The TRAITors: the psychology behind the traitors

By Charlotte Adams

Stunning entertainment, sure, but does the Traitors serve as an insight into human behaviour?

It’s iconic. The castle, the drama, the fringe. A TV show that has gripped the hearts of the nation: The Traitors. For the uninitiated, The Traitors is essentially what would happen if you mixed together a primary school game of wink murder, a massive Scottish castle, and Claudia Winkleman. 22 contestants, some Faithful, some Traitors, take part in challenges in order to win money. The Faithful (alongside the Traitors hidden amongst them) banish one contestant they suspect to be a Traitor every day, whilst the Traitors choose a Faithful to murder each night. If any Traitors are left by the end of the 10 episodes, they walk away with all of the money. It is stunning entertainment, and the line uttered by contestant Diane, “Paul can’t be my son… but Ross is”, will stay with me forever. However, rather than viewing The Traitors as simply an entertaining Wednesday evening watch, maybe we should instead view it as an opportunity to study human psychology. 

Look, bear with me here. I know for a fact we have all, at some point, wanted to remind the cast that the traitors are not actually murdering people, and that when Claudia says, “say bye”, she simply means until they next see them on the One Show. However, there must be some psychological phenomena happening in the castle, evident in the amount of groupthink and it really being a glorified game of “hot or not.” It would be impossible to discuss every psychologically significant aspect of The Traitors, so instead I’ve split it into two categories – the format and the Traitors themselves. Secondly, I am but a humble Law student with access to Google Scholar, so perhaps take the science with a pinch of salt. 

The format 

Let’s start with everyone’s favourite section, the Round Table. This is where the Faithfuls (and Traitors) can vote to banish the people that they suspect to be traitors. It provides unparalleled levels of suspense and drama, but it also provides a really interesting example of herd mentality, defined as: “the behaviour which people present to follow others actions in crowd.” We see the whole group turn on one person on the basis of the word of another, even if they initially had no suspicions of this person at all, as seen with Sonja. However, this herd mentality can also go the other way. As Krishnan from Strictly, and from Channel 4 news (a reality TV show overlap I was not expecting) said on the Traitors: Uncloaked: “There’s more than one person in there who thinks Paul is a traitor. But they dare not call him out around the round table because they think he is too powerful.” Krishnan makes an interesting point. Only Jazatha Christie was brave enough to call Paul out at the Round Table despite many being privately suspicious. Whilst Krishnan does then go on to compare Paul to a dictator (extreme), I’m sure we’ve all seen examples of herd mentality in real life. For example, when the lecturer wants us to answer a question by collectively putting our hands up (the horror) and, rather than coming up with an opinion of your own, you simply have a look around and vote with the majority. 

The Traitors

There were a total of six traitors this season. Five men, one woman. Notice anything? Claudia certainly did. The iconic presenter responded to Harry and Andrew recruiting Ross with the following: “another man. Good, it’s like the olden days.” I must admit, aside from Diane being an actual queen, most of the stand-out moments this season have revolved around men. Ross’s wink. Miles’ face when he realised Diane was alive. Paul’s bow. I promise that I am in fact a feminist and I do not believe that Ross and Harry are so charismatic that they carried the whole season. But where were the women? Why were men dominating? There are a number of factors at play here. Firstly, in group settings, it is men who talk more than women (anyone who has been in any of my tutorials will instantly recognise this to be true). Perhaps this is why viewers tended not to notice women like Charlie, Evie, Charlotte and Mollie so much. Furthermore, when women do contribute to a group discussion, their contributions tend to be less influential than a man’s contribution. If we think back to the influential voices around the table we think of Zack, Paul, Diane, Kyra (who was murdered early on for precisely this reason). Perhaps this is why the women seemed to somewhat disappear this season.

Now, let’s look at the traitors themselves. We see Paul, the apparently charismatic “most popular” one (did not see that coming) almost completely escape notice at the round table despite exhibiting incredibly suspicious behaviour. Paul’s popularity may provide an explanation here. Paul is a confident, white, middle aged man, i.e. the dream candidate to be top of the hierarchy. (An article I read whilst researching for this piece described Paul as “physically attractive by mainstream standards”. I must admit this is not something I had noticed but please do correct me if I am wrong.) Indeed, this very same article notes that: “though departing players, amazed to be told that he’s a traitor, have commented that he’s ’playing a blinder’, it might be more a case of the others playing a blinder for him – projecting onto him the positive qualities they associate with men of his type, whether or not he’s done anything concrete to demonstrate those qualities.” The psychological term for this is the Halo Effect where, after seeing one positive trait in someone, we naturally believe they have other positive traits, despite no evidence of this. 

Now for Harry. Look he said it himself, you either want to kiss him or punch him. I personally fall into the later camp, but I have been reliably informed that Harry is one of the more attractive members of the cast. This attractiveness might actually be part of the reason that he makes for such a good traitor. Studies have demonstrated that attractive people are seen to be more trustworthy. After all, no one seemed to question Harry (apart from Jaz of course), even though they knew that Traitors could also get shields and even though he spilled Paul’s entire inner monologue when outing him. Harry and Ash make an interesting comparison here. Harry is an (apparently) conventionally attractive white man. Ash is a supposedly less conventionally attractive Asian woman. Now, she was suspicious. But then so was Harry. I found Ash’s banishment very interesting. She was banished because she was interested in knowing what other people were thinking. That is literally the entire game.  It is impossible for me to say that Ash went out early because of her looks. However I find it hard to believe they didn’t play a part. After all, can it just be a coincidence that the two players left standing in the final were young and conventionally attractive? 

Overall, other than keeping us entertained through an otherwise long and dreary January, giving us endless outfit inspiration (the jacket with the embroidered ‘traitor?’ on the back has me in a choke-hold), and making us question at least twice per episode why anyone would ever want to go on this show, The Traitors serves as an excellent example of the perils of groupthink and trusting hot people, and teaches us a great deal about the human condition. 


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