhaps the geographical gender roles are reversed at the very start of the game: Men are expected to stay in camp and build the shelter while women are allowed to go looking for palm fronds and fruit…?

Except that’s pure speculation, and I don’t have any sources to back it up. Also, Jeff Pitman noted that it’s unclear how often idols are found in the first day or two but are edited into a later episode—he’s already received past player feedback indicating this happens more often than we think it does. There could be a difference in the first three days, but it needs more research.

What of the post-merge? With the weakest link target gone and an increasing number of players looking for idols, women may feel less restricted in searching; however:

  • Players may have to wait for an idol to be played before one is available to be found.
  • Players who have found idols already are 2.5 times more likely to find any given idol than players who haven’t. (It’s a number, so the source is Jeff Pitman.)
  • As more men become targeted, they are likely to increase rather than reduce their efforts to find an idol.

So in a given season’s post-merge, we would still expect the player who spends the most time looking for an idol to be male. We would also expect the player who finds an idol in the shortest amount of time (i.e. who knows what to look for) to be male. Of course, the merge is probably starting out with significantly more men than women anyway—and the time when the gender ratio tends to balance out (about day 30) is also the time when repeat idol finds (i.e. by people who have found idols before) start to outnumber first-time finds.

Given these conditions, the laws of probability are simply against women finding idols post-merge, though plenty of women want and try to do so.

Redressing the balance

So, if you’re female, have the opportunity to play Survivor and want to find an idol, what can you do to beat the odds? I can offer logical advice, based on maximizing the amount of time you’re out looking, but bear in mind it’s entirely untested:

  • Firstly, have more confidence in looking, especially pre-merge. This is a risk, but it’s possible the perceived risk is greater than the actual risk. Certainly missing out on the first idols puts you at a considerable disadvantage later, and having one increases the odds of you being around to look post-merge.
  • Secondly, prepare yourself before the game starts for a camp role that will get you into the jungle. Find some way to qualify yourself as a hunter / gatherer, and establish yourself in that role in the first couple of days. Researching tips for women on being assertive in the workplace probably won’t hurt either.
  • Finally, don’t forget to search at night. Maybe you can tell production ahead of time to have the camera crew ready.

The other tack is to address the advantage prior-finders have in finding more idols:

  • Tend and befriend idol-holders so you can find out what to look for.
  • Vote known idol-holders off ASAP—don’t worry about flushing the idol or dodging the idol… get the player out. Going by recent seasons, somebody who has found an idol is a more reliable threat than a challenge beast.

That said, I personally believe that, in Survivor, everybody should play the game that feels right for them. Most women (and many men) will find it difficult and counter-intuitive to match the most egocentric player of the season in time spent looking for the idol.

Risk-management is a major factor. Women will take risks to find an idol: Kelley Wentworth had to take hers from very public locations; Angelina, while it was played for laughs, did risk physical injury for immunity at a time when she wasn’t even a target. But both women had a clue: in other words, they had an extra guarantee of reward.

A more egocentric player may have an optimistic bias when it comes to rating their chances of finding an idol, which keeps them going without any actual indicator of success. While this does increase their chances of finding an idol, it also increases their chances of being voted off.

Women make up the majority of pre-merge boots anyway, so if women become less cautious and look harder for idols pre-merge, I expect we’d see more women find idols with no significant change to the amount of women being voted off. Of course, on an individual level, that is not a comfort to the woman who gets voted off for looking for an idol she never found.

Perhaps this is my own gender bias. As important as I might believe idols currently are, I will always believe that social bonds are more important to a player’s game. I’m certainly not convinced that going all in on finding idols is good gameplay.

I may not be alone in this, judging by Christian Hubicki’s commentary as a juror. While the trend may be for the finalist with the most idols/advantages to win, juries are actually more discerning than that. They do take players to account for wasting or misplaying their idols, they want to see agency not just reactions, and ultimately jurors still tend to vote for who they personally like best: they’ve changed their rationales rather than their votes. Social bonds are still vital to the game.

Setting aside what the players can do, what about production? I agree with Pitman’s conclusion that the most effective solution would be to stop the scavenger hunt mechanism of finding an idol. However, I think there’s an even more important step than reducing the gender gap: Make idols less significant.

Changing the Narrative

Not only have idols increased in importance for winning the game, they have become a key element of getting screentime. Production has very successfully and rightly been promoting “Big Movez!” for a few years now in order to create a more exciting game and TV show. Yet this is playing up the action sequences, the stunts… What often gets lost is the character development which comes from the interpersonal strategies. The viewer is entertained but not necessarily invested.

While the editors do some great work, they still need to improve in telling the story of the social game… and perhaps the starting point there is having faith in the social game. Production is male-heavy, and it seems to have an egocentric focus to problem solving: Dominant players are getting voted off before the end? Let’s put in an extra form of immunity, let’s make it a final three, let’s change the final vote off to an automatic firemaking tiebreaker.

All these changes literally prevent players from being voted off, but that’s exactly what the social game has been doing since the beginning. Take two of the biggest female stars of the game: Aubry and Cirie.

  • Both of them went to fire-making on their own initiative when they convinced their closest ally to force a tie.
  • Cirie never won immunity nor found an idol, but in Micronesia she led the Black Widow Brigade in neutralizing other people’s immunities through social manipulation.
  • In Kaoh Rong, the fanbase was convinced that Scot, Jason, and Tai were going to fight back and take control thanks to the super idol twist… but without any game advantage, Aubry talked Tai round to her side, saved herself from being idoled out and took control of the game.
  • Aubry went into her next season with a huge target and friended her way off the chopping block, into a post-merge majority and finally an idol-play.

Aubry and Cirie are stand-outs in part because no idols were played successfully on their original seasons. Cirie has played four times; Aubry is about to return for her third. It’s hard to imagine that would still be the case had their original games featured the amount of advantages they dealt with in Game Changers. There would not have been the screentime to tell their stories.

The people in charge of teasing out the characters on the island and of putting together the story are not exclusively men but they are mostly men. (I’m going by IMDB which is not necessarily accurate but the best guide I know of.) That means we’re getting a male-led narrative and a male assessment of what makes a good player.

In this blog, I have treated idol gameplay as stress-response and analyzed the differences in genders accordingly. For overall gameplay, studies of gender differences in the workplace are more applicable. From these, we can expect men and women to have different (and maybe contradicting) criteria of what constitutes good gameplay. However, it’s the men who are in charge of telling the story, and they’re highlighting the attributes that make sense to them—I’ve already noted the concrete effects of this in steering players towards Big Moves.

What would I advise production to do, were I Tyler Perry and texting rather than blogging?

  • Hire more and diverse women, both in the field and in the editing suite. Consult them on how to characterize the female players. (This may already be happening, but I don’t feel we’re “there” yet.)
  • (Re-)Introduce social twists and advantages in place of ones relating to votes and immunity. Communication going across tribe lines has almost always led to intrigue.

Realistically, production knows how it works better than I do. The people behind the scenes are in a better position to assess what changes they can make to tell a better social arc, and I hope they want to do it. The pay off isn’t just gender equality… it’s a more balanced story. Even Davie, a fan favorite this season who featured prominently in several episodes thanks to his multiple idol finds, was frustrated with his edit, telling Rob that he would have liked his relationships to be shown: his friendship with Kara was eliminated almost entirely, we got dropped into the middle of his relationship with Nick rather than seeing how it started, and we never saw the uneasy dynamic of the Davids on Vuku. We loved Davie for his shenanigans, but we missed out on a better rounded character.

Women would, in my opinion, be the biggest benefactors of such a change in story-telling. Production often cites memorable women as a problem; if it starts promoting the attributes women value in themselves, that problem will be solved. The other expected result is that juries would start giving more weight to the social game and grill finalists accordingly, wanting proof not of advantages and big moves but of social bonds.

This would have an effect on the perceived value of an idol. I wouldn’t expect idols’ stock to drop to pre-Samoa levels, but if they are no longer seen as vital to a game, egocentric players will spend less time looking for them… and that is when the gender gap will close.

With thanks to Jeff Pitman for the stats and Amanda Rabinowitz for her assistance with the psychology. Check out Amanda’s commentary on idols with Sean Falconer as well as their piece on gender in Final Tribal Council.

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