The Unwritten Rules of the Show Survivor

The Unwritten Rules of the Show Survivor

As it has entered its 38th season on CBS, the television show Survivor is an Emmy Award winning reality show that illustrates tribalism at its best (or worst). Contestants have a fair number of rules to learn and understand, as violation of these rules will result in immediate disqualification. More than a few contestants have immediately forfeited their chance at the $1 million prize through rule violations. Then there are the rules changes that the producers of the show have made, some angering the show’s diehard fans. While it is inevitable that some rule changes would be made over 19 years, the majority of controversy was generated by the deliberate withholding of rule changes from the contestants during the contest. The concept of a level playing field is not limited to the real world.

Within the context of a level playing field are the unwritten rules of Survivor. The truth is, every game you play has them and when it comes to Survivor the unwritten rules fall under the category of The Games People Play. Many of them involve strategy and tactics to get the $1 million first prize, while others can be psychologically sinister. For example, the idea that Survivor is actually a team or group competition will definitely work against you if you believe it. There is only one winner, with the difference between 1st and 2nd place being in the neighborhood of $900,000. You can choose to believe that your tribal companions are trying to help you but if it comes down to you and them — you lose.

Stealthiness is a key factor that often appears as a major theme of the unwritten rules. From a broad perspective, you want to make voting choices that will eliminate the strongest competitors while keeping the weaker ones around to give you the best chance at winning. The challenge here is to not give your strategy away. It’s reasonable to expect that the strongest players will emerge fairly quickly, but what if you are only perceived at being the strongest? That puts you at a distinct disadvantage, so you have to try hard enough to win yet find a way to stay under the radar.

Pushing somebody into a leadership position to get them booted later is an intriguing possibility that has often worked. There is no rule to the counterintuitive idea that you help somebody succeed so they can fail. But it is a strategy that generally will work only when the “volunteered” leader doesn’t have the support of the other players (or immunity). If you help someone become a leader who has the numbers, it is likely you will find yourself on the outside looking in.

There is no rule against playing it safe, but this is one of the most controversial strategies used by the players. One reason is that if a contestant chooses to play it safe they likely not only hurt their own chances of winning but also directly affect their tribe. It may be possible to convince someone else to play it safe for an individual contest with the intent of making them appear weaker. Then there is safety for personal survival’s sake, where you opt to boot somebody from your own team just to stay in the competition. Going down the safe path may be the tactic that requires the greatest stealthiness of all.

Finally, there is the opportunity to be chosen to come back for the All Star Season. You have to be popular enough for consideration (especially if you don’t place 1st) yet be stealthy enough to hide your plots and strategies and minimize the amount of resentment from other players. There are no rules regarding mind manipulation, but increasing your chances for the elusive Second Chance may depend on it.

Of course, there are other unwritten rules that directly impact the play and outcome of the contest. Most of them are directed at other contestants rather than the contests. Some viewers say that Survivor is more about adaptability than manipulating others. Whether you are a viewer or contestant, it is critical that you watch for mental strategies and tactics that will give you a better insight into who has the most realistic chances of winning.

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