The winner of the reality TV show Australia only
will take more than “survival skills” to succeed. They will also need to draw on a host of psychological strengths.
Will the winner be the one who shows the most mental toughness or “grit”? Will it be the one to cope with being socially isolated for weeks in the Tasmanian wilderness? What about the contestant who takes a moment to feel awe while watching a sunset?
I am a social psychology researcher, specializing in the dynamics between social interactions and emotions. Here’s what happens when you cut out those social interactions, and some thoughts on who is most likely to thrive.
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Remind me, what is Alone Australia?
Only Australia on SBS TV includes ten contestants dropped into the wilds of a Tasmanian winter. Each has ten chosen items (from an approved list) and pounds of recording equipment.
Apart from medical check-ins, they have no social contact. Over the next few days and weeks, they film themselves as they build shelters, build fires, and find food and water. Some are thriving, some are clearly struggling.
Contestants can choose to “drain” or can be removed for medical reasons. The contestant who lasts the longest wins A$250,000.
Contestants were selected based on their survival skills and a personality likely to be engaging on camera.
But success on the show will also likely come from a range of psychological abilities – and maybe a little bit of luck.
Read more: Woman spends 500 days alone in a cave – how extreme isolation can change your sense of time
Mental toughness is key
Participants face a grueling environment. They are repeatedly challenged by the terrain and weather, as well as hunger and misfortune.
Here, “mental toughness”, which is related to the popular idea of “grain“, plays a role.
Mental toughness is a group of personality traits originally identified in elite athletes and successful athletes. It covers dealing with the pressures of competition, as well as setting and executing training and performance goals.
Athletes with higher mental toughness tend to do so perform better. Mentally strong military recruits are more likely selected to join special forces.
Can mental toughness be cultivated in the moment? It seems like. Think back past mistakes drive people to stick to today’s difficult goals. Future thinking also plays a role. Imagining a future being confident and in control builds self-reported toughness.
We know mentally strong people use some of them”performance strategies”. These include talking positively to themselves (out loud or in your mind), controlling their emotions, and intentionally staying relaxed. People can practice and use these strategies in times of adversity. Mentally strong people also avoid negative thinking, such as tendencies to fail or blame themselves.
But mental toughness has limits. When tired, mental toughness no longer predicts perseverance towards a difficult physical goal. Instead, underlying fitness levels seem to be critical.
Read more: Continue or stop? How to help your child develop resilience
Combating loneliness is crucial
The main premise of the show – and its namesake – is total social isolation.
Research points to the difference between social abstinence (lack of opportunity for social interaction) and loneliness (the distressing feeling that one’s social needs are not being met). A person can be socially isolated but not feel lonely or feel lonely even in the presence of others.
Not everyone has the same need for social interaction. Indeed, some people value solitude and need less interaction in general avoid loneliness.
But there is a caveat. “Social anhedonia” (obviously low interest in and reward from interpersonal connection) is associated with poor functioning.
Even people who don’t like solitude can get creative in meeting social needs when people aren’t around.
People tend to humanize (or perceive as human) non-human objects and animals when they feel lonely.
Maybe you remember Wilson the Volleyball from the movie Cast Away. Wilson kept the main character company during his years stranded on an island.
People can also remember past social interactions or anticipate future social interactions. This “social daydreamingcan help people cope when their friends and family are not around.
Read more: The politics of the castaways’ story
What about awe and pride?
Emotional experiences are also likely to play a role in encouraging some participants to stick around longer. Others have written about the role of fear in the show (in a nutshell, fear has its place and should not be avoided).
But research also points to the potential benefits of positive emotions in this situation, such as awe and pride.
There is no dearth of natural environments for show participants. In fact, nature is almost all they see. And nature is an important trigger of that
awe – the positive emotional experience of seeing extraordinary things that are huge and complex.
Awe is linked to a variety of favorable resultsincluding higher self-reported well-being, physical health, critical thinking, and humility.
Most of us are familiar with pride – the emotional experience associated with achievement. You feel pride not only in achieving a goal, but also in making it progress en route.
Despite pride’s bad reputation (for example, as a mortal sin), my own research links the experience of pride to pursue goals. People work harder towards a goal when they are proud of previous achievements.
A key to unlocking the benefits of positive emotions, such as pride and awe, is to mindfully find opportunities to experience them. specifically, enjoy the moment is a documented strategy for intentionally increasing the experience of positive emotions such as awe and pride.
Read more: Personalities that thrive in isolation and what we can all learn from alone time
Are you a future Alone Australia winner?
If you’re thinking about signing up for future seasons of Alone Australia, you might be wondering if you’ve got what it takes.
Over time, you can build both your survival and psychological skills.
You can develop mental toughness, your ability to fight loneliness while socially isolated, and your ability to enjoy positive emotions such as awe and pride.
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