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Surviving ‘Survivor’ — research finds racial and gender discrimination in voting

Survivor contestants discriminate based on race and gender in how they vote people off the island at critical points in the popular television game, according to a new study led by University of Dayton psychologist Erin O’Mara Kunz.

Contestants who are women and Black, Indigenous and people of color are more likely to be voted out of their tribe first, and less likely to make it to the individual-competition stage of the game known as the “merge,” Kunz and her co-authors find.

“The environment may be contrived for a television show, but contestants on Survivor are competing for a real $1 million prize and voting is up to them,” Kunz said. “That’s powerful because being able to study actual behavior gives us great insight into the decisions people make in a real-world environment.”The study, which has been accepted for publication at Psychological Science, examines 731 contestants across 40 seasons. Read the preprint here. 

Kunz said she and her co-authors found no evidence of race and gender discrimination regarding who becomes a finalist, but did find that men are disproportionately more likely than women to win.

Although CBS pledged in 2020 that at least half of contestants on reality shows will be Black, Indigenous and people of color, Kunz said some of the biases she observed persist into seasons 41 and beyond. In the three recent seasons, seven of the first nine people voted out of the game were women and five were Black, Indigenous and people of color. 

“Shifting to 50% BIPOC contestants is a start,” she said. “That said, you still have a show with half of the contestants from one race (white) and the other half of all other races. From an inter-group perspective, that still gives an advantage to white contestants as they are still the largest racial group on the show. Greater representation alone is not likely to completely eliminate the biases we observed in seasons 1-40.” 

Survivor Season 44 premieres March 1.

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