Stephen Fishbach's Survivor Blog: Why 'Breeding Suspicion & Distrust Is an Incredibly Effective Strategy'
Stephen Fishbach was the runner-up on Survivor: Tocantins and a member of the jury on Survivor Cambodia: Second Chance. He has been blogging about Survivor strategy for PEOPLE since 2009. Follow him on Twitter @stephenfishbach.
“It’s hard to keep six people from different walks of life to stick together when they hate each other. So I’m just here to make sure everybody hates each other.” — J.T. Thomas, winner, Survivor: Tocantins
This episode of Survivor taught us all a valuable lesson, for the third time.
Never, ever, ever leave your stuff around Sandra.
Whether she’s dumping out the fish (Pearl Islands) or setting fire to Russell’s hat (Heroes vs. Villains), Sandra has an instinct for sabotage.
This episode, we saw her greatest bit of psyops yet. J.T. was irritated with Michaela for using too much sugar in her coffee. Yes, it sounds small from the comfort of our couches, but when you can measure out your possessions in sugar spoons, tiny conflicts take on an outsized significance.
To stir up conflict, Sandra ate all the sugar from the sugar bowl — and sat back and watched the sparks fly.
Sandra’s shenanignas are fun to watch; they’re also strategic. By building tension between J.T. and Michaela, she eliminates the possibility of the two ever allying. That means Sandra can maintain control of the tribe.
“Because J.T. has a thing for her, he’s going to just leave her alone,” Sandra tells Varner.
I write a lot about how to make the best alliances and build trust. But breeding suspicion and distrust is also incredibly effective strategy. Jeremy in Cambodia was a master at keeping his allies apart by, say, running to Savage to tell him I was out to get him, and telling me that Savage was gunning for me.
But there are few people who are better at sowing chaos than Sandra. Remember when she tricked Russell into blindsiding Coach?
I love how she brought Varner in on her little heist. Sandra knows Varner is a mischief-maker too, so sharing the subterfuge only deepens their connection.
While she pits J.T. against Michaela, she reinforces her own bonds with them both.
“I trust you more than I trust those two,” she tells Michaela, and reminds her, “That’s how you’re going to get to the end with Sandra, because all I know how to do is get to day 39.” Sandra trades on her own incredibly well-established reputation.
Sandra of course wins the Fishy. I just hope she doesn’t dump it out.
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As a tenured scholar in J.T. studies, I got a lot of texts about this episode. After the chaos of last week, how could J.T. really not think he was the target? How could he not even bring his idol to Tribal Council?
Okay, it’s pretty clear that J.T. made a mistake. He thought his tribe would value his contributions and be just as irritated as he is with Michaela’s “bitterness,” “bad energy,” and “sugar napping.”
There’s no question that he was wrong. J.T.’s seen that the last three people to go home were big guys. And old-Mana is so down numbers that it doesn’t make sense for them to take out another one of their own.
That said, you can see J.T.’s thinking. J.T. is much more useful to the tribe if they don’t swap. If they do swap, J.T. can offer his new allies strategic connections that Michaela won’t bring. And isn’t it better to have J.T. around at the merge — a giant target — than Michaela? You know someone’s behaving badly when Jeff Varner, who found even Abi-Maria charming, calls you an “attitude problem.”
And sure, it seems easy to blame J.T. for not bringing his idol. If it were a simple binary choice between “Bring Your Idol” or “Don’t Bring Your Idol,” any bozo would bring their idol.
But there are a lot of logistics that go into every decision on Survivor. If you’ve buried your idol somewhere far from camp, going to dig it up might arouse suspicions. If you’re feeling confident, you may think the risk of retrieving it outweighs the rewards. You may not want to step away from the frantic strategizing in those few hectic hours before Tribal.
Moreover, Tribal Council is often the last place you want to be trying to take the temperature of the room. It’s easy to get paranoid at Tribal, assume you’re getting voted out, and make a misplay. Sometimes it can make sense to leave your superpowers behind.
J.T. was wrong, no doubt. But there are a lot of people who can say they’ve been beaten by Sandra.
On the nu-Mana tribe, Debbie is furious at an unfair universe.
She can’t handle the cognitive dissonance of flubbing a challenge. After all, she’s great at everything, so how is it possible she botched the balance beam? Obviously, it must be everybody else’s fault.
Debbie freaks out at Brad, whom she accuses of forcing her to do the balance beam (which she actually volunteered for), and at Hali, who she’s sure is getting treated like a princess.
Debbie didn’t go Full Brandon Hantz (you never want to go Full Hantz). But she definitely had a temper tantrum.
Credit to Brad, who wrings his hands and desperately tries to placate her. Brad puts a good-faith effort into restoring tribe harmony. Still, Debbie won’t be happy until she once again proves how awesome she is.
Survivor: Game Changers airs Wednesdays (8 p.m. ET) on CBS.