The search for survivors: surviving hardship outdoors has become a popular televised amusement, but for a psychologist who screens the contestants for reality TV shows, staying alive in the wilderness was more than just a game – Feature – Brief Article
When Richard Levak, Ph.D., saw the helicopters circle again, he knew he had to catch the eyes of the rescue squad. He had spent the last two days lost in the Sierra Nevada mountains enduring subfreezing temperatures, with only a crudely built lean-to shelter and no food. The temperatures were in the 50s when he left for the slopes; he wasn’t wearing a hat, coat or even long johns. A third night of exposure could kill him.
“Helicopters descended but they were nowhere near me, and then they left,” Levak says. “I just kept thinking, `God, I have no idea, will they come again or not?'”
Levak, a psychologist, feared that if he died, his family’s anger at his carelessness would make the grieving process more difficult. He began to search for a rock soft enough to scratch out a farewell to his loved ones.
Some 7,000 miles away, contestants on the reality show Survivor were undergoing an experience that bore a superficial resemblance to what Levak was suffering. In one contrived competition, the contestants were required to find a way to flag down a passing search plane. Though the contest had been given the trappings of hardship–the participants were even called “castaways”–a camera crew, director, producers and doctors all watched on the side-lines, as the “competition” was turned into a television spectacle.
The reality of the experiences of 16 TV castaways versus one man fighting for his life could hardly be more different–but they had one point of intersection: Levak was the psychologist who had screened the Survivor contestants. Just months before, Levak had tested potential contestants, measuring how well they would hold up under the trying circumstances of life on the physical edge, without proper sleep, shelter or food.
Now the question was, how well would Levak hold up? Although he has spent a lot of time outdoors, surviving alone in the wilderness is not a specialty of his, either personally or professionally. Levak began his practice as a psychologist in the early 1980s by advising companies by performing team-building workshops. Instead of simply diagnosing individual pathology, he used tests, including the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, to focus on how people function within a team.
“The purpose was to help people get the best out of who they are versus looking at what’s wrong with them,” Levak says. “I enjoyed understanding how people were likely to interact with one another, given the personality make-up. If you’re a highly energetic, big-picture thinking extroverted, outdoor type, how are you going to get along if you are managing a highly introverted, detail-oriented, even-energy, somewhat-prone-to-worry individual?”
Inspite of Levak’s interests, when his colleague, Gene Ondrusek, Ph.D., approached Levak to work on Survivor, he was hesitant. The job seemed fraught with potential ethical dilemmas: If you are assessing contestants for a show as a paid consultant, where does your allegiance lie? Ondrusek decided that he and Levak would tell the contestants that they were sharing the test results with the producers during the screening process, but when they went on location the psychologists would be working only to protect the contestants. After his ethical concerns were laid to rest, Levak was genuinely excited to be a part of the show. “I was fascinated by the idea of being involved in a social psych experiment and being able to see people’s personality profiles and how they operated.”
Levak has learned that forecasting the delicate interplay of human psyches is at best an alchemical endeavon. “The question is how can you put interesting people together, rather than putting people together where there’s prurient value,” Levak says. “And that’s a very, very tight line.”
After the success of Survivor, Levak now screens the contestants on most of the reality TV shows on CBS. “We’re looking for character types,” he explains. “There are people who blend with the walls; people who stand out because they’re obnoxious, passionate or they’re a unique example of a particular type of person.” At the same time, nobody wins if a contestant has a complete mental breakdown on television, so Levak is looking for self-destructive tendencies. “You want to avoid fragile people who’ve been traumatized and have not dealt with the trauma, where this trauma may be restimulated. We exclude people who have unresolved issues that might catch an edge through the stress of some of these reality shows.”
But when Levak was trapped on the mountain, the stakes weren’t just good television versus bad–they were life and death.
Levak was worried that the closely hovering helicopters wouldn’t see him. So he gathered sticks and bark and made a giant circle to attract the helicopters if they returned. But after waiting for two days without being seen, he changed plans and decided to retrace his path, though his tracks had been erased in the malting snow.
As he made his way deep into a dense forest he heard a sound. “I start to hear helicopters in the distance, over by where I was,” he recalls. “They’re over there and I’m not there!” He returned to his shelter, and the helicopters finally saw him. He had survived 50 hours in the cold without food.
His experience has changed and personalized his work screening contestants. “I’m mindful of the interaction of psychology with deprivation. I’m far more empathic because I know that feeling cold, wet, hungry and alone really affects your thinking,” Levak adds. ” Survivor is tougher than it seems. It requires a lot of denial. These people are supernormal in terms of resilience and self-confidence.”
Michael Seeber is the deputy editor of Psychology Today.
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