With so much attention being centered on guns, my mind recalled a group exercise in which I participated years ago. I was completing a degree in Educational Leadership and the exercise was meant to “compare the effectiveness of five different methods of group decision-making.”* The exercise, which placed group members in a hypothetical survival scenario, revealed the communication habits of not only groups, but also specific members within the group. Our focus today, though, will be less on the communication patterns and more on the survival scenario on which the exercise was based.

This post first appeared in October, 2015, and is being re-printed today
because of the on-going effects of guns in our lives.

After organizing the groups (and each group is given a unique set of instructions) the following scenario is distributed –

You have just crash-landed in the woods of northern Minnesota and southern Manitoba. It is 11:32 am in mid-January. The light plane in which you were traveling crashed on a lake. The pilot and copilot were killed. Shortly after the crash the plane sank completely into the lake with pilot’s and copilot’s bodies inside. None of you is seriously injured and you are all dry.

The crash came suddenly, before the pilot had time to radio for help or inform anyone of your position. Since your pilot was trying to avoid a storm, you know the plane was considerably off course. The pilot announced shortly before the crash that you were twenty miles northwest of a small town that is the nearest known habitation.

You are in a wilderness area made up of thick woods broken by many lakes and streams. The snow depth varies from above the ankles in windswept areas to knee-deep where it has drifted. The weather report indicated that the temperature would reach minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit in the daytime and minus 40 at night. There is plenty of dead wood and twigs in the immediate area. You are dressed in winter clothing appropriate for city wear – suits, pantsuits, street shoes, and overcoats.

While escaping from the plane, several members of your group salvaged twelve items. Your task is to rank these items according to their importance to your survival, starting with 1 for the most important item and ending with 12 for the least important one.

You may assume that the number of passengers is the same as the number of persons in your group and that the group has agreed to stick together.


The items to be prioritized are as follows:

______ ball of steel wool
______ newspapers (one per person)
______ compass
______ hand ax
______ cigarette lighter (without fluid)
______ loaded .45-caliber pistol
______ sectional air map made of plastic
______ 20-ft by 20-ft piece of heavy-duty canvas
______ extra shirt and pants for each survivor
______ can of shortening
______ quart of 100-proof whiskey
______ family-size chocolate bar (one per person)

Ok, so your task is to rank these from 1-12, from most important to least important. Think, too, about how you would defend your rankings to your fellow group members. (One way to do the activity is to have individuals complete the ranking and then have the group complete a group ranking. The group score needs to be the same for each group member. Each member then compares his individual ranking and group ranking to the answer sheet, noting the numerical difference between their scores and the right score. For example, if Joe lists the compass as #1, and it turns out to be ranked #12, that would be a difference of 11. If the group ranks the compass at #9, the difference then would be 3. Like golf you want the lowest score possible. When the score sheets are all completed, with the differences noted, you can begin to see how well the group functioned.)



Welcome back. You’ve finished your ranking scores, right?

Fortunately, a small expert panel weighed in on how to prioritize the items, along with a rationale for their ranking. There are surprises, but that is part of the fun of the exercise.

For instance, the top three items in order of their importance are –

+ the cigarette lighter
+ the ball of steel wool
+ and the extra shirt and pants for each survivor

The gravest danger to the group is exposure to the cold; therefore the greatest need is creating a source of warmth. The lighter, even without fluid, is essential in that it can still create sparks. The steel wool is the best substance to catch a spark and support a flame. The second greatest need is for signaling devices. According to survival experts, the importance of the rest of the items on the list would be in the following order –

+ the can of shortening (the lid would be an excellent reflector)
+ the large piece of canvas
+ the hand ax
+ the chocolate bars
+ the newspapers
+ the loaded pistol
+ the bottle of whiskey
+ the sectional map
+ the compass

It is interesting to me that the loaded gun appears toward the bottom of the list. It has some value as a signaling device, and the gunpowder from the shells could help in starting a fire, but these advantages are significantly outweighed by the danger a loaded gun contributes to the dynamics of the group.

Surviving a plane crash in a life-threatening environment, especially with two people killed in the crash, is traumatic. With people in shock, clear-headedness and reasoning may be all that stands between life or death. The gun represents quick access to power and control, not good when the group needs to work together to survive. As the group waits to be rescued, members will need to deal with fear, anger, irritability, and even lapses in rationality. The presence of the gun brings a substantial danger to the group under these circumstances.

It seems to me that guns bring a similar level of danger to the everyday situations across the country in which fear, anger, or irritability are present. As I think of it, fear, anger, and irritability are present a lot.


The Winter Survival Exercise is an excellent activity from which individuals and groups can learn to communicate more effectively. Why do some people try to force their wrong answers on others? Why do others with the correct answers silently sit in the background? On what basis do we allow some to influence us, while we ignore others? These are important questions that can be addressed within the choice theory classroom. There are many such exercises. Others include Stranded in the Desert, Lost on the Moon, and Lost at Sea. Each of them are based on the same group format.

* All quotes in this post, as well as all of the specific material related to the Winter Survival Exercise, have been taken from David and Roger Johnson’s classic book, Joining Together: Group Theory and Group Skills (1994).