Interview: Elmarie Claassens, Survivor South Africa psychologist
Elmarie Claassens is a clinical psychologist who’s been active in private practice for roughly 25 years. Apart from seeing private patients, she is also an independent consultant for several international companies as well as guest lecturer at the University of Johannesburg and North West University. On the entertainment front, she has successfully hosted eight seasons of the popular Afrikaans cooking show Hartskos, and local production companies have utilised her unique skill set to conduct psychological evaluations on contestants of reality shows, including Survivor South Africa (Seasons 6-7 are on Showmax) and Temptation Island South Africa (streaming only on Showmax).
We put Elmarie on the couch and asked her a few questions about her experience on set and behind the scenes on Survivor South Africa. By the way, you’re welcome for the free psych session. It is on us!
This is such a lekker and unusual job to land. How did you end up being the shrink for Survivor? You’ve done three of these, right?
Indeed, this is a very lekker job! I started working with different production companies on reality shows about 12 years ago. The first series I worked on was Fortuinsoekers with Deon Maas from Meerkat Media. Since then, I have worked on several other local and international formats, most recently on Temptation Island SA. I am very fortunate to have worked on the last three seasons of Survivor South Africa with Afrokaans.
The producers (Handrie Basson and Leroux Botha) are masters of their craft and put a very high standard forward when looking after contestants’ mental health. Actually, Afrokaans and M-Net do not see psych evaluations or debriefings as boxes to tick, but rather as essential parts of a big production. It is really wonderful for me to work on such an exciting series with such an exceptional team!
Is there a golden ratio for mental fitness versus physical ability to compete in a demanding competition such as Survivor?
Contrary to popular belief, there is no golden ratio for mental fitness versus physical ability. Adaptability and flexibility are two very important factors for every contestant to integrate in their game play. They must know when to floor the petrol and be ready to make a u-turn on full adrenaline when necessary.
This means that a strength can be a disadvantage in certain situations or contexts during the game. A player can be a hero for making a fire and keeping the tribe warm, whereas it can also put a target on the same player’s back. The person who can spark a flint can be infinitely more useful than a rocket scientist who can’t spear a fish.
Rather than focusing on the so-called golden ratio, the greatest benefit may lie in how well a person can integrate different skills in multiple areas and to know when to use how much of each skill – seeing that the whole game plays out in an unnatural micro-cosmos where aspects of usual reality can become negligent or even detrimental to the game.
Would you say that there is a marked difference between South African contestants versus the international guys?
Unfortunately, I have never had the opportunity to evaluate international contestants and I cannot pretend that I can read minds – so it is difficult to have a professional opinion about so-called differences between SA players and international players. My personal opinion? SA castaways are hardy, interesting, complex and wonderful, and it is a delight to watch them play!
Are you part of some screening panel before contestants get dropped off on the island?
The would-be castaways each undergo a full psychological evaluation, consisting of a battery of standardised psychometric assessments as well as interviews done by a clinical and industrial psychologist. These results are combined into a full report for each candidate. It is important to note that the psychologists working on the profiles do not select the contestants – that is beyond our scope of practice.
The profiles are used for screening and potential content by Afrokaans and M-Net. I was very fortunate to be able to visit the Survivor Season 8 set in 2020 because shooting took place in SA on the lovely Wild Coast where Afrokaans created a Covid-free bubble with very strict protocols to follow. It was a magnificent experience for me!
Do you think that contestants operate with a “me” mentality within their groups and just wait for the right moment to reveal their true selves in order to play the game successfully?
Every person who enters Survivor does it for themselves and their own specific reasons. Motivation might change momentarily or contextually, but everyone wants to be their best at outwitting, outplaying and outlasting and/or have a chance to win – otherwise, why play? That is of course, unless you see the game as an extreme form of weight loss…
The clever player knows how to straddle the balance between self-interest and group interests. It is impossible to not show the real self in a game like this – the bright side as well as the dark side of personality and behaviour.
I see betrayal as a major theme in Survivor. If you had to add another four “themes” or pillars, what would they be?
This is an interesting question!
Theme 1: Testing of self. Resilience, fighting spirit, never-give-up attitude, grit, perseverance.
Theme 2: Adaptability to ever-changing conditions, both in nature, the game and personal or internal aspects. Apex predators sometimes go extinct because they can’t adapt to the changes in their environments or eco systems.
Theme 3: Political and social manoeuvrability – also speaks to adaptability, but more on a social level.
Theme 4: The counter to betrayal: loyalty. The fine line between loyalty and betrayal is one of the precarious suspense narratives that makes Survivor so compelling.
Are contestants camera-aware while participating? How about seeing themselves on TV afterwards? Is part of your job to equip them to deal with the aftermath?
Castaways quickly lose their camera-awareness, as their immediate focus hones in on what is right in front of them – climbing and succeeding on the pyramid of needs: food, shelter, survival – both physically, socially and mentally.
They are mostly themselves on camera, unless their change in behaviour is motivated by game play and strategy – to hide their true colours from their tribe mates. So when they see themselves afterwards in an edited version of what they experienced as their reality, they are sometimes shocked and surprised by how they come across.
This is a lesson in self-awareness and seeing yourself exposed, warts and all, to a bigger audience than what the average Joe or Jane ever experiences. The interesting aspect of severe stress is that it makes space for the darker side of people and it can become more difficult to regulate emotions and actions. And yes, I just called the experience of the castaways stressful – it is even traumatic on certain levels.
Part of the psychologist’s work is to prepare them beforehand for this inevitable dropping of the mask (because many of them think they can put up a curated version of themselves, while they simply cannot sustain only selective traits for 39 days). And then a lot of work goes into the aftermath or social media storms that often erupt over the heads of our castaways.
Survivor is the one show that allows you to break societal rules and deviate from your moral compass, and within that context, many things are allowed that would be frowned upon in everyday life or normal society. It is crucial to have the castaways always remember this point.
Would you ever enter Survivor?
Me entering Survivor? No, thanks. I prefer working behind the scenes of this remarkable game and enjoy every minute of it. Anyway, I blister without sunscreen and running is not my thing.
From a psychological perspective, which Showmax series is your absolute favourite?
I was absolutely delighted that my old favourite, Six Feet Under, is now available on Showmax. The script and acting must be some of the most brilliant ever! On a psychological level the writers succeeded in straddling issues of life and death superbly, without making the viewer feel morbid or gloomy, but integrating death as a natural part of life and love. The characters are complex and conflicted and the series leads the viewer to authentic moments of real emotion and unflinching glances at taboos in society.
And then there is Dexter! I am excited like a child on the night before her birthday about the new season! On the surface this is a series of a strange, benevolent serial killer. That in itself is a great paradox. Dexter embraces the dark side of humanity and confronts complexities of the absurd concepts of right and wrong in a very entertaining manner. [Ed’s note: Season 9 of Dexter arrives on DStv online soon, and Seasons 1-8 are on Showmax.]