Survivor's jury system is a complex and compelling factor of the game that provides room for plenty of analysis and hours of discussion. Getting game winning votes from a group of people who you had a hand in, directly or indirectly, voting out is a daunting and challenging process for any finalist. In today's feature article New Zealand Ozlet Nick Chester takes a look at what exactly motivates jurors to vote a particular way and how much weight finalist performances have in that decision. Keep reading to find out what jurors want most!
Every aspect of Survivor is fascinating to me. The idea of placing people on a remote island and letting them decide the rules on how they live, divide into leaders and followers, allies and enemies is all riveting stuff.
Arguably the most intriguing and complex part of Survivor is the jury system. Much has been written about it over the years (famously by John Cochran and many, many others). Understanding what criteria jurors use to decide on a winner is a constant source of discussion. Many will say that the best player at the end always wins by definition. Others will say a jury can be bitter and vote against a good player simply because they were bested by them. Many concepts have been raised over the years to explain why jurors would vote to reward someone who backstabbed them with a million dollars. Perhaps the most straightforward explanation is that it is really about two things – pride and comfort. The jury are thinking about themselves as much as, if not more than the finalists themselves. Their vote says a lot about who they are. But what also needs to be embraced is that jurors are humans. They will be bitter and the idea that anyone can put aside their own fate entirely to vote for a winner is asking for something you are unlikely to get.
Bitter juries exist – and you should feel fine
The first thing that viewers need to remember about the jury is it is made up of humans – particularly damaged humans who have just undergone a difficult experience that culminated in their elimination from a game for a million dollars. They are now being asked to reward one of the people responsible for their misery. Logical, dispassionate thinking in such a scenario is asking the impossible, and it is the most unpredictable and difficult parts of the game for any player to manage.
The term “bitter jury” in itself incites online riot amongst Survivor fans. The term has most regularly been applied to juries that have awarded wins to a more under the radar player in a finals situation, where the more strategically aggressive finalist loses out. See All Stars, Samoa and Heroes vs. Villains as classic examples.
The term “bitter jury” creates a sense that the feelings and rationale of these jurors is wrong. In fact, it’s very much a human emotion and if jurors weren’t at least a little bitter, they are probably either lying or unable to face the truth. Of course some people are able to compartmentalise the experience, but it’s only natural that players should feel a little unhappy at being voted out and now having to reward someone who did this with a million dollars. Also keep in mind that these players were anywhere from three weeks to a day away from still being in the game and their chances of winning still alive. Jurors are humans and will often act on emotion. However, this bitterness, disappointment or whatever you want to call it didn’t come from nowhere. The finalists have created it and to pretend jurors should be able to dispassionately forget how a finalist treated them is unrealistic. If jurors don’t want to reward a player who was strategically aggressive but made little effort to get to know them, that’s fine. Or, alternatively maybe a finalist was overly close to them, so the ultimate betrayal felt even worse. Whatever the scenario, a juror is not always going to be able to set aside what happened to them and vote solely on gameplay. We also have to remember we are seeing a highly edited version of what happened. A well edited show, which Survivor normally is, will explain how a winner ends up convincing a jury, mostly through on-going actions in the game and occasionally through a good final tribal council performance. But you are still only seeing part of the story. Natalie White’s ability to make connections with people or Cochran’s strength in standing slightly away from players so they don’t feel their betrayal and exit came from him are things that may not always show up on the episode, but it doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. And these are all things that influence a juror’s vote. Trying to categorise the emotions and actions of a jury is so complex, that applying simple terms like “bitter” is pretty unhelpful.
Pride – whoever wins, beat me
One aspect I have never heard a finalist say in their final tribal council speech is that the vote is just as important to the jury as it is to the player. Some have come close to this – notably Chris and Todd, but it’s never been explicitly states that the way a juror votes ultimately makes a clear point about how they view the game. As much as the end game is about the finalists, it’s also about jurors – their last act in the game is their vote for who will win and their own pride is very much at stake. For many jurors, their vote is really a statement for them about who they are OK losing the game to. Many players will say that the runner up to the first one voted out are all losers – its just shades on the same scale. A juror may vote in a way that says they are comfortable losing to this person, who will go on to win the game if they are in the majority. Jurors are humans, and often will see the season revolving around them and their own story as much as around the finalists. Their vote may be a mark of their own view of the game and themselves, and not nearly as much about the finalists.
There are some good examples. Let’s start with Thailand. Both Brian and Clay were fairly well detested by the jury – but of course one of them had to win. The former Chuay Ghans and Jake seemed to be holding their nose and voting for Brian – not because they thought he was a great guy, but because they could at least stomach the thought of losing the game to him. For all his faults, Brian was a hard worker and provider, won a number of challenges both in a tribe and individual stage and was a major factor in getting Chuay Ghan into such a dominant position after the merge. Losing to him felt much more comfortable, and in voting for him, they were also consigning Clay to being a “loser” alongside them. It was as much a matter of pride than anything else. Just two seasons later, another great example is seen. Whilst many of the jury had no love for Sandra (Fairplay even jokingly asking if he could vote for “none of the above”), that was a much more preferable option than letting Lil be the winner of their season. Lil, who had already been voted out of the game and re-entered via the outcast twist, was a major source of irritation to her tribe, making life pretty difficult for those around her. She did her fair share of lying but unlike Sandra, hid behind Burton and Jon in an attempt to make herself look better. The jury could never consider handing her the game, if would just not sit well from a pride level. Sandra may have had a lot of flaws in her game, but jurors were more than happy to lose the game to her than to Lil. Its also the reason that had Jon made it to the end with Lil, he probably would have won despite his devious gameplay. Jurors are simply not going to award the winner of their season as someone like Lil.
A more modern example can be seen in Caramoan. Although many would say Dawn played the more cut-throat and aggressive strategic game, it was Cochran who swept the votes at the end. For many of the jury, living with Dawn would have been difficult. The jury was largely young people who would not have related to Dawn and her struggles to play a great strategic game whilst at the same time uphold a moral code that comes with being an adoptive mother to a large family as well as someone with strong religious beliefs. Dawn’s game would have seemed alien to them, and it didn’t matter how impressive her strategic moves wer, the thought of losing the game to her was no acceptable. Cochran may not have been the most exciting prospect as the winner of their season, but this jury was never going to let dawn, let alone Sherri be the one that rose above them all to beat them all. It was a slam dunk to Cochran, who certainly played a solid game but was very much in partnership with Dawn.
Comfort – how do I sleep at night?
Other jurors are thinking of the long term ramifications of their decision. Basically, they are asking themselves how comfortable they are in giving another person a million dollars. Some jurors need to be OK that they will spend the rest of their lives having given someone a potentially life changing amount of money. For a lot of people, this isn’t a serious consideration but many of us in our everyday lives get stressed out over decisions that have far lower financial stakes. The moral and ethical ramifications of such decision making is not often discussed on the show – its really confined to a cause-and-effect type of thinking where people appear to be hurt by another player and decide to respond accordingly based on that action. The context of the game and the prize is often much bigger. Sometimes the morality isn’t even about the money, but denying another player the opportunity to say they won, and that their actions in the game were therefore justified. Whilst there is certainly some level of pride here, I feel it’s a very different emotion attached to what was described above.
There are plenty of examples and perhaps the most obvious is in Russell’ Hantz’s first two seasons. Both times Russell made it to the end playing a hugely aggressive game, but failed to take the feelings of his jury into account. Both times Russell was crushed by the jury, during tribal council and then in the resulting vote. For many of these players, at least part of their motivation seemed to be that voting for Russell would be giving his style of gameplay a seal of approval. It would give him bragging rights and allow him to state that his way of playing was successful. In Natalie and Sandra (and to a lesser extent, Parvati), the jury had more palatable options. Why not reward these players who took the time to get to know their opponents? Who didn’t stab them in the back and go out of their way to talk negatively about them? These jurors were uncomfortable to give their seal of approval to Russell, and therefore it didn’t matter how many blindsides he orchestrated or idols he found, he couldn’t win when it mattered most.
But Russell isn’t alone. Another season he featured in ends with a jury faced with only one real option at the end. Redemption Island is a frustrating season to watch if you’re not a Boston Rob fan, but it shows his understanding of the jury system. If you sit next to two unpalatable options, you win, even if its by default to a degree. Much discussion after the season from the jury was that they were desperate to not vote for Rob (except perhaps the likes of David), but simply found the other options available so unappealing they had no option. This is a huge credit to Rob’s game. In all fairness, Rob won the game through a lot of hard work and setting himself up in a very good position. His 3 seasons of experience allowed him to see the writing on the wall well before anyone else and he saw two goats he could bring to the end. Phillip was never going to amass enough votes to win due to his abrasive nature and Natalie was not taken seriously due to the fact she was seen as a puppet unable to make decisions for herself. This jury was never going to feel comfortable giving Natalie or Phillip a million dollars, despite the fact Rob had been a runner up on 2 reality shows before and married the winner of one of them. If the game was won purely on financial need, Rob would have lost in a landslide, but this jury would not be able to sleep at night knowing they gave the money to Phillip or Natalie. It was a slam dunk to Rob.
It’s easy to slip into thinking that social aspects are all that matter to juries – i.e., whoever did the least harm gets the vote. But that isn’t always the case. Whilst nobody is going to win if they are sitting next to someone more likeable, having done something worthy of a million dollars will still have merit. The end result of Cagayan proves that. Woo, a seemingly nice guy (although up to a few off-screen shenanigans) lost out to a hyper-intense strategic force in Tony. Ultimately this jury would never feel comfortable letting Woo win, when he was pretty much just along for the ride, prepared to bet on Tony being hated for his erratic gameplay when Tony created more of a resume he could point to at the end of the game. There was no way this jury were going to feel comfortable awarding the win to Woo.
Working the jury
A good player will understand how to speak to a jury to ensure they receive enough votes to win. There is a reason that the final tribal council performances of Chris and Todd are rated amongst the very best and that’s because they make the jury the centrepiece of their plea for votes. By making the jury feel not just important, but essential to determining the right outcome is achieved, and playing to their ego, a good finalist can rake in the votes. Todd was great at explaining how the jurors had to be voted out because they were so good they would have beaten him. Less successful finalists have given little credit to the jury for getting them there, or claimed luck was not a factor. Claiming you are the best and therefore should win rarely works. However, it’s a fine line. Overplaying the importance of the jury can come across as disingenuous, as Sash and Albert can attest to. Good players involve the jury; ensure they feel that their elimination was critical to eventual success – in other words, their Survivor life wasn’t sacrificed in vain. Good players will even sacrifice one jury vote when they know that in doing so, they are likely to gain more from others. See Ethan’s answer to Brandon or Sophie’s treatment of Cochran as good examples here. Ultimately, most people who go on Survivor are Type-A personalities. They are highly competitive and many have a pretty big ego. Good finalists will play to this – make the final tribal council not about them, but about the jury. They acknowledge their power and work to make a jury feel comfortable and ensure that their pride doesn’t feel too bruised. The important aspect is always that the jury feel valued and critical to ensuring the season they participated in ends in the right way. All the best players have been able to steer the jury into acknowledging that them winning the season is indeed the best outcome, not just for them personally, or even the jury itself, but for the season as a whole.
What do you think the main motivator behind jury votes is? Is one motivation more powerful than another? Are there any motivations Nick forgot to mention? Leave a comment below to let us know your thoughts!
ALL IMAGES USED IN THIS ARTICLE ARE COPYRIGHT CBS. IF YOU WISH TO READ OUR DISCLAIMER IN REGARDS TO THE USE OF IMAGES PLEASE CLICK HERE