Skip to main content
Find a Lawyer



Thursday, Jul. 27, 2000

During recent episodes of CBS' wildly popular game show Survivor, several contestants have decided -- based on personal ethical principles -- to forego strategies that would have increased their chances of winning. Specifically, they have refused to join voting alliances that would have amplified their power and lengthened their tenure on the island. Are these contestants simply foolish? Too prissy to survive in the harsh world of the game? Or are they, in some sense, better people than their peers?

At the end of each Survivor episode, the contestants must vote one of their number off the island. Voting someone off extinguishes his or her chance to win the million dollars awarded to the last remaining contestant. It also expels that person from the island community -- with possible emotional repercussions serious enough to have driven one of the contestants on the Swedish version of Survivor to suicide. Indeed, fear of contestant breakdowns has caused CBS to mandate psychological counseling for the contestants who are voted off.

Voting a contestant off, then, is a decision to willfully inflict pain on him or her. Of course, voting people off is also the very purpose of the game -- and, according to the rules of the game, it must happen if the game is to go on. In other words, the game requires participants to periodically inflict pain on each other as a condition of playing.

of the game leave space for personal ethical beliefs that might override them? And why are these issues so familiar to lawyers?

The Milgram Experiment: Rules That Require Sadism

In requiring that participants inflict pain on others, Survivor is similar to the famous Milgram experiment on obedience conducted at Yale. In the Milgram experiment, participants believed they were part of a study of learning in which they were required to inflict electric shocks on "subjects" every time they made a mistake. In fact, the "subjects" were actors, and the study was not about whether the "subjects" would learn to correct their mistakes, but rather about whether the participants would obediently keep shocking the "subjects."

They did. Milgram participants were uniformly willing to inflict 300 volt shocks. And when the voltage went up to 450 (the top end of the scale), sixty percent keep right on administering shocks; only forty percent declined. The experiment was inspired by the phenomenon of Nazis who purported to justify their actions by claiming they were only following orders. It illustrated that even Americans have a deeply ingrained sense of obedience that means that we will follow even sadistic rules.

Resisting Sadism on "Survivor": Sean's Strategy

Survivor is a more contemporary illustration of exactly the same point. So far, the sixteen Americans on Survivor have followed much the same pattern as the Milgram experiment participants -- all obey up to some point, but after that point some individuals do refuse. No one has refused to vote others off at all -- or, for example, written down his or her own name. But other, more subtle forms of protest against the system have arisen.

For example, one of the contestants, a neurologist named Sean, has resorted to voting alphabetically. Throughout the show, Sean has been visibly uncomfortable with voting others off the island -- apparently because he is uncomfortable judging, and then rejecting, his fellow castaways. For example, when Sean voted against the much-disliked lawyer Stacey, his comment to the camera made clear that it wasn't personal -- probably so that Stacey would feel better when, having returned from the island, she watched the show on TV. By injecting an element of randomness, alphabetical voting minimizes the pain caused to the person voted off -- and that seems to be Sean's intent.

A cynic might attribute Sean's courtesy to strategy. On Survivor, niceness can be strategic, too -- it can garner votes from others, and it can lead to a win in the final competition, when the last seven contestants who have been voted off the island choose between the final two contestants who are left. But Sean's niceness seems consistent: part of an ethical system he adhered to before the show, and will adhere to long after.

Sean clearly values courtesy over winning. Accordingly, he complimented Greg on staying "a smidgen ahead" of him in one swimming competition. Similarly, in an orienteering/speed competition in which Jenna was just ahead of him, he chose not to gain an advantage by jostling her out of the way. Instead, he politely hung back for a moment. Moreover, Sean has followed alphabetical voting even when he himself did not have immunity and thus had a chance of being voted off. All indications, then, are that Sean's alphabetical strategy is a matter of principle, not pragmatism.

Sean may abandon alphabetical voting after this week's show, during which he inadvertently contributed to Jenna's being voted off. (The three-person Richard/Susan/Rudy voting alliance, knowing Jenna was next on Sean's list alphabetically, apparently decided to target her too so that there would be a majority of four against her.) But even if he does, he has stuck with the alphabetical system as long as possible, even at risk to himself, and that is striking.

Wily management consultant Richard, a sort of nudist Machiavelli, provides a clear counterpoint to Sean. If Sean dislikes voting people off, Richard joys in it. Last week, he literally sang when he voted against Greg, that week's casualty: "Goodnight sweetheart, it's time to go."

Richard was the architect of the four-person Tagi tribe voting alliance that succeeded in voting Dirk, Gretchen, and Greg off the show over the last three weeks. And, as noted above, this week -- with Sean's inadvertent help and despite the departure of Kelly -- Richard's alliance struck again. In Richard's comments to the camera, he expresses only self-satisfaction at wielding this much control over the destiny of others on the show.

However, Richard's enthusiastic pro-alliance viewpoint appears to be the exception, not the rule. Sean is not the only contestant to oppose alliances for ethical reasons. Greg also expressed anti-alliance views before he departed the show last week-- although, at the same time, he appeared to be trying to protect himself by gaining Richard's favor. And Kelly's departure from the alliance this week seems to have been triggered by angst about the alliance's targeting people she liked and valued.

On last week's show, Kelly seemed especially uncomfortable when she was forced to lie and deny the alliance's existence -- in response to a question from host Jeff Probst. In contrast, her co-alliance member, Susan, seemed content to lie. So did Richard, who claimed he was concentrating not on strategy, but rather on fishing for the tribe. Susan and Richard would probably have more compunctions about lying "in real life," as opposed to "in the game." But Kelly -- like the Milgram participants who finally stopped pushing the voltammeter upwards -- is increasingly unsure whether the ethical rules of real life (don't hurt people; don't lie) also apply "in a game" after all.

Alliances, Ethics, and Survival

Why this aversion to alliances, even among contestants who have accepted the basic system of voting the other "castaways" off? It seems to be the pure, unvarnished sadism that bothers the anti-alliance contingent. In earlier weeks of the show, castaways were able to justify votes by citing the type of neutral criteria that characterize a system of law, as opposed to a system of discretion: failure to contribute to the tribe (Stacey, Ramona), weakness that hurt the tribe in immunity challenges (Sonja), sowing dissension (B.B., Joel).

Now, however, pure power politics holds sway. In past weeks, the Tagi alliance masterminded by Richard has targeted those who are strong and do contribute to the tribe -- because they are the most likely to win immunity in physical challenges, and the most likely to walk away with money at the end. Ironically, popularity is now its own punishment. It's hard for many cast members to live with the idea that you may be voted off without "deserving" your fate -- that is, to live with a pure system of discretion. Ideas of justice and fairness were transported with at least some of the castaways all the way from the U.S. to an island on the South China Sea.

Others prefer to shock -- and to shock hard. Richard seems to enjoy both his power and the surprise of the person on whom he's inflicted it. He may be right that a game is only a game. But does playing it change who we are?

Kelly wrestled with this question this week, and left the alliance as a result. The rest of us will wrestle with this issue, in some version, all of our lives as we enter situations that can be viewed metaphorically as games. This quandary should strike home particularly acutely with lawyers -- since civil litigation, especially, can often seem a game played by arcane rules, rather than part of "real life." As we watch, we also watch a mirror.

Julie Hilden, a Senior Editor at Writ, practiced First Amendment Law at Williams and Connolly from 1996 to 1999, and is the author of the memoir "The Bad Daughter" (Algonquin 1998).

Was this helpful?

Copied to clipboard