Julie Chen told Entertainment Weekly that the Big Brother 19 house is under the “spell” of Paul Abrahamian, the season’s one returning veteran. That was after the double eviction episode when no one picked Paul in the shuffleboard Head of Household competition because, in Chen’s words, “no one wants Paul gone.”
For a television show that’s lasted 20 seasons (19 on CBS and one, Big Brother Over the Top, on CBS All-Access), it’s a startling display of one player dictating every move in the entire house. While it’s often been said that, to win Big Brother, you need a social game and some competition strength, outright manipulation of the other houseguests has never been out of the question. This year, however, it’s been absolutely ridiculous.
But what’s been so unsettling about Paul’s dominance is not that it exists. It’s that some of the houseguests seem to notice, but don’t do anything about it. Big Brother Network documented Josh’s reluctance earlier this week to throw the veto competition to Paul. Josh was questioning Paul’s loyalty and suspecting, correctly, he plans to save one of his many allies, Alex, leaving himself and his closest ally Christmas with blood on their hands.
When Josh took his worry to Christmas, she warned that he shouldn’t make too many anti-Paul comments because people might hear. Then BBN made an interesting, and apt, comparison to a literary classic written by George Orwell where the characters routinely believe propaganda and rarely think for themselves.
“It’s like ‘1984’ has appropriately come to life here but they’re worried about one of the other Houseguests instead of their all-hearing, all-knowing overlords.”
Of course, the very concept, and phrase, behind Big Brother comes from the Orwell novel, where society is under total surveillance — much like the Big Brother house. But there’s another idea linked to 1984 that may be evident in this season of Big Brother: Groupthink. While not derived from 1984 specifically, the term Groupthink was coined and elaborated upon in a 1952 article in Fortune, which you can still find online if you’re so inclined.
Social scientist Irving Janis developed the first academic theory about groupthink in 1972. Twenty-five years later, Turner and Pratkanis of San Jose State University and the University of California Santa Cruz, respectively, described Janis’ formulation of groupthink this way.
“Decision-making groups are more likely to experience groupthink when they are highly cohesive, insulated from experts, perform limited search and appraisal of information, operate under directed leadership, and experience conditions of high stress with low self-esteem and little hope of finding a better solution to a pressing problem than that favored by the leader or influential members.”
That description could easily apply to this year’s Big Brother house. Unlike other seasons, when houseguests with multiple alliances were quickly found out and evicted soon thereafter, Paul has continued to play everyone. Not only does no one seem to fear Paul, but they all seem to think they need Paul in order to get to the end.
Paul himself has made no secret of his gameplay, overtly describing the other houseguests to the camera in diary room sessions as his “puppets.” On Sunday’s episode, he got not just one, or two, but every other houseguest left to throw the head of household competition so Christmas would win. BBN appropriately called it “the most embarrassing episode to date,” because Paul’s manipulation resulted in an elite athlete with a broken foot winning a sprint race. Everyone else false started in order to give her the win.
But at this point, it might be important to step back and ask whether people truly don’t see Paul’s manipulation or whether they just feel powerless to do anything about it. Kevin repeatedly questioned Paul’s instruction to throw the HOH competition. He said it would be embarrassing to lose to a woman with a broken foot, but viewers might wonder if Kevin, by far the oldest contestant at 56, might know there’s something up.
Knowing there’s something up, however, might not be enough until the very end. Assuming Paul makes it to final three, one of the other two must win the final HOH and choose not to take Paul to the final two. Otherwise, they’re pretty much toast.
The genius and curse inside Big Brother, however, is that you can’t make a big move without a support network. Cody learned early on by trying to nominate Paul — who, unbeknownst to Cody had a secret protection and couldn’t be nominated — that you can’t take out a big player unless everyone else secretly wants to do the same thing. At this point so far in Big Brother 19, no one really seems to want to do the same thing.
Unless they are keeping their secret desires to themselves. There’s one element in play in Big Brother 19 that regular viewers and consumers of the live feeds never see: the diary room sessions. Outside observers have no idea what is said to contestants inside the diary room, what questions they are asked by producers, and how the nature of those questions could skew the players’ perspectives of the game.
A key element of groupthink is limited search for new information and limited appraisal of information. Inside the Big Brother house, players only get information by speaking to each other. Any player looking for information about Paul’s motives would have to question Paul’s loyalty during an open conversation. In an environment where everyone thinks Paul is their ally, questioning Paul feels like a threat to their game.
If it were real life and not a television show, it might be a little frightening.
[Featured Image by Theo Wargo/Getty Images]