In a typical Survivor season – at least the ones since I’ve been writing here for True Dork Times– I almost always begin with applying social identity theory (SIT) to the action. Occasionally, I’ve applied priming theory at the same time. Well, let me say that I don’t believe any recent seasons illustrates the power of those theories better than this one.
Let’s say this: Producers have hit the jackpot this season with making castaways believe that they’re truly either Davids or Goliaths. Does it matter that Christian has a PhD and is an assistant professor at Florida State University? Nope. He’s nerdy so he’s a David? What about Dan? He used to be fat and now he’s a cop. But he’s a Goliath because he’s, um, big? Why was Jeremy a Goliath? And Jessica, the good-looking 19-year-old traveler/model? Clearly a David?
What’s my point?
Remember, producers group castaways into tribes post-hoc, meaning they had their cast and then decided on David or Goliath labels. When producers do this, they prime the castaway to think of themselves as that label. Sometimes this is temporary, like maybe beauty vs. brawn vs. brains, but this season it seems like that label is sticking.
Let’s take a step back and review the theories. SIT essentially argues, as one of its tenets, that people need to be part of groups, both informal and formal. What I mean is that we, as humans, define ourselves through characteristics and those characteristics become part of our identity. For example, I’m a professor, a sports fan, a Massachusetts native, a first-generation college student … I could go on and on. We all have these characteristics—or memberships in groups—and we all let certain ones define us more than others. Because of our makeup, people become emotionally attached to membership in their groups.
Now priming is about influencing a person’s behavior by making something very salient in their minds. For example, in research settings, media effects scholars expose participants to one stimulus—say violent video games—to see what their reaction is to something else. So, when producers label someone a David or a Goliath, they are trying to prime them to act a certain way during the game … because they see themselves in that identity. Essentially, producers are trying to make castaways embody the attributes of that group once they’re on the island. When you’re telling people over and over and over again that they’re “Davids” or “Goliaths,” as Probst does each and every week, you’re going to get people to behave in a certain way because of that. You’ve primed them!
Both of these theories are rooted in deep traditions of social and cognitive psychology, which are the scientific studies of behavior. If you were to visit a psychologist or read about research done to understand behavior, these are the kinds of theories researchers use.
So what does all this mean for this week’s episode? Well, while it seemed like we might have a Strike Force™ alliance of six, it now looks like we’re back to tribal lines. And that makes sense, because I believe the identity priming happening this season is incredibly strong. Probst has made it a point to, even post-merge and post-tribal-shakeup—call castaways by their original tribe attributes over and over. He’s priming them to think like a David or a Goliath!
This week? Well, both alliances used idols. One thought like an underdog and split the votes. The Goliaths? They, as far we saw, didn’t even think a David could ever outsmart them. They didn’t think to maybe split votes. They didn’t think about a backup plan. They got cocky. Just like Goliath.
That’s identity priming at work. And if it continues to work, as I expect, two things will be true: 1. A David will win the season if they’re sitting at the end because producers have forced all castaways to believe it’s harder for a David to win this season, even though that’s clear B.S., and 2. We’re going to see original tribes stick together for the most part.
OK, got it?
I just want to mention and make it clear how much I’m loving this season. This is why, after more than three dozen seasons, we all keep coming back. Yeah, sometimes seasons are boring as poop, but every so often you get this. So good. And with that, let’s talk about the remaining castaways:
Alec: Well, we can probably debate Alec’s move until the cows come home (is there a more urban colloquialism I can use instead?), but I think he’s playing a great game. From the beginning, it looked like Alec was near the bottom of the Goliath totem pole, and there is no doubt his vote for Natalia cemented that spot for a lot of his original tribemates. So we can argue he’s just jumping from one bottom to another, but I don’t think so. The Davids are going to need him when they start their inevitable split. Again, I don’t think my fantasy team member can win this game, but I do think he’s playing a game many aren’t giving enough credit to as really good.
Angelina: I know she made a nice little comeback this week in that even without the idol, she’s staying, but I truly believe Survivor producers are setting up her inevitable boot episode as something the audience will applaud. She’s losing. Or, maybe she gets to the end and the jury destroys her transparent maneuvering?
Carl: Hey, so Carl came out to play this week. A really good episode for Carl in that we were finally shown him making allies and talking about moves that weren’t petty (um, Elizabeth, um). Carl is another one I don’t expect to even make final tribal, but his idol nullifier will certainly play a role in this game.
Kara: Out of all the remaining castaways, Kara is the one I have the hardest time reading. I would think the Davids view her as the most inconsequential Goliath, the person they have to worry about the least. But, she is definitely playing a good social game and I have a feeling that the jury is going to be filled with Goliaths.
Dan: If Dan didn’t win the immunity challenge, I would bet large sums of money – like $32 – that he would have gone home last episode. The Davids would have voted for him instead of John. I don’t think he gets the boot this week because all the Goliaths will be on high alert and Dan still has an idol, but the week after? I bet we say goodbye to Dan.
Gabby: I don’t want to simply criticize Gabby for being emotional, but I do think it’s a real negative influence on her standing in this game. What Mike said to Nick about her performance at the tribal where Elizabeth went home was basically what everyone watching was thinking: Why was she crying and fighting so much when 1. She was in a different alliance and, 2. She was voting for Elizabeth anyway? None of it made sense. And we’ve seen her let emotions impact the game before. She seems solid socially with many people and she may make final tribal, but she’s not winning.
Mike: I think this was a bad week for Mike. I never thought he could win because he’s famous, but now I’m not sure he can make the end. The Davids will need his vote at some point, but I’m predicting Mike is the first boot in the final episode.
Davie: Oh my gawd! My fantasy team lives! What a week for Davie. That could have been the beginning of his Winner’s Edit™. Holy crap did he do everything right. And lost amongst all the tribal council fireworks, that distraction so Nick could find the advantage? So damn good. I’m rooting for Davie to win, even though I think …
Nick: … Nick wins this game. He’s definitely playing the best game. I really don’t know what else to say. He’s making Big Moves™, staying under the radar and making really strong connections with everyone. I know many have talked about Nick’s good game, but I feel like because modern-day Survivor is typically filled with Big Characters, he’s not getting his due. This dude is playing one of the best games we’ve seen in a while. If he pulls this off—and again, it’s way too early to really say this—I would argue he’s the best winner since Jeremy.
Alison: Another week and another episode that makes me think that out of all the Goliaths, Alison is in the best spot in terms of actually having a chance to win. I still think it’s possible, even though I’m starting to agree with Jeff’s belief that only a David can win this game.
Christian: I’m now more certain than ever that Christian will not win. Him being saved by an idol is a bad thing. Him being constantly labeled a threat is a bad thing. And him having no real chance at winning immunity until, potentially, some puzzles come out when we’re down to like 7 is a bad thing. Add all that up and, even if it’s just Davids in the end game, they will know Christian needs to go. And he will.
OK, so that’s it for this week. I’m on the road to Illinois starting tomorrow and heading back to the Rocky Mountain state on Saturday, so I don’t think I’ll be writing next week. Enjoy the episode and talk soon. Have a great holiday everyone.
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.