Last Sunday, I came across a truly great article from Slate, one about the possible debunking of a hugely influential theory from social psychology, a theory called ego depletion. As the Slate piece notes, it’s really uncommon for a theory supported by so much data to come under attack. And I’m sure many psychologists and social theorists on university campuses everywhere are wondering what will happen next.
While I’ve heard of ego depletion, I’ve never actually used it in any research. But, of course, after reading the story, I’ve been thinking of the theory all week and, so, not so shockingly, it popped into my head while watching this week’s episode of Survivor. Let’s apply it.
Before we get to the Brawn tribe’s boot off of Alecia and theory, though, let’s talk for a second about Caleb. We all know he’s coming back, probably for another edition of Second Chance, which I’m sure will happen shortly. But you still have to feel bad for him and, even, the Beauty tribe. Caleb seemed to be playing a great game, making good relationships with people on his tribe, relationships that looked like they might last. Of course, a guy like Caleb would have an exceedingly difficult time winning Survivor. He’s a target. His removal from the game, though, really hurts his tribe, too.
While we’ve seen some cracks and alliances on the Beauty tribe, I don’t think there’s any doubt they seem the most together. That’s clearly a function of never going to Tribal, but they also seem to have the most rational team. Now they lose their advantage through no fault of their own. It’s going to be an interesting swap/merge next week.
But enough about that. Let’s talk turkey or, um, theory. So ego depletion, well, it deals very little with ego in the normal sense of that word. Ego depletion, first theorized almost 20 years ago by current Florida State University professor Roy Baumeister and some colleagues, really focuses on the idea of willpower.
In case you didn’t read the Slate article I linked to above, let’s briefly talk about the theory. In many ways, even if you’ve never heard the term ego depletion before, you’ve probably seen satires of the original experiment in popular culture … think those scenes in The Five-Year Engagement. Basically, the grand idea behind the theory is that we as people have a finite amount of willpower and once we use it up, we’re left tired and have less control over our cognitive processing power (it’s harder for us to think).
The classic experiment conducted by Baumeister and other scholars split subjects into two groups. I’m making this as simple as possible so we can get to Survivor. But, yeah, one group entered a room filled with the scent of chocolate chip cookies and were allowed to eat as many cookies, which were on a plate next to a plate of radishes, as they wanted. Then they were asked to complete an unsolvable puzzle. The researchers timed the group to see how long it would take for them to give up. Another group of subjects were brought into the room and told they could only eat the radishes, not the cookies which smelled oh so good. They were then asked to complete the puzzle.
Numerous experiments over the last couple decades found support for what Baumeister concluded: The group who ate the cookies spent far more time on the puzzle before giving up because they did not deplete any willpower. The group with the radishes? They give up quickly because it took everything in them to simply not eat the cookies.
So how does this work with the Brawn tribe ditching Alecia? Well, putting aside all of our dislike for Scot and Kyle/Jason, those two, along with Cydney, have been dealing with Alecia for 12 days by the end of this episode. The first two times Brawn went to tribal, it was almost like they were told they couldn’t eat the cookies (vote out Alecia) and it took all their willpower to even get to this point, by which time they all clearly couldn’t deal with Alecia anymore and really had no energy left for either challenge.
I’m not sure what type of person Scot or Kyle/Jason is in real life, but I guarantee you they felt living and dealing with Alecia was hard work and it’s clearly been draining for them. I’m willing to bet that now that she’s gone, the tribe would have performed much better in subsequent challenges … except it looks like there won’t be any. But you have to think, these three might look like better players now.
In general, sometimes I wish Survivor was like a computer game. I don’t actually play computer games or anything, but I often wish you could simulate a season based on various moves. If you’re like me, you really have to wonder how this season plays out if Alecia goes home first. Is Brawn a better and more easygoing tribe then? I’m not sure since Kyle/Jason seems like an angry dude at times, but it sure would have been interesting to see.
That type of simulation would allow us to get an idea about whether ego depletion was a factor on this tribe. Of course, the key to a good scientific experiment is to account for all variables and this proposed simulation wouldn’t do that; it would just change a person out. But I maintain it sure would be interesting to see. Now, with that said, the Brawn tribe isn’t easy to root for at all, so maybe this is karma.
OK, so enough about willpower. I’m sure it’s taken you all the willpower in the world to avoiding getting to this part of the column, the part where I survey the remaining field. Let’s do it one last time in this three-tribe format. Here we go.
Brains – Chan Loh
Beauty – Gondol
Brawn – To Tang
Alright then. Let’s call it a day. Talk next week? Have a great, um, St. Patrick’s Day or something. Or just a good week.
Pat Ferrucci started watching Survivor when episode two of Borneo first aired. He’s seen every episode since. Besides recapping here, he’ll be live-tweeting this season from the Mountain Time Zone. Why? Because nobody cares about the Mountain Time Zone except when they want to ski. Follow him @patferrucci for Survivor stuff and tweets about anything and everything that enters his feeble mind.