Each season besides this one, I’ve structured my first column around the idea of social identity theory. Fundamentally, social identity theory explains how groups are formed. And, usually, in Survivor lately, producers form groups (tribes) based on some kind of social characteristic such as brains, or Generation X, or white collar.
As people, we’re part of numerous social groups. In fact, most social psychology scholars would argue that, as humans, we crave social categorization. Basically, we join or form numerous groups in our lives. Sometimes these groups form on the basis of occupation, some on gender, some on hobbies, some on religion, some on sports fandom …. You get the point. These aren’t official groups. These are just assemblages of people that we socialize with; we simply usually socialize with people who have something in common with us.
But, and this is a big but, once a group is formed, there are still intergroup dynamics involved. Just think about a group of friends you hang out with often: There’s someone on the bottom of that group, right?
Doesn’t that sound like an alliance?
It’s been mentioned and discussed by Survivor blogs and podcasts forever, but for an alliance to work, everyone must feel like they are at the top. And that’s why today we’re going to talk about social dominance theory.
While it sounds more ominous than it is, social dominance theory (SDT) just describes how successful groups stay together. Developed by Harvard professor Jim Sidanius and University of Connecticut professor Felicia Pratto, SDT at its most basic application, argues that all groups have hierarchies. And, think about it, of course they do. Nothing is truly democratic, with everyone having the same voice. All groups have leaders, even unofficially. And all groups have people on the bottom. Just like an alliance. Just like a group of friends.
Like Survivor, these hierarchies described by SDT are not merit-based. A common myth (heck, the American dream) concerning life is based on this false assumption of a meritocracy, that if we work hard and earn something, we’ll get it. But that’s not how group dynamics work. In fact, I would argue, Survivor’s final tribal council may be a meritocracy (sometimes), but the actual game is sometimes the opposite: If someone does really well, it just makes them more vulnerable.
For a group to keep functioning optimally, it needs the perceived hierarchy to be fair and equitable.
SDT is a lot more complicated and nuanced than I’m giving it credit for, but it makes a lot of sense when thinking about this week (or many weeks). We saw a core alliance of six that could stay together. Of those six, really, any of them would have a compelling narrative at final tribal. And once they got to six, any could have conceivably made a Big Move™ to bolster their resume.
But, and this is a big but again, everyone in the alliance must believe they’re at or near the top of the hierarchy. And we saw this with Sarah: She was ready to flip immediately when she thought she was at the bottom and then, after speaking with Sierra and getting a final three deal, she almost stayed put.
Intergroup dynamics are hard. I mean, any of us who work in an office can see that. But think about 11 people on an island vying for $1 million and knowing everyone is out to get them: You’re going to be truly cynical about your place in a hierarchy at all times. And the main alliance didn’t make Sarah feel nominally included and that kind of screwed them over (for now).
OK, that’s it for me. Here’s where I see every player right now. Have a great week.
And that’s it for this week, my friends. It looks like we’re going to see some alliance-shifting from here on out, so while many of the great players are gone, at least the season isn’t predictable, right?
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.