The Misuse of Ethics in Survivor


Another Feature Article coming your way today, as Ozlet Paul Luttrell looks into the role ethics play in Survivor. In our daily lives, we don’t think twice about common morals and ethics of humans, however, if you were playing Survivor, would you be okay with lying, cheating and stealing to get to the end to claim the prize? Paul explains how Survivor differs from real life and why players need to make that connection before beginning the game. Don’t forget, join in the fun by leaving a comment with your opinion below!

Being the long, grueling, emotional and socially challenging game that Survivor is, it’s not hard to see why many people, contestants and fans alike, equate the game to a microcosm of everyday life. Given that within everyday life, many, (if not all), human interactions are dictated by some form of ethical or moral obligation, it’s no stretch to see how “real world” ethics make their way into the game of Survivor, even if their implementation is contrary to what it takes to win the game.

Obviously Survivor is televised to millions of viewers and how one is portrayed and perceived would surely play on the minds of contestants. Playing a straight up ethical game may be a safe bet to ensure a favourable portrayal, but are these ethics necessary in the game, if not contradictory to their intended purpose?

On many occasions, contestants have entered the game with ethical dispositions that have not only been baffling to me as an observer, but have seemingly belittled the game of Survivor and have incited greater levels of bitterness and emotional suffering. It is my understanding that the purpose of a system of ethics is to prevent suffering, (at least when used properly), not inflict more, (though this can be the case, cough, cough ‘religion’ cough, cough). Therefore, it is reasonable to argue that many “real world” ethics are contradictions within the context of Survivor, not to mention that many just make no freaking sense within the context of any competitive situation.

I’ll highlight my point with examples of misused ethics that pop-up frequently from season to season.

Telling someone they’re the next to be voted out rather than blindsiding them


It amazes me how this still continues to happen in Survivor. We saw it in Africa and All-Stars, with Lex telling Clarence, Teresa, Ethan and then Jerri. We saw it in Blood vs. Water with Laura B telling Vytas. We saw it in the current season with Garrett telling J’Tia and we’ve seen it countless other times. Do contestants on the show not watch the show? More often than not the result of the vote ends up flipping onto the person that told.

Stupid strategy aside, the ethical thought process behind it seems to be that it shows respect for the person being voted out, as you would rather tell them the truth than lie to them and have them shocked at Tribal Council.

What many of the players that do this don’t seem to realise is there’s another way this can be received. By telling another contestant they’re going home, you’re showing complete disrespect for them as a player, as you’re so confident in their lack of game playing ability you would voluntarily give them a chance to scramble and by doing so, risk being voted out yourself. Even if they had no strategic options and there was no perceivable risk in telling them, you’d still be prolonging their misery on camera, and – to an extent – humiliating them on international television. That’s bound to be something they’ll resent you for. It’s like being in a relationship with someone, taking them out to dinner, breaking up with them when the entrée arrives, and then forcing them to stick around for dessert while fifteen million people watch. It’s awkward for you and them, but hey, you’re conscience is clear, (if you’re a narcissist).

image_thumb63“You’re still paying, right?”

Not only do contestants continue to mistake this for an ethical way to play the game, they also seem to think that this will somehow garner favour with the person being voted out and possibly harness their Jury vote. The expression ‘don’t kill the messenger’ exists because people have a tendency to do just that. Besides, it’s just flat-out lazy. Do the rounds, see what people are thinking, strategise and let other people strategise with you, even if you are planning to vote them out. At least that way they’ll enjoy themselves while they’re in your company and they’ll incorporate a sense of camaraderie into their memory of you. That’s what’ll make people happy and that’s what’ll win Jury votes.

Taking the best to the end, so that you can prove you’re the best by beating the best


Jenna promoted the idea in Amazon, so too did Stephenie in Guatemala, Sugar in Gabon, Coach in Tocantins and Skupin contemplated employing it in Philippines.

Where do I start with this? It’s definitely one of the more baffling concepts and I can hear the hundreds or thousands of people that are reading this right now, (I’m hopeful), shake their heads and ask; what has this got to do with ethics Paul? I’ll explain. The ethical concept appears to be that you should never enter into a competition with someone that you know you’ll beat, as this won’t allow for self-improvement nor will it do anything positive to your opponent’s self-esteem. However, in the context of Survivor, where a million dollars is at stake, this idea comes across less like an ethical choice and more like some weird fetishistic way to satisfy an egomaniac.

I really don’t know how this is even a thing, so I’ll say it slowly. The whole game – is the game – and if you beat someone in the game – by outlasting them – then you’ve beaten them. The game does not begin at the Final Tribal Council. If you have played well enough to be in a position where you and you alone are able to decide who goes to the end with you, then you have beaten whomever you decide to vote out. You aren’t training for some future game in which you’ll be better off for competing against better competition, nor are you racing against a clock where better competition will result in a faster time; this is the competition and there is no measurement other than the position in which you finish! Adoiiiiii!

clip_image011_thumb1“No, call it off guys, I’m not the best, because I didn’t beat the best. Last year’s winner didn’t make the final”.

Honesty and Integrity


Lying is addressed as an ethical dilemma in every season of Survivor. There’s always at least one person who really struggles with it and we as the audience are privy to their confessionals in which the question will eventually be asked, ‘to lie or not to lie?’ Therefore I won’t give examples of it’s use, but I can recall times where players have said that the words ‘honesty’ and ‘integrity’ no longer hold any meaning to them, (Alex in the Amazon, Cochran in South Pacific).

In a game where deceit is one of your greatest weapons, it’s nothing more than sheer arrogance to declare that you are going to play and attempt to win without lying to people. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with telling people that you’re honest and you have integrity; that can be a great way to deceive people and a fine way to lull them into a false sense of security. What irritates me are the confessionals of certain players who claim that they don’t lie, as well as Jury members that attempt to slander finalists that have lied to them. If a Jury is bitter towards a certain player, obviously that player hasn’t played the game as well as it can be played. However, there are many instances where contestants have lied pathologically and haven’t encountered any ill feelings from a Jury. Clearly, the situation will differ from each individual Jury, (and each individual player within that Jury), but it seems for most part that the difference between a Jury being bitter towards a player or not being bitter towards them is usually the likeability or respectability of that player. Therefore, it is the Jury that should be honest and reveal the actual reason why they aren’t voting for a certain finalist, that being, they either don’t like them or they don’t respect them. Both are far more valid reasons than, ‘you lied to me in a game where lying is the best way to control the game’. If you don’t lie, then you’re either handing the game over to chance, or someone else who’s willing to lie.

clip_image015_thumb“These are the cards I have. Do you still want to raise?”

A good game player/competitor is someone that uses every tool at their disposal to win the contest overall. In my opinion, to not do this is disrespectful to the game and disrespectful to the other participants. We see Jury member’s constantly bad-mouthing finalists that didn’t give one hundred percent in the challenges, we see a similar deal when finalists that don’t put effort in around camp; why don’t we see Jury members complaining about finalists not fulfilling the full potential of their game by lying? If you’ve played an honest, straight-up, transparent game then well done, you’ve most-likely been the first boot, but if you do somehow manage to make the Final Tribal Council, then you’ve either had a lot of luck go your way, or you’ve been playing with people that aren’t very good at the game and they’ve probably fallen into the trap of using some of the remaining misguided ethics.

Not wanting to form an alliance



This idea was shared by the entire Pagong tribe in Borneo, as well as Gabriel, Paschal and Neleh in Marquesas and many more.

For the first few seasons of Survivor there was a resistance to the idea of an alliance. An alliance was seen as unethical, as vote-offs were determined by groups of people ganging up on whoever they felt most threatened by, rather than being based on the merit of each person. Since then, the alliance has become a staple move and for good reason. Without alliances, the game becomes a popularity contest and though a popularity contest is basically what the game is reduced to at the Final Tribal Council, the use of alliances allows players to position themselves, so that even if they’re the second most hated or second “least deserving” contestant, they can still win.

clip_image020_thumb1“Can we just say, ‘whoever people like the most wins?'”

It’s understandable why there was such a stigma attached to the idea of an alliance in the early part of the show’s history. Up until All-Stars the show was still seen as a social experiment and not the ultimate game of strategy that it is today. Contestants were trying to uphold the values that they wanted to see in the ‘real world’ and they tended to favour a meritocracy over an arbitrary alliance. Had they read the not-so-fine print, they would’ve seen that there was a million dollar prize awarded to the winner and unless I’ve been lied to, that just isn’t the case in the ‘real world’. Again, I’m hearing people say, ‘yes it is, that’s totally what happens in the real world, you get rewarded with financial success for being a savvy businessmen’. Okay yes, you’re life is exactly like Survivor if you’re a workaholic businessmen, (who deprives his body of hydration and nutrients and lives in a bamboo hut), but in the ‘real world’ not everyone is or wants to be a workaholic businessmen and not everyone is motivated by financial success. My point is, that life is far more complex than the game of Survivor. Each individual person has a different goal and different things motivate each individual person. In Survivor, though many contestants’ smaller goals may differ, everyone shares the same ultimate goal, (or at least they should), and that is winning. Therefore, the rules/ethics that govern people’s actions in the real world will not seamlessly apply to the Survivor world, as it is a completely different social structure. In the ‘real world’, it’s possible for people to live happily side by side with minimal interference from other people, weaving in and around other people’s interests while pursuing their own. In the game of Survivor, this isn’t possible, because at some point there will inevitably be a collision. If all sixteen-twenty contestants have the exact same goal and only one of them can achieve that goal, then the ethical structure that accommodates a multitude of different goals is no longer relevant.

Keeping someone around because you think they “deserve” to be there


Sugar used this as a way to decide who she would vote out in Gabon, so too did Jenny in the Cook Islands and Ethan wished it was the way in All-Stars, (“She does not deserve to be here…does not deserve to be here”).

This idea reminds me of a game of pool I had in high school. My competition was a kid who wasn’t very good at sports or anything else of a competitive nature. At one point, he lined up a coloured ball and was about to hit it, mistaking it for the cue ball. I intervened, as you would in a friendly game of pool. Suddenly out of nowhere, a teacher, who wasn’t very popular amongst students, (or even other staff members), interjected, “No, you can’t do that, you’re competing against him!” Though I was blown away by the ruthlessness of the teacher, (what a dick!), and what a ridiculous notion this was in the context of a casual game of pool, I feel as though it is appropriate in a game where one million dollars is at stake.

You’re competing against the other competitors; therefore, you’re not the umpire/referee or the judge of who is the most deserving. It should go without saying that you want to keep the people that you’ve deemed less deserving around, as they’re less likely to beat you in front of a Jury. Keeping people who are more deserving is the complete opposite of what someone who is competing in a game that’ll eventually boil down to a popularity contest should be thinking. If ‘deserving’ is a strong enough force to want to make you keep someone in regardless of strategy, then it’s probably a strong enough force to sway the Jury.

That point aside, making decisions based on who is most deserving rather than what will serve you better in the game makes the game a hell of a lot more personal. It’s one thing to vote someone out based purely on strategy, “I voted you out because it was the best move for me to make at that time,” it’s another thing to vote someone out because you think that they don’t deserve to be there as much as somebody else. That’s a harsh judgment call and a demoralising one for whoever is on the losing end.

The notion – regardless of its consequences – is just a strange thing in such a highly competitive competition. It’s almost as if watching Survivor and cheering on likeable players has become so ingrained into some contestants that they’re not able to separate the reality of playing the game from watching it on television.


“That guy should get a free kick there. Oh and I like that guy because he didn’t tackle me very hard when I had the ball, so he should get ‘Man-of-the-Match’. I think they should be awarded the game because they deserve it for being so nice.

Giving your all in every challenge


Most Challenge Beasts are guilty of this. The idea stems from the popular notion that ‘you should always give one hundred percent’.

Before I start this section, I should say that I’m not against putting effort into challenges. Obviously it’s very, very important to win them. The benefit of Rewards can be enough to place your tribe at a massive advantage, not to mention that you don’t want to be going to Tribal Council. What I’m saying is that you don’t need to stick out in challenges. Don’t show that you’re the worst, but also, don’t show that you’re an absolutely amazing athlete. “But Paul, sometimes it takes a phenomenal individual performance for the tribe to win”. Yes and I’m not against that. If the positive consequences of winning the challenge outweigh the negative consequences of placing a target on your back, then go for it. But what’s not a good strategy, (or just a complete lack of strategy), is doing things unnecessarily well. A couple of examples off the top of my head would be J.T. sprinting off in Tocantins in a challenge where the tribe couldn’t progress past a certain point until all tribe members were there anyway and Michelle in Pearl Islands not playing-down her ability to chug, in a challenge where each tribe would select a member from the opposing tribe to compete in a tie-breaker -generally whoever is the worst at the challenge. Michelle was not selected as she tore through the glass of blended seafood and as a result her tribe lost.

Again it goes back to an earlier point I made. It’s as if many contestants don’t see the whole game as the game. There seems to be a certain mentality present in a few players each season, that is ‘if I do well in challenges and then just hope really hard that I make it to the end, then I’ll win because people will respect me for doing well in challenges’. These players are so consumed by their egos that they won’t allow themselves for one second to be viewed as worse at something than they actually are. In the mean time, they don’t realise that in Survivor there are negative consequences to revealing yourself as a great competitor. In many ways it boils down to the need for immediate gratification. These players can’t handle not being seen in the most favourable light possible. In doing so, they stop thinking of the other contestants as their competition and start thinking of them as their audience. Survivor isn’t a platform for you to show-off how awesome you are at running, swimming or puzzle-making. If you were really good at those things you’d probably be a professional sportsperson, but you aren’t. You’re competing on Survivor where the strongest are usually targeted come the Merge.

clip_image028_thumb1“I must show everyone, just how awesome I am, at all times”.

I understand that if you’re a competitive person, it’s very hard to not put all your effort into a challenge. What you must do is think of the whole game as the challenge and if don’t put an effort towards suppressing your desire and ability to do the Reward and Immunity Challenges really well, then you’re not giving one hundred percent in the game. Therefore, if a person’s ethics are to be called into question for not giving one hundred percent, it should be those that don’t do everything they can to give themselves the best chance of winning the entire game.


To return to my main point, by introducing ‘real world’ ethics contestants are attempting to make the game more like the ‘real world,’ rather than ‘just a game’. By doing so, they’re increasing the amount of emotional investment in the game, (real world baggage), and also raising the likelihood and the extent of disappointment when that emotional investment is inevitably, (as it’s an individual game), cut down.

I’m not arguing that ethics should never be used. If the majority of your tribe is hell-bent on upholding an ethical game, then you probably should at least make an effort to appear as though you are too, as that would probably increase your chance of success. What I’m arguing is that Survivor is a game with clearly defined rules and a clearly defined aim and this aim should trump ethics such as honesty and integrity. In the ‘real world,’ ethics are a kind of social infrastructure, in place to help people navigate through an ambiguous life. It’s common for people to place ethics above all else, as this provides them with a sense of stability. The game of Survivor is anything but ambiguous, therefore, in the game, ethics/morals should not be an end but rather a means to an end; that end being, winning. To do otherwise is a disservice to anyone who watches the show and who would give up many things in order to participate in it.

PaulLuttrellFooter.jpgDo you agree with Paul that ethics shouldn’t come into play whilst playing Survivor? Or do you believe that the person you are in Survivor is the person you are in real life? Comment below to let us know! 

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5 Comments on The Misuse of Ethics in Survivor

  1. coconutphone // May 19, 2014 at 10:20 am // Reply

    Very good points, especially about the honesty/intergrity argument. The “telling them they’re getting vote off” point was so spot on. That just infuriates me when people (still!) do that on the show. You’re 100% right in that it’s just easing their own guilty conscience and it’s just selfish.

  2. Telling someone they’re the next to be voted out rather than blindsiding them. — Definitely agree that it’s almost a slap in the face to tell someone that you’re voting them out.

    Taking the best to the end, so that you can prove you’re the best by beating the best — I think the person that wrote this forgot a crucial part of this ethical dilemma in Survivor. Players who want to take the best to the end also do it because in their minds, if they don’t win, then at least someone else deserving will win, and they can live with themselves. I wholeheartedly support the idea that, if I don’t win, then at least someone else that was the best wins.

    Honesty and Integrity — Hmm I’m not liking what this author anymore if he thinks “lying is the best way to control the game.” What does he have against honesty? Not all players that play with honesty are hypocrites.

    Not wanting to form an alliance — Is this even an ethical problem anymore? Alliances are basically one of the rules of Survivor by now

    Keeping someone around because you think they “deserve” to be there – Again, the guy seems to forget that players consider who’d they rather lose to sometimes, so I don’t see this as a misuse of ethics.

    Giving your all in every challenge — I wish he would’ve talked about the “Ethics of throwing a challenge,” which seems to be more about ethics

    Hmm…the author seems to think that Survivor is a game that “trumps ethics such as honesty and integrity,” and although he brings up a few good points, I thought he would talk more from an impartial point of view lol

    What do you guys think?

    • I agree with you; although I do agree with some points (especially the first). Taking the best to the end: is it really unethical to say that one person played better than another, and that they deserve to win/the player taking them would be happy to see them win? The author just seems to ignore some perspectives on some of these situations in my opinion.

      • Caitlin // May 20, 2014 at 9:29 am //

        I think point is though, that by taking the best to the end, you’re usually hurting your own chances of winning. Feeling an obligation to “take the best to the end” is at odds with the whole aim of the game (winning) and therefore is misused in Survivor. It’s also pretty presumptuous of someone think that they should get to decide who the best is – especially when they usually only base it on one aspect (like being good at challenges/being honest), which doesn’t take into account the wider aspects of the game.

        If you think about it, all sports/games have set rules (including survivor) and as long as you play within those rules it’s fair game. You can tackle someone in football, but you don’t see players refusing to tackle because in their ordinary lives they wouldn’t physically harm someone – because this would harm their chances of winning. If you have a problem with tackling/being tackled, you probably shouldn’t be playing the game.

  3. I really like your comparison between survivor where everyone goal should be to win the million $ However in the real world not everyone is driven by economic success.
    I think Woo in survivor Cagayan made the mistake of taking Tony to the end. We all know that he cloud have beaten Kass and thanks to the reunion show he knows it too. Woos justification for taking Tony were explained when he told us something about how in marshal arts he won a huge title and it meant the world to him because he knew he beat the best competitor. He wanted to repeat this by taking Tony the best competitor rather then kass the person he cloud easily beat. What he didn’t relies was that wining the marshal arts title was all sentimental value and the prize was symbolic. In survivor however the is nothing symbolic about cold hard cash. I am not sure we can ever call him a “student of the game” after his decision on day 39.

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