How to win at SURVIVOR or succeed in the real world – it’s all about game theory


By web gangsta | Published:

Introduction to Game Theory

In a previous post, Web Watch mentioned how GAME THEORY plays an important part in the reality TV show SURVIVOR.

The key to understanding what that means is to know what GAME THEORY is all about.  Luckily, Web Watch has found a way to boil it down into some bite-sized chunks for our faithful Web Watch readers.

In 1987, Robert Axelrod ran a huge simulation of a classic game theory-based situation called THE PRISONER’S DILEMMA

In The Prisoner’s Dilemma, two prisoners are isolated into separate rooms and have no contact with each other in any way.  They are each given a choice to either stay silent or accuse the other prisoner of the crime. 

  • If both prisoners stay silent, they both receive slight sentences.
  • If both prisoners accuse the other, then both receive hard sentences
  • If one prisoner stays silent while the other accuses, then the silent prisoner stays in prison while the accussing prisoner goes free.

So you can see the complication – the maximum benefit  requires you to rat out your partner, but only if your partner stays silent.  Yet if both of you rat, then you both end up doing hard time. 

So which do you do?  Stay silent or go for the rat?

Bringing this back to SURVIVOR, the study that Axelrod did came up with 5 options, all which are applicable to the game of Survivor:

  1. Don’t rock the boat. Cooperate as much as possible
  2. Defect, but only after others have defected.
  3. Accept an apology after defection, continue to cooperate
  4. Forget:  cooperate after mutual cooperation has been restored
  5. Continue to defect after three mutual defections

It’s a constant give-and-take — there is always going to be those who play Survivor who are looking out only for themselves and will do whatever it takes to win, and there are those who will gang up and cooperate together in order to oust those who are playing against them.  As is often said on the show, Survivor may be an individual game, but it still requires an understanding of the team dynamic.

What further studies of the Prisoner’s Dilemma have uncovered is that as these types of games go on, there is going to be a small number of players who will find themselves winning on a regular basis.  Eventually, the other players will notice this and attempt to emulate those winning players, with all players eventually following the same winning strategies.   In other words, at the beginning of the studies, about 40% of the participants did their own thing and either failed or succeeded on their own…. but towards the end of the study, players were all doing similar things to whatever the leading players were doing.   

This all runs parallel to natural selection — the strongest survive because they are successful, and the weak will eventually learn how to be strong themselves or die out on their own.

So, how does this apply to Survivor?  The same way it applies to any aspect of life in the real world:  if you want to succeed and advance in your own life (whether it be at work, at home, dating, etc), take a clue from those successful people around you and emulate what they are doing as best you can.