Marooned in a lost opportunity

September 9, 2005

Imagine you are marooned with 46 strangers on a beautiful island after a plane crash. You are living on the beach among the wreckage, each day expecting to be rescued. There are ample supplies of toiletries and other essentials - for now - and fruit, fish and animals to eat.

But no rescue is forthcoming and, horror of horrors, the supply of bottled water is dwindling fast. A crisis looms and the survivors need someone to take the lead. Enter Jack, who has a number of personal problems, not least because the coffin containing his dead father was on the plane and he is hallucinating because of a lack of sleep.

This is Lost , the latest big-budget series to sweep the US now being showing on Channel 4. The series concentrates on about 14 of the survivors (46 strong characters is too many for any series) and how they interact faced with uncertainty about rescue and the various threats that they encounter.

So does the group behaviour portrayed in Lost correspond with what psychologists know about how people would behave? Emergent leadership was first studied more than 50 years ago and predicted that several people might show leadership credentials over a period of days. The "best" solution would be that the most likeable/charismatic person emerges as leader backed up by one or two "task-oriented" seconds-in-command.

In Lost , Jack emerges immediately as the heroic rescuer, thus obviating all this emergent leader stuff so that the series can follow his personal internal conflicts.

Research into bystander effects in an emergency predicts that 70 to 80 per cent of people stand about and watch, and are only galvanised when 10 per cent of active organisers order them to do something. Ten to 15 per cent panic. The proportions in Lost were roughly correct, probably because it made good television.

Small-group theories show how any more than eight people start to form into cliques. This suits the story lines well since these cliques can develop close internal relationships and begin to define the important characteristics of the ingroups or outgroups. Thus, we see arguments and even fights as the cliques become more pronounced.

The theories state that when someone deviates from group norms, they will get more and more attention directed towards them until eventually they either comply or the group wearies and leaves them alone, rejected. Lost builds up deviant and unpredictable characters, focusing on one per episode and the trouble they cause. If the situation were real, we would need to see these group behaviour issues develop over a period of time to understand them. In a television series these must be identified, developed and in some ways resolved within each episode.

Real life is tedious, often basic in terms of human needs and not always particularly pleasant. So to maintain interest and ratings, Lost is not portraying real life but a larger-than-life pastiche. As this will not generate enough interest for 25 episodes, the series also introduces supernatural and weird happenings, such as an unseen monster, to liven things up.

Lost is not really about group behaviour at all but revolves around individual characters, relationships and increasingly bizarre situations.

It is pity because so much more could have been done with how groups fare in such a fascinating situation.

Joan Harvey is senior lecturer in psychology at Newcastle University.

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