You Screwed Me, Now Screw You!

The Psychology of a Survivor Jury

by Brad Wolgast and Mario J. Lanza

[Note: This essay was originally written for the book The Psychology of Survivor in the spring of 2007.]

"I'll punch you in the face, then you give me a great big hug afterwards. Sound good?"

The statement above may sound absurd, but in truth it is the essence of the game of Survivor. Because no matter how good a player might be in getting to the final two, the fact remains that they must then win over a jury of their defeated foes in order to be crowned the Sole Survivor. A player must receive the blessings of a bunch of (presumably angry) people who have already been eliminated from the game, and this is possibly the most confounding strategic "twist" the producers ever could have designed. Because what they've done is created a contest that is virtually impossible to master. The producers have built the ultimate Skinner Box for their na´ve young Survivor wannabes, we've had a ringside seat to watch the ultimate "prisoner's dilemma" experiment play out on national TV, and for six years it has been fascinating to watch the unpredictable results.

JURY FACT #1: It is impossible to master Survivor, because a jury will be made up of players with different motivations every time. And there's no possible way you can control that variable.

How do you earn the support of people whose dreams you helped stomp into little bits? Is it even possible, in a game that is wholly dependent on personal relationships? In this chapter we'll look at the reasons why a jury sometimes votes the way that it does, and how you can help maximize your chances for a win. And we'll even be nice enough to tell you what pitfalls you need to avoid. We'll be doing this through careful analysis of the way that Survivor juries have voted in the past, both from a chronological perspective, as well as a social psychology perspective. We'll be looking at jury precedents, and how they affected future seasons in terms of lessons you need to know. And we'll also be looking at individual juror anecdotes, in an attempt to explain why a player might think the way he/she does at the time of the critical vote.

In the end, our goal is to determine the five key guidelines a player must follow if they want to have any chance in front of a Survivor jury. At least we hope there are five guidelines. If there aren't five, we might actually have to make a couple up.

We apologize in advance if it actually comes to that.

JURY FACT #2: The only objective in Survivor is to have a jury that wants you to win. There are no other objectives!

Before we start looking at the data, let us once again emphasize that the "jury-centric" resolution is one of the most unique aspects of Survivor, and one that is woefully underrated. Because when people talk about Survivor, they tend to focus on the strategic aspects of the game more than anything else. Survivor fans love to talk about "Who was the best player" or "Who stayed in power for most of the game." But what they don't talk about is "Who did the jury want to win?" After all, this is not a show where viewers can call in to decide the million-dollar winner. And Survivor fans tend to conveniently ignore that. They often seem to forget that the jury members are the only people who determine the eventual outcome! The players in the final two have no say over how the jury is going to vote, and they never have. And no matter how good a player may be for 38 days, if the jury doesn't want them to win on the 39th, they're not going to. It's as simple as that. And that's why winning a jury's favor is the only objective a player should have throughout the game. Anything that happens before the jury vote is, for all intents and purposes, irrelevant.

JURY FACT #3: You cannot win Survivor without the help of other people. No player has ever cast four votes for himself in the final Tribal Council.

If the jury doesn't want a player to win, then that player is not going to win. That is classic retributive justice at its very finest, as well as a perfectly valid explanation as to why a season may end the way that it does. Because no matter how strong or successful a player might be throughout the game, sometimes they end up with a jury that just wants to stick it to them.

Maybe the jury thought a player was too strange (Matt from Amazon). Maybe they thought a player never really had to strategize (Colby from Australia). Or maybe they just wanted to wipe that smug little grin off a player's face (Boston Rob from All-Stars.) All of these players might have had a great deal of success leading up to the final vote, but at the same time they all had one tragic flaw in common: They lost the vote because the jury simply didn't want them to win.

JURY FACT #4: Survivor is a social game. No player ever won with a jury that hated his or her guts.

If a player gets defeated by an angry jury, is that the jury's fault? Is that patently unfair and unjust? Of course not! That's the most valid reason for losing there could possibly be! If you somehow made the jury hate your guts, if you somehow screwed them over so badly that they all want you to lose, well brother, then that's your problem. You should have realized this was a social game all along.

JURY FACT #5: A jury will vote against someone just as often as they will vote for someone.

As we mentioned at the start, the jury vote "twist" is the aspect of Survivor that really throws a wrench into even the savviest of players. Because what it actually does is change the way a Survivor player must think. No matter how good a player might be, or how good a player thinks she might be, at some point she must stop thinking about herself and start thinking about the people who decide her fate. She must be able to put herself in other peoples' shoes, and see the game from their perspective, and that can be a very difficult skill to acquire. In fact, it's this ability to jump back and forth between "me, me, me" self-centrism, and "you, you, you" empathy that comprises the basic psychology behind the game. Above all else, it's a social experiment designed to test how well you can remember the big picture.

JURY FACT #6: There is no such thing as an inherently unfair jury. A jury (by definition) can only be reactive. The jury did not exist going into the game. They were created because of things that were done to them during the game.

So how do you ensure that a jury will want to give you a million dollars at the end? Is there some magical formula that explains how to do this?

The best way (maybe the only way) to answer this question is to look at what has worked for successful players in the past. Because in many ways, the winners of Survivor are determined similarly to the formation of law. Both Survivor and law are living, breathing entities, they are both ever-changing, they are both dynamic, and they both evolve through established precedent. In Survivor, players see what has worked before, they try to adapt similar strategies in their own unique manner, and in doing so they set a new precedent for future players to emulate down the road. And this is why every Survivor season is inherently unique.

JURY FACT #7: No two juries have ever voted the exact same way.

Why did Survivor juries of the past choose a specific player to win the game? What overwhelming criteria led one player to win over another? What psychological concepts did the jury use when making this decision? And, most critical for purposes of this chapter, are there any lessons can we take from these decisions? Are there any consistent rules we can extrapolate, to assist players facing future Survivor jury votes?

To answer these questions, we'll be looking at past Survivor jury rulings two separate ways. First we'll look at them from a chronological, precedent-setting perspective. Next, we'll look at them from a social psychology (mindset of a Survivor jury) perspective. The first run-through will be in layman's terms, the second will be much more technical. In either case, we should be able to pick out some important repeating themes.

These are the concepts that future Survivor players need to be memorizing, before they ever set foot on a deserted island somewhere in the Pacific.

(in chronological order)

BORNEO - Richard Hatch 4-3 over Kelly Wiglesworth

Comments: Richard may have been slimy and manipulative, but several players had genuine respect for the way he had organized an alliance when no other player could. It was an instance of "We may not like you, but we admired the way you pulled it off. Nice job." Younger female Kelly may have been better liked by the jury, but they grew tired of her wishy-washy "I'm in the alliance... no wait… no I'm not" flip-flopping towards the end of the game. The fact that Richard actually admitted his strategy was probably the biggest factor in why he won.

Lessons: You don't have to be liked by the jury; you just have to be respected. If they respect you, they will be willing to overlook the fact that you are a somewhat unsavory person (but don't push your luck.) And never be wishy-washy in front of a Survivor jury.

AUSTRALIA - Tina Wesson 4-3 over Colby Donaldson

Comments: Australia was an odd finale because neither of the final two had any specific enemies on the jury. Jerri was a little peeved at Colby, but she was no fan of Tina either. This was the rare case of two finalists who were genuinely respected by most of the jury. The reason Tina won has never been altogether clear, but it's possible that it was because Colby won so many challenges and was hardly ever forced to strategize. The jury seemed to feel that Tina had worked harder to get where she was. It's also entirely possible that Tina's win was a "backlash" decision against an arrogant male winner in season 1. No matter how you slice it, either player legitimately could have won this vote.

Lessons: Sometimes you can be a little too dominant for your own good, and the jury might then feel you never really had to play the game. Also, we learned that a jury can vote against somebody just as easily as they can vote for somebody.

AFRICA - Ethan Zohn 5-2 over Kim Johnson

Comments: This decision was easy. Ethan Zohn was liked by almost everybody. He was humble, he was gracious, and people were genuinely happy to see him win. Though this may have been unintentional, it was crucial that Ethan was always the third in command of his particular alliance (Lex/Tom/Ethan), so when tough choices had to be made, Ethan never took the hit. He managed to craft a perfect blame-less smokescreen behind alpha male lightning rod Lex. On the flip side, Kim Johnson never did anything particularly wrong, she just wasn't Ethan. Ethan legitimately could have won this vote 7-0.

Lessons: It's always best to be the second- or third-in-command of the alliance in power. This way you never take any political hits. More importantly, if you somehow end up in the final two, nobody is going to be out for revenge.

MARQUESAS - Vecepia Towery 4-3 over Neleh Dennis

Comments: Vecepia wasn't the most popular player in the game; indeed most jurors considered her a hypocrite. But the jurors actively wanted Neleh to lose. They couldn't stand the fact that a 21-year old Mormon woman was going to beat them. They didn't like that she was wishy-washy and refused to admit her deviousness. And most of all they didn't like the fact she had turned on her original alliance. So this vote wasn't so much for Vecepia as much as it was against Neleh. Vecepia had very little to do with it. All she had to do was not say anything stupid.

Lessons: This was actually the exact same lesson (in reverse) that we learned from Borneo. Neleh was well-liked as a person, but nobody respected her as a player. She proved that you can be the nicest person in the world, you can be the sweetest person in the world, but if people aren't happy with losing to you, you don't stand a chance. The jury will only lose to a player that they respect.

THAILAND - Brian Heidik 4-3 over Clay Jordan

Comments: Brian was not the nicest person in the world, but he was smart enough to hide this side from the jury and laugh all the way to the bank. Brian portrayed himself as a loyal, hardworking dad to most of the other players. So when he inevitably backstabbed his alliance, the jury was able to look past it and see the "hardworking dad" they respected. That's what got Brian the million dollars. The only reason Brian won 4-3, instead of 7-0, was because he made no attempt to befriend those jurors whose votes he knew he didn't need.

Lessons: Again, it's R-E-S-P-E-C-T. You can have enemies on the jury, and they still might be okay with giving you the win. It's all about how much they respect you. Brian's backstabbing at the end may have bruised some egos, but it did nothing to override the belief that he was a good guy who deserved to win.

AMAZON - Jenna Morasca 6-1 over Matthew von Ertfelda

Comments: Jenna had lots of friends on the jury and Matthew had none. Plus, everyone on the jury knew that Matt being in the final two was a complete fluke. At the time, this was the easiest jury vote in Survivor history.

Lessons: If, like Matt, you are a clueless dolt for 30 days, then a Survivor mastermind for 9 days, the only thing the jury will remember is that you were a clueless dolt for most of the game. Remember that first impressions go a long way. Matt may have learned the game well under the tutelage of Master Cesternino, but it was too little, too late, in the eyes of the jury.

PEARL ISLANDS - Sandra Diaz-Twine 6-1 over Lillian Morris

Comments: Lill had enemies up and down the jury box. People either disliked her personality, or they thought she was a big hypocrite, or they would never vote for a stinking outcast. She walked into the worst possible jury and there was no way she could have prevailed. Sandra, on the other hand, was fairly well liked. She wasn't the greatest player in the world, but jurors knew she was a straight shooter, plus she had never really made any enemies throughout the game. Sandra won more or less because she wasn't Lill.

Lessons: A lack of respect torpedoes another player in front of a jury yet again. Meanwhile, Sandra's big mouth proved to be a wonderful jury asset. Because even though she cussed out other players throughout the game, Sandra was always very honest in what she was saying. And the jury actually seemed to appreciate this trait. More research will be needed on this subject, but the fact that Sandra's general mouthiness actually helped her win respect is a lesson that is particularly noteworthy here.

ALL-STARS - Amber Brkich 4-3 over Rob Mariano

Comments: This one was easy. Rob was possibly the most hated final-two contestant ever. He treated players like garbage, he laughed and mocked them on their way out, and he was particularly mean when trying to embarrass other players in front of their peers. This was a textbook example of how not to treat a jury. Meanwhile, his girlfriend Amber, sitting next to him, was wise enough to let Rob take all the heat throughout the game. She was nothing special as a player, but the fact that she wasn't Rob Mariano was really all that it took.

Lessons: If you team up with someone abrasive, let them take all the heat while you waltz by unscathed. Ethan did it, Amber did it, and you're almost unstoppable if you can pull this strategy off without a hitch. Boston Rob's most fatal mistake may have come during the final Tribal Council, when he started apologizing for some of his decisions. He broke the ironclad rule of "don't be wishy-washy." It was the wrong thing to do, and the jury absolutely killed him on it. If you're going to play the game aggressively, take pride and go out aggressively. Appearing apologetic and indecisive at the end is only going to lose you respect.

VANUATU - Chris Daugherty 5-2 over Twila Tanner

Comments: First off, the mostly-female jury hated Twila for turning on them, and they savaged her without remorse in the final jury. Chris knew this was going to happen, because he could read the jury, so he just sat back and buttered up all the jurors, telling them exactly what each individual person wanted to hear. This may have been the single best jury performance of all time. Chris played the female jurors like the proverbial fiddle.

Lessons: Know your jury ahead of time, and understand what they want to hear. If they want apologies, give them apologies. If they want strategy, show your strategy. Your main mission is to figure out what they are looking for before they start asking their questions.

PALAU - Tom Westman 6-1 over Katie Gallagher

Comments: Tom Westman owned this game from start to finish. He was the leader of the Korors, he was the best athlete in the entire cast, and everybody liked and respected him. He would have been virtually unbeatable no matter who he faced. This remains the easiest jury win in Survivor history.

Lessons: If a player as likable and charismatic as Tom gets to the final two, the rest of the players somehow didn't do their jobs. Players this dominant are never supposed to make it that far.

GUATEMALA - Danni Boatwright 6-1 over Stephenie LaGrossa

Comments: Stephenie not only had the deck stacked against her (by being a former player), she also cut too many throats and rubbed too many people the wrong way. She put on a wonderful example of how not to win Survivor, and there was literally no way she ever could have won. Danni, on the other hand, was a quiet Ethan-like underdog who never made any enemies and was genuinely liked by the rest of the cast. She didn't wow people with strategy, but they liked her enough to give her the win.

Lessons: You're never going to win Survivor if you're a former player. Just ask any of the former winners in Survivor: All-Stars. Also, you can't cut your allies' throats and get away with it unless you are immensely well respected first (like Brian Heidik or Tom Westman.) Stephenie didn't hold the appropriate level of respect to pull it off, and she was torn apart because of it in the final jury.

EXILE ISLAND - Aras Baskauskas 5-2 over Danielle DiLorenzo

Comments: Aras was genuinely liked and respected by just about everybody, despite not being the best player in the game. He also had no enemies on the jury, which always helps. Danielle, on the other hand, had no chance. She had cut too many throats during the game, like Stephenie, plus a few people on the jury simply didn't like her. Once again, Aras had been fortunate to be in the "Ethan position" for most of the game (a nice guy who's never first-in-command.) There was very little anger directed at him from the jury, and this was an easy win.

Lessons: It's the exact same rule we learned in Africa. If you're a nice guy in a strong alliance, never be the guy at the top of the totem pole. Since you weren't the leader who arranged each jury member's ouster, no one has any ammunition to use against you.

(sorted by jury mindset)

Jury Mindset #1: "The Wrath of a Survivor Scorned"
Examples: Marquesas, All-Stars, Vanuatu, Guatemala

Comments: The "prisoner's dilemma" is a classic psychology quandary, one that pits the needs of the individual against the needs of the group. It is illustrated through experiments where prisoners are "arrested", then coerced into "confessing" against one another for their own personal gain. Several Survivor juries have, in fact, dealt with the prisoner's dilemma. Although, to be more accurate, what they really did was demonstrate the inevitable response.

Like the prisoner's dilemma, Survivor is based around the belief that people working together will get further than a handful of people working individually. This is the core belief behind voting blocs and alliances, and underscores the need for people to stick together if the group has any chance to win the game. But if a player turns on their alliance at any point to gain individual power the result is the classic case of the prisoner's dilemma. You win, they lose, and that's what's needed in a zero-sum game.

But what complicates this dilemma in Survivor is the fact that the jury members (the "confessed- against", or voted out "prisoners") actually return at the end to pass judgment on you for what you have done. It is a revenge twist on the classic prisoner's dilemma, and it makes things a lot more complicated for anyone expecting to break an alliance. After all, if you blindside your alliance mates late in the game, they will inevitably return that favor by blasting you in the final tribal council. That's just the way that the game plays out. So Survivor doesn't just deal with the prisoner's dilemma, it actually expands this somewhat to also include the dramatic sequel: Part 2, The Prisoner's Revenge. And that's why this game can be so incredibly complicated.

A perfect example of "the prisoner's revenge" is what happened to Neleh, in the Marquesas. She was a driving force in the ouster of four members of her previous alliance. Later, three of the ousted members (John, Robert, and Tammy) voted against Neleh in the final tribal council, with each going out of their way to make it clear they wanted her to lose. This is the expected response to a perceived prisoner's betrayal. Neleh gained personal payoff at the expense of her fellow conspirators, so they made sure she paid a heavy price for her treachery in the end.

The exact same fate also befell Rob Mariano (All-Stars), Twila Tanner (Vanuatu) and Stephenie LaGrossa (Guatemala).

Jury Mindset #2: "The Forgiveness of a Survivor Scorned"
Examples: Thailand, Vanuatu

Comments: If the most obvious response to the prisoner's dilemma is to exact revenge during the final Tribal Council, then why are there so many examples of just the opposite happening? How is it possible that some jurors can forgive, as well as forget?

In Thailand, Brian Heidik arranged the dismissal of two members of his original alliance. Both Ted and Helen expected to be in the final three with him, yet were shocked to see their names come up at Tribal Council instead. Yet even though Brian had been responsible for arranging their ousters, they both turned around and voted for him to win in the end. How did Brian manage to do that?

There are several possible explanations for this behavior, but one clear finding in the arena of social psychology is that people tend to like those who like them in return. Ted and Helen had good relations with Brian prior to his backstabbing, plus they liked him as a person. Thus they were able to fall back upon this relationship when faced with the final two vote. After all, how many times have we seen a juror vote for a player from his or her own tribe, if for no other reason than they started the game wearing the same color buff? In other words, when it comes down to voting for a snake from your own tribe, or a player you made little connection with from the other tribe, oftentimes you'll still vote for the snake even though he was responsible for your downfall.

In Thailand, Brian Heidik was a devious, deceptive, calculated player who had no apparent difficulty in voting off his friends. Yet no matter what he did to them, his former teammates in the jury still claimed that they liked the guy. Brian was very well liked. Brian won their votes because of this apparently genuine bond, and this is how he ended up winning Survivor.

Of course it could be argued that Brian brought a far lesser opponent along as an easy final two opponent, but this argument is limited because Brian still got all of his former alliance mates to vote for him. Even when faced with the choice between two Chuay Gahns, the mostly Chuay Gahn jury still chose to reward the once-traitorous Brian Heidik with their million dollar votes.

The forgiveness jury vote also showed up in the All-Stars and Vanuatu seasons, among others.

Jury Mindset #3: "Saving Face through Final Voting"
Examples: Australia, Guatemala

Comments: Often a juror may try to "enhance" their status through the way they cast their final vote. After all, if they end up voting for the eventual winner, doesn't that make them seem like a smarter juror on TV? This type of thinking highlights one of the key components of social psychology theory, and explains how a person will often "tie" themselves to someone of greater status, as a simple-yet-effective method of raising one's own status at the same time. This behavior may sound degrading at first, but can actually be extraordinarily rewarding if done in the proper way. After all, people everywhere derive greater purpose and meaning in their lives by strongly identifying with someone inspirational, like Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Christopher Reeve, and so on. Tying yourself to these extraordinary people makes you feel like a better person at the same time.

Admittedly, the motivations in a final tribal council vote may not be as lofty as following a spiritual leader, but there is no denying that the rationale is essentially the same. Because no matter what your status in the game is when you enter that final Tribal Council, the fact that you cast a vote for the eventual winner can somehow validate the entire experience. And if you cast the specific vote that a popular player needed to win, it somehow makes your impact on the game that much more meaningful.

A good example of this came in the second season of Survivor, when the jurors were faced with the difficult choice between athletic-and-likable Colby Donaldson and motherly-and-likable Tina Wesson. It was a tough decision for most everybody involved, yet even though Colby was technically the more dominant player, Tina ended up winning the vote.

Why did Tina triumph over such a well-liked and dominant player? There has never been a consensus reason, but more than one Survivor expert has theorized that Tina's win was a jury "reaction" to the win of dislikable male Richard Hatch in the previous Survivor season. Richard's win had been incredibly unpopular, the Australia jurors would have been aware of this, and who can say they didn't want to reward a sweet unthreatening woman the second time around, just to make a point? Tina was, in every way possible, the complete opposite of Richard Hatch. And what better way to strike a blow for modern feminism than to reward a well-respected woman with the win the second time around. After all, a vote for Tina was in essence a vote for themselves. Tina winning meant that the Australia jury had overturned the dominant paradigm of the time - the all-powerful male winner. Thus, the Australia jury made history by crowning the first female champion of all time.

While it wasn't as drastic, a similar thing happened to Danni Boatwright during the final vote of Survivor: Guatemala. She won 6-1 over Stephenie LaGrossa, for the most part because Stephenie had already played before, and played well. The jury didn't want to vote for Stephenie, because Stephenie was never truly "one of them." She was seen as an outsider who was crashing the Guatemalans' season. Thus a vote for Danni was considered a vote for "the new Survivor." It was a vote against Stephenie's fame, and glory, as the Guatemalan jury sent a message that only one of "them" was supposed to win their season. It was if they wanted to show that even a Survivor celebrity wasn't good enough to beat the Guatemalans on their own turf.

Jury Mindset #4: "Voting with a Mirror"
Examples: Marquesas

Comments: Another important psychological concept, similar to the idea that we like those who like us, is the theory that we most like those who resemble us in some way. This doesn't necessarily mean they resemble us in appearance, but more likely they resemble us in some core sociological component (ethnicity, lifestyle, age, city dweller versus country, etc.). What is salient for one jury member may be inconsequential to another, but if any such bond exists between a juror and a final two member, sometimes it can be strong enough to single-handedly win a juror's vote.

On Survivor, a small group of people live for 39 days as their own separate sociological entity. They are isolated from their friends and family, and they have no social contact with the outside world. So it is no surprise that shared links to home inevitably become powerful bonds. And these bonds can last throughout the entire game. In fact, sometimes the bonds are strong enough for jurors to use them as their sole criteria behind their final vote. They may not admit this outright, but if you interviewed the final jurors from each season they would probably tell us that their vote was for the person they felt closest to. It was for the person they felt they connected with the most throughout the game.

One obvious example of this would be Sean's vote for Vecepia during Marquesas. Throughout the season, Sean bonded with Vecepia as the only other African-American in his tribe, as well as being another devout Christian. And despite the fact that Sean and Vecepia differed in many strategic decisions throughout the game, Sean inevitably rewarded her with his vote to win at the end. Because despite the strategic differences they may have had, the cultural (and religious) bond between the two players never seemed to diminish in the slightest. Sean and Vee had each others' backs all the way to the very end.

Jury Mindset #5: "If you're selling, I'm buying"
Examples: Various (see below)

Comments: Although the popular belief is that a player can win or lose the game with their jury performance, the fact remains that most Survivor jurors have their minds made up prior to the final vote. More often that not, the final Tribal Council is little more than a formality. But on the off chance that the jury has not yet decided how to vote, the "question and answer" segment of Tribal Council becomes extremely important. Because it is here that the final two players try to "sell" themselves as the rightful winner of the game.

But how does a player best sell himself to an angry, and often hostile, jury? One of two methods can be selected, according to basic industrial psychology principles. A salesman can use either a central route of persuasion, or a peripheral route of persuasion, depending on the type of image he is hoping to give off.

Sales Method #1: Central Route of Persuasion ("I am the best")
Examples: Palau, Borneo

Comments: The central route of persuasion is direct and straightforward, and means that the player basically argues, "I am the best!" Tom Westman in Palau did this. So did Richard Hatch. In fact both of these players (among others) made the very direct argument that they were the best player in the game, and thus deserved the jury's million-dollar vote. The interesting thing about this argument is that it usually works. Every player who can realistically make this claim, and back it up with empirical proof, has won the final vote. In fact this seems to be the single best argument a Survivor has ever used when facing a final jury. Vote for me because I'm the best. You know it, I know it, so let's end this formality and send everybody home happy.

Sales Method #2: Peripheral Route of Persuasion ("I am not the worst")
Examples: Vanuatu, Pearl Islands, All-Stars

Comments: The peripheral (or indirect) route of persuasion is much more complicated. In advertising, this is the tactic that companies use to get you to like their product by implying that it's good enough for a popular celebrity. So when you see Tiger Woods on TV wearing Nikes, or Colby Donaldson using a Schick Quattro, you are more likely to want to use that particular product yourself. Peripheral selling doesn't flat out say "this is the best product on the market." Rather, it says, "this is a product that you want."

Survivors in the final two often use this style of "advertising" and, if done right, it can be incredibly effective. Because rather than shoes or razors, what they are selling is their own victory. These are the players who remind the jury that they "never slacked around camp." Or they will say that they "never backstabbed anyone." The difference between this style, and the central style, is that players using the peripheral route are not directly claiming to be the best Survivor. Instead, they are describing themselves as somebody you want to vote for.

This tactic can work particularly well in the final two because of the dichotomous nature of the jury vote. The jury is either choosing between one person or another, and when it comes down to it, am I really that bad compared to the other guy? Wouldn't you be happier if I won the game?

Vanuatu's Chris Daugherty excelled at this type of reasoning, as did Sandra Diaz-Twine and Amber Brkich. All three of them successfully pulled off the peripheral route of persuasion when they successfully argued that they just weren't as bad as the other person. After all, sometimes the "lesser of two evils" is really the same thing as "the best of the best."


Even though Survivor is notoriously unpredictable, there do appear to be five main "rules" when it comes to presenting a successful case in front of a jury. These rules pop up over and over again, through twelve seasons of Survivor, so you'd have to conclude there is some actual statistical reliability going on here. The fact that these rules have been validated consistently throughout the years only emphasizes our belief that they are important.

So here are the five rules any player needs to know before presenting him or herself in front of a Survivor jury. Remember that though the game may be ever-changing, these rules haven't changed since day one. And that's why we feel they would apply to any Survivor season ever played.

Rule #1: Make sure the jury respects you as a player. It's up to you to determine how to do this, but without respect you'll never convince a jury to award you the win. And make sure this respect is earned prior to that final Tribal Council. There's no way you'll win respect through your jury performance alone.

Rule #2: Find somebody unlikable to sit next to you at the end. This may be easier said than done, but it's a simple truth that Survivor jurors vote against somebody just as often as they vote for somebody. Make sure you aren't the one they are voting against.

Rule #3: Know your jury, and know what they want to hear. Remember, the final Tribal Council isn't about you, it is about them. So if they want apologies, give them apologies. If they want strategic proof, give them strategic proof. Remember that no two Survivor juries have ever been exactly the same. And if you're as savvy a player as you think you are, you'll know exactly the kind of things your particular jury will want to hear.

Rule #4: Don't say that you feel bad about being here. This is a fatal mistake that numerous players have made (Neleh, Lill, Kelly W.) and it never fails to turn the jury against them. There is a way to apologize to jurors without apologizing for your own success. Remember that. You can apologize for your actions, but never, ever apologize for your success. The worst possible thing you can do is come off like a wishy-washy, "I don't deserve to be here" apologist.

Rule #5: When in doubt, just sell yourself as "the best." This tactic, if done correctly, has never backfired in Survivor history. Indeed, the jury often seems to respond to it. Oftentimes a jury just wants to feel like they lost to a better player in the end.

So what happens if all these tactics fail, and you find yourself in front of an angry and unbreakable jury? Well, you're kind of up a creek without a paddle at that point. Our only suggestion if that happens is to look sad, start crying, and lie about the death of your fictitious grandmother. Be sure to add that she really really wanted you to win this game. There's really not much else you could do that would help.

About the authors:

Brad Wolgast, Ph.D., is a staff psychologist and the coordinator of the post-doctoral fellowship in psychology at the Counseling and Psychological Services at the University of Pennsylvania, which is actually just an elaborate ruse to have a captive audience to bore with his latest thoughts about Survivor. Brad was born into a good family; something just happened along the way that turned him into a Survivor junkie. He would like to thank Dr. Kate Richmond and Dr. Vinai Norsukunkkit for their superior assistance with this project. And he would have gotten away with it, if it weren't for that meddling Mario Lanza.

Mario J. Lanza is a well-known writer and humorist, whose "Survivor Strategy" column was one of the most widely read on the Internet between the years 2001 and 2004. He was recently called "one of the foremost Survivor experts in the world" by Survivor: Amazon contestant Rob Cesternino. Mario does not hold a Ph.D. from Stanford University. He did not study applied psychology at the University of Washington. And it would be wrong to call him a cognitive neuroscientist at Cornell University. He claims he got a B.S. in psychology from Santa Clara University, but, really, that's about as far as it went. When he's not writing about Survivor, Mario enjoys baseball, horror movies, writing sketch comedy, stripping for chocolate and peanut butter, and not pursuing advanced degrees. And he's thrilled that his bio is just a little bit longer than Brad's.

Back to Mario's Survivor Writing Archives