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Survivor Psychologist

Dr. Gene Ondrusek, a psychologist for the television hit Survivor, helped choose the Survivor contestants, and then went to Borneo to work with the survivors and the show. He talked to the Survivors after they left tribal council and analyzed the dynamics of their relationships with one another as the days progressed on the island.

Dr. Gene Ondrusek is chief psychologist for the Center for Executive Health at Scripps Hospital in La Jolla, California. He is a published author of numerous texts.

Take a look around you, and try and decide what creates personal success in this increasingly complex and rapidly changing world.

Is it still the mantra that your parents taught you? Work hard. Nose to the grindstone. Follow the rules. Or is it more cynical than that? It's not what you know that counts, it's whom you know. Get them before they get you. Well, research overwhelmingly confirms that success in the work-a-day jungle depends more on your interpersonal skills and ability to get along with people than on your technical competence.

But how often do we get a chance to test our mettle in the social cauldron and find out for sure if we actually work and play well with others?

Surviving the Social Cauldron

Our castaways have boldly stepped forward to do just that. And a lot is riding on their choice to place themselves in a hostile physical environment, where bonding to survive and cooperating to flourish is only a part of the package. The ultimate survivor will most likely possess the ability to combine leadership skills with being a team player. To rise to the top, they will have to demonstrate conflict management without alienating or appearing aloof and detached. They will have to care. The capacity to master the subtle social politics, to assert without offending, and to adapt to changing dynamics will be critical.

Most importantly, the winner will embody a hard to define quality which makes others want to see them succeed and prosper. Others must be made to feel good knowing that they helped this individual prevail, even as they failed. We know that if your team wants you to succeed, it is more likely that you will. We all want to enjoy helping a deserving person rise to receive just recognition. We like winners who we want to win. And in an ever more individualistic society, the opportunity to participate in this is a welcome one, even if most of us have to sit back while others display their lives for all to see and judge.

Interview with Dr. Ondrusek

You were the Survivor psychologist. Has psychology ever played a role in a TV production like this before?

I believe this is a new frontier. I think with Survivor, this is as deep as psychology hagone into a media production and I wanted to make sure that psychology was well represented and that it provided the kind of information that would benefit the show and the people involved.

Why were you chosen for this job?

I had talked with thrill seekers on a PBS series and someone had remembered that, but my background is in stress and personality testing so I really do have the appropriate background.

When did you enter the process?

After the casting folks had narrowed down the thousands of applicants to 48, I entered the process.

All of the Survivors looked good on camera and had pretty outgoing personalities. Was that a factor, did looks count?

Of course, the casting people wanted the camera to like the contestants and they had certain things they were looking for, but by the time it got to me, any of them would have been appropriate. But I was screening for basically two things. In the psychological testing asessment we screened for any evidence of significant medical disorders, for example we had one person with a post traumatic stress disorder and when we asked him about it, he started to cry. That person wasn't worth the risk to us.

We then looked at interpersonal reactions and behaviors that we could expect from them. We looked at whether they would be more intimate or more conflict driven, nice and motivated to get people to like them or they are simply there to play the game and win. We chose a mix of these people.

When thinking about someone who would make a good Survivor, what is important?

It is important that someone has the ability to compartmentalize. We want someone who looks at this as something they are doing now. They can experience the situation and then move on. They should be able to think it will be a part of my life but it won't become my life.

What is something bad, something that might cause you not to pick the person?

Someone who has a fragile personality and interpersonal skills, and someone who sees this as who they are as people and not just as an aspect of their life at that moment in time.

In addition to helping to pick the Survivors, you spent time with them on the island. How long did you live there, what did you do?

I had the best of both worlds. I would spend a few days at a five star resort on the mainland and then be there on the island when I was needed to provide support and counseling. I was there for two months. After every tribal council, when the castaway was voted off, I was at the end of the plank you saw on TV as they walked away. At the end of that plank is the confessional you see at the end of the episode, where the castaway talks to the camera. After that, the ousted castaway would talk to the contestant coordinator and me. We had a group of tables and tents. We made sure they could get a shower and food. We had their personal stuff with us, broughover from the mainland. Sometimes we talked with them well into the night.

Why was this necessary?

Our primary goal was to make sure the castoffs would walk away from this okay. My job was to be their resource to navigate the process successfully.

What did you talk about?

It was a general debrief similar to when anyone comes through a fairly stressful situation. We talked about what their perceptions were, what they might have done differently. I answered any questions they had along with any concerns.

Was anybody really upset?

There were no tears, no major disappointments. They had a sense of relief, getting back to comforts was important to most people. We wanted them to look at it as one large Malaysian experience. We talked a lot about what it would be like to go back to life in the states. We warned them about everything, the celebrity status they could expect, the possibility of hate mail, or stalkers. We told a few of them to expect Playboy offers. They found that hard to believe!

Would you look at the tapes as they were shot, in between tribal councils?

Sometimes, I would look at the "daily's" in production. I got a lot of feedback from the production staff and crew. There was one case where the production crew had some questions with one contestant. Basically, we were enjoying the process of good selection. They knew they were playing a game.

Did what we see on camera accurately reflect what went on, on the island?

What you saw there was the way they conducted themselves on the island, and that was portrayed well.

Rudy, why pick him?

If you look at overall diversity, he is your basic tell-it-like-it guy. He lives by the book and a set of rules and wants everyone else to do the same. If you don't, he tells you what he thinks of you. We knew that, of course. We knew that about him. And, yes, we knew he did not approv of homosexuality.


We knew he had those tendencies to probably want to single himself out. We knew he was there to play the game.


At tribal council, she was asked if there was a an alliance, and she looked at the camera and lied and said no, when clearly we knew there was one. She was playing a game. When you're playing poker you bluff. That's how you prevail.


She understood how to play the big game.


On the coconut phone.

What was that about?

We knew he was a prankster and that he was just a person who loved to tweak. It was obvious he had the personality that marched to a different drummer.

Colleen? She denied a sexual relationship. Do you know if there was one?

They did a great job of keeping us guessing. They denied it, but really, we'll never know.

We tried to keep people separate before we threw them overboard. W wanted to capture the reactions to each other on camera and for the most part that was achieved. I think the mix, the synergy, is what made it a compelling show.

Was the alliance malicious?

It was the process that emerged. They were working on the edge. Any time you put people in a competitive situation and give them a goal, they are going to figure out what's the best way to prevail, and to achieve that goal. People who thought they were going to win by being nice, as you can see, did not prevail. I think it's like being an excellent pool hustler. You are not only playing to win, you are playing your opponent and therefore, playing a bigger game.

What was the motivation for these people?

The million-dollar prize was not the biggest motivation. These were individuals looking for a vision. They were thrill seekers looking for a challenge.

The ones who wanted to see it as a survival place found that it wasn't the major agenda. The ones who knew that from the start it wasn't really about surviving the elements, but rather about interpersonal survival skills. They are the ones we see today.

What was one of the hardest things these people had to go through?

Well, the seven people who ultimately had to decide who to give a million dollars to when that someone had prevented them from getting it themselves, that was difficult for a lot of them.

Will you do more of this work?

I'm working with Fox on a show now and in late September, early October, "Survivor Two" will have narrowed its picks down and I will work with them again in choosing the final castaways. I think I've found my niche!

Did you learn anything from Survivor One that you can use for Survivor Two?

The briefing process that we put the people through, prepping them for various scenarios that they might face, the celebrity status, hate mail, web sites, playboy offers. We need them to be as forewarned as possible. We will probably do more of that before and after the island.

And we have to be aware of the fact that this group of applicants may produce a different set of people than the first time. The people realize now it's more of a psychological experiment...more of a human game rather than an environmental game. Before we had a lot of survivalists, ex-military people, people who wanted a real challenge. Now, I'll bet we'll see a whole different group.

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