Are any of you still watching Survivor?
For those of you thinking, “What, that show from 15 years ago? That’s still on?” you should definitely give it another chance. I think it’s the best show currently on TV, and it’s coming to the exciting conclusion of it’s all-time best season.
The thing about Survivor is that it’s constantly evolving. Contestants figure out winning strategies, other contestants figure out strategies to beat those, and the producers come up with ways to shake up the game and force the contestants into entirely new strategies.
If you care at all about psychology, strategy, game theory, or behavioral economics, you definitely need to be watching. There are all sorts of open questions in these fields that would be impractical to study in a lab. But CBS has been kind enough to spend millions of dollars running an ongoing experiment for us.
The first season started off being about personalities rather than strategy. Contestants voted to get rid of the people they didn’t like. Then someone figured out that if he got four people to vote as a bloc while everyone else was voting for whomever, they could control the game. Thus the concept of alliances was born, which laid the foundation of the game for the next 15 years.
The next several seasons were all about alliances. Whoever formed the bigger alliance and kept it faithful would eliminate all the other players, until they were the only ones left, at which point whichever sub-alliance was biggest would take over. This made the show predictable and boring, and you all stopped watching.
The producers recognized this was boring, and figured out ways to shake it up. They started having people swap tribes early on, to keep them from maintaining an alliance. Would people stick with an alliance from their original tribe, or stick with their new tribe, or pull in some of each? They also introduced a bunch of smaller features to add new twists and wrinkles to strategy. Hidden immunity idols, returning players, special advantages, Redemption Island, Exile Island, rewards that involve picking a handful of people to be physically separated from everyone else, a Final Three instead of a Final Two, etc.
Partly in response to these shakeups, and partly out of the idea that in order to win you need a strategy better than everyone else’s, contestants evolved. Instead of sticking with an alliance until they were the only ones left and then scrambling for a suballiance, contestants started thinking, “If I wait until there’s a few people left outside of my alliance, I can recruit them to knock off the strongest people in my alliance but outside of my suballiance. The target will never see it coming, and the people who are out of the alliance entirely will be thrilled to go along with me because it means they aren’t the ones getting voted out.” This became known as a blindside.
That become the norm, at which point strategy evolved again, as the smarter contestants said “I better pull off that coup earlier, so I can do it before someone else does it to me.” So alliance infighting kept happening earlier and earlier.
This season we’ve reached a point where the intra-alliance battles spark up before the alliance can even form. In other words, there aren’t alliances at all. The entire concept of an alliance has been replaced by temporary voting blocs, which last for at most one vote, and often don’t even last that long. A bloc will form, and then people will change their mind and form a different bloc a few hours later.
Another evolution of strategy is that contestants used to have the attitude of “I’m in my alliance and sticking with it, so if someone outside my alliance tries to talk to me, I’ll just tell them to buzz off.” But then they figured out that they want to preserve their options for a coup, or make sure they’re on the right side of things if someone else tries for a coup, so it’s much better to talk to everyone and be open to whatever they propose. Also you never know who has a secret hidden immunity idol, so it’s better to keep someone comfortable even if you’re planning to vote them off immediately. So now whenever anyone proposes a plan, everyone they’re talking to will generally say, “Yes, I will definitely go along with that,” regardless of if that’s a complete lie. Combine this with the demise of alliances, and it creates a wonderful chaos. Nobody, including the viewer, knows who is really in whose voting bloc, and none of the contestants have any certainty of what’s going to happen at any vote.
And all of this plays out in the pressure cooker of physical deprivation, having to deal with the elements and lack of food, while performing in incredibly demanding physical challenges.
It used to be that you could predict what would happen 4-5 episodes in advance. Now you can’t predict 4-5 minutes in advance.
The show has become completely brilliant, and I highly recommend you watch it. Also, let me know if you’re interested in joining my discussion list for the show.