Chat Transcript: 'Survivor' Therapist

What does it take to be a Survivor? Never mind the physical struggle of foraging for food, building a shelter and battling the elements what about the psychological strain?

Survivor and other reality-based shows depend on the drama that develops among participants. That tension can be extremely upsetting to some, while others rise to the occasion without breaking a sweat. What kind of emotional consequences can the constant scrutiny, forced confinement and endless manipulation have on contestants? What kind of person can withstand the pressure? And what are the lasting aftereffects?

We asked Dr. Gene Ondrusek, the consulting therapist who helped screen candidates for this summer’s castaway challenge. Ondrusek, chief psychologist for the Center of Executive Health at Scripps Hospital in La Jolla, Calif., also remained on call in case emergency counseling was necessary and debriefed the show’s contestants after they left the island. He answered your questions in an online chat with

Moderator at 6:05pm ET

Dr. Gene Ondrusek joins us live from Los Angeles. Thanks for joining us!

Dr. Gene Ondrusek at 6:05pm ET

I've been participating in chats before, but never as the guest, so this will be a first!

Moderator at 6:06pm ET

Dr. Ondrusek, what kind of person volunteers to participate in shows like Survivor?

Dr. Gene Ondrusek at 6:07pm ET

Survivor basically sourced three domains of people. Some saw it as a physical challenge, others as an exotic psychological experiment, and others who saw it as a chance to win a million dollars. And perhaps a fourth domain, which is people who saw it as a chance to be on prime-time television.

Moderator at 6:07pm ET

Richard has been described as the manipulator. Was this what you found in his personality inventory? And was that the type of person you expected to win?

Dr. Gene Ondrusek at 6:08pm ET

Richard was the individual who played the big game. He told me from the outset with a great deal of self-confidence that you might as well sign the check now — he was planning on winning the whole game. And what began as boastfulness turned out to be prophetic.

Moderator at 6:08pm ET

How many people who applied were screened out for having mental disorders?

Dr. Gene Ondrusek at 6:09pm ET

Well, there were originally over 6,000 applications off the Web site who were culled down to 800 semifinalists. Of that group, casting brought 46 people to Los Angeles for final screening. And they did really a marvelous job of bringing us some fascinating people. And really only three or four we found kind of psychologically unsuitable.

Moderator at 6:09pm ET

What are some of the traits you were looking for when you were casting Survivor?

Dr. Gene Ondrusek at 6:10pm ET

What we were looking for was really more diversity among people, really more than a signal type of individual, people whose values were different, whose style was different — people who would align as well as clash.

Moderator at 6:10pm ET

Jim in our audience writes: Do you find that the type of person who wants to be on a show like Survivor needs more attention than the average person?

Dr. Gene Ondrusek at 6:11pm ET

I think they would probably be best described as thrill-seekers, or people who seek challenge or adventure. And I believe in our culture the pursuit of celebrity has become yet another thrill to seek, much like bungee jumping and skydiving.

Elliott from at 6:11pm ET

Was there any contestant who was totally distraught after being voted off?

Dr. Gene Ondrusek at 6:11pm ET

Absolutely not. I think that was a tribute to the wealth of due diligence that we put in up front, in picking people who were very resilient, adaptive, and who could compartmentalize.

Germany from at 6:12pm ET

Why was Susan's hate for Kelly so deep?

Dr. Gene Ondrusek at 6:14pm ET

Think of it more as a Greek tragedy or a Shakespearean soliloquy. It was context-driven. If you tuned into a competing network's early show this morning you saw Susan and Kelly together as best friends. I think you have to understand that playing this game, an intense and long-term game, was very much like playing a game of pool.

If you play it well, you can play the table, but if you play pool with a hustler, he's playing his opponent, and when you realize you've been had by a hustler, you'll have a mixture of resentment and respect. And with our contestants, and their respective speeches, you saw people congratulating both, reflecting the respect, and someone like Susan, who was still holding onto the resentment.

Jami at 6:14pm ET

Do they intentionally choose people who will be controversial?

Dr. Gene Ondrusek at 6:15pm ET

I believe we chose people who would be compelling TV personae.

Jerry from at 6:15pm ET

What is the fascination with regular people in a celebrity role? We've seen it time and time again in the last few years with Monica Lewinsky, Darva Conger and all of these reality-based television shows.

Dr. Gene Ondrusek at 6:16pm ET

The human species evolved because of connectivity with other people. We are social animals, and are always curious about what our neighbors are doing. In a post-modern society where boundaries between our next door neighbors and our electronic neighbors are blurred, TV gives us an opportunity to spread that connectivity even farther. So we can all participate in each other's lives.

Moderator at 6:16pm ET

How did you expect the contestants on Survivor to behave? Did their behavior meet your expectations?

Dr. Gene Ondrusek at 6:17pm ET

What I think we anticipated and looked for was a change in behavior over time. You understand that the rules of the game change: first there were 2 tribes, which meant cooperation. Then it became one tribe, and it was competition, which changes strategy, which means changing behavior. People whose behaviors changed accordingly ended up prevailing.

Moderator at 6:17pm ET

When you first met the Survivor contestants, who did you think would ultimately win?

Dr. Gene Ondrusek at 6:19pm ET

At first I was as naive as anyone else, and picked a certain character type as my bet. About halfway through, I had a little epiphany. I looked at the logo that said, "Outwit, outlast and outplay," and realized this wasn't a game of popularity or of cooperation; it was a game of strategy, which predicted a very different character type.

Moderator at 6:19pm ET

You talked to the contestants after each of them left the island. Can you give us a general description of their mindset?

Dr. Gene Ondrusek at 6:20pm ET

As the game progressed and people were voted off, it was much more common to find a relieved person at the end of the path looking for creature comforts and a return to civilization. Most knew that their time was up and they were OK with being ready to go.

Moderator at 6:20pm ET

The camera is always rolling on reality-based shows. Can you tell us a little bit about how people respond to the constant scrutiny?

Dr. Gene Ondrusek at 6:21pm ET

For most people who had been filmed, you're often surprised how quickly the presence of the camera goes away. I think our contestants used the camera during the solitary interviews differently than when they were interacting with other contestants. For example, much of what Richard talked about to his cameramen about his strategy and impressions was not talked about with his teammates.

Sherry at 6:21pm ET

Would it be a difficult transition for the cast members to go from everything being taped and up for public scrutiny, to becoming private citizens agin?

Dr. Gene Ondrusek at 6:22pm ET

Well, as you can see some of the cast members returned to their formal lives as husbands, fathers, wives and mothers, while others have used this to springboard into even more media appearances.

John from at 6:22pm ET

Did you personally think there would be more "alliances" than there were?

Dr. Gene Ondrusek at 6:23pm ET

I think that was what made it clear to me that a winning individual would have to adopt a particular strategy that would work, and that there was a certain window in which that would operate. Richard was able to assemble his alliance in a timely fashion in the Tagi tribe, whereas the Pagong tribe realized that too late.

Moderator at 6:24pm ET

What type of person should not apply to be on a reality-based show?

Dr. Gene Ondrusek at 6:25pm ET

I think if people don't understand or can't handle the implications of at least minor celebrity status, in dealing with unwarranted attention and lost privacy, and wish their lives to go on as before, he may wish to avoid these shows. People who have a tough time compartmentalizing, or seeing certain aspects of their behavior as separate from who they are as people can have a tough time. I think Susan Lucci has to understand that she is not Erica Kane, and if you can't do that, don't go on these shows.

John from at 6:26pm ET

Why do you think the post-conclusion viewer polls showed the majority were disappointed with the outcome?

Dr. Gene Ondrusek at 6:26pm ET

I think people saw this as an opportunity where nice guys finish last, and it didn't work out that way, since it was a game and not a "survival" experience, people's expectations weren't met in this regard.

Moderator at 6:26pm ET

Do you have any advice for people who want to be on reality-based shows?

Dr. Gene Ondrusek at 6:27pm ET

Just remember the old Chinese curse, "May you get what you wish for!"

Moderator at 6:28pm ET

Thank you Dr. Ondrusek!