Ben Driebergen and Devon Pinto on Survivor
Screen Grab/CBS
November 23, 2017 08:17 AM

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.

Erik Reichenbach is a former two time Survivor Fan/Favorite and Comic Book Artist. Follow him on Twitter: @ErikReichenb4ch.

“When people have a perception of who you are and what you are, it’s hard to break that.” — Cirie Fields, Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains

“Perception is reality” is a phrase we hear a lot on Survivor (and in mindfulness classes). It’s a reminder that in the game, the way others perceive you is even more important than the things you actually do. If people think you’re a threat – because you’re a physical beast who can win all the challenges; because you’re a social butterfly who can charm her way to the end; because you’re a strategic genius who can count – then you could be in big trouble.

But if you can convince people to overlook you just long enough to squeak your way into the finals, you could wind up with a fat bank account and an oversized novelty check.

This week, two savvy players show how to use other people’s perceptions to advance yourself in the game. And one contestant proves the dangers of not realizing how you’re being perceived.

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To Bro or not to Bro

All season long, I’ve been dismissing Devon as another surfer bro. I’m beginning to realize, however, that his hang-loose persona and luxurious hair mask a seriously smart player. Even more, I think he may be using that persona deliberately for his strategic ends.

Almost every time Devon’s a part of a conversation, he’s the one listening and prompting the people around him to offer up information. He very rarely gives up anything himself. This episode, for example, when Devon and Ben are having their heart-to-heart, Devon does a superb job of playing up his surfer boy persona and prompting Ben to offer up information.

“There’s things you’re going to find out about everyone that’s left in the seven,” Ben tells Devon.

Imagine how you or I might have responded if Ben hinted he knew about secret idols or hidden advantages. I’d probably directly interrogate him. “What do you know?” “Ben, if our alliance is going to mean anything, we have to share info.” It would be so easy to come off as too eager. Ben, feeling pressured to share information, might just clam up.

But here’s Devon’s response: “Oh. What do you mean? Like … secrets?” He acts like he has no idea what Ben is even talking about.

Devon wins the Fishy for playing up his surfer boy cluelessness, and very subtly prompting Ben to reveal more. By acting oblivious, Devon is also slyly displaying deference to Ben and all his knowledge. That makes Ben more likely to share, and more likely to invest himself in the relationship, because people on Survivor (and basically everywhere else) like to feel powerful.

Erik Reichenbach

Cochran is a supreme practitioner of the art of subtly influencing the people around him by making them feel powerful. Of course, Cochran and Devon have very different tactics, since they have very different personae. Cochran plays up his nerdiness. Devon plays up his Keaunu-ness.

I can see many of you rolling your eyes, thinking I’m giving Devon way too much credit. But look at how Devon responds when Ben reveals that Ryan has an idol: “Really? Wow. Oh my god.” He acts like he’s never even heard of an idol before. Meanwhile, he already knew about Ryan’s idol – and he’s trying to calculate what Ryan’s loose lips mean for him. He uses the illusion of dopiness to mask the wheels rapidly turning underneath.

Or look again when Devon and Ryan are discussing whether or not they’ll be in trouble at the final seven.
Ryan: “I don’t think we’ll be screwed.”
Devon: “You don’t think so?”
Ryan: “No, you know why?”
Devon: “Why?”
Ryan: “Because I have an idol in my pants.”

Devon Pinto, Ryan Ulrich and Ben Driebergen on Survivo
Screen Grab/CBS

Devon never jumps in and offers up his own ideas. He lets Ryan reveal all of his information. And perhaps that’s why he feels particularly betrayed when he learns that Ryan has told Ben about the idol, too. Devon keeps his information close to his chest.

Let’s say for the sake of argument this is all just Devon’s affable personality, rather than self-aware gamesmanship. So what? On Survivor, there’s really very little difference between your character and your strategy. Are you a supportive kind person who takes pleasure in the people around him? Congratulations, you’ll do great. As Ashley says, “Yeah, it’s all a game, but you’re dealing with real individuals and real people with feelings.”

Or maybe you’re someone who can’t control your boundless energy. Well, in the words of Joe Mena, “I like going 100 miles an hour. I don’t like slowing down…. It’ll probably cost me the game but – that’s me.”

A-Holes and Dictators

Joe is another player who uses people’s perceptions of him to advance his position in the game.

“One thing I do have is that people feel like I am an a–hole,” he says. “So I’m going to start pushing buttons more, and I’m going to get people so upset at me, so they’re like, ‘yo, let’s keep this dude around, because we could get rid of him at any point.’ And at some point, I could make a move.”

I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anybody use this strategy before. We’ve known players who have been kept to the end because nobody thought they could win. We’ve seen a few players act extra annoying in order to get votes targeted at them, when they had an idol in their pockets. (Or, like Randy in Gabon, a fake idol in his pocket). But I don’t think we’ve ever seen anybody act annoying in order to seem like a goat to set himself up to make a move later.

It’s pure genius.

Joe approaches Ashley and calls her a goat, and then he starts to rile Chrissy up as well. The big question is – does this work?

Joe’s tactic makes Ashley and Chrissy both fixate on voting him out. However, it also makes Ben try to shield him. “I don’t want Joe gone, because everyone already can’t stand the guy,” Ben says.

Indeed, Ben works so hard to shield Joe, that he makes himself a potential target. Whenever Ashley or Ryan or Chrissy suggests voting out Joe, Ben immediately shuts it down, to the point where the rest of his alliance starts to think he’s a dictator.

Survivor Tribal Council
Screen Grab/CBS

However, Ben doesn’t realize how his alliance is starting to see him. One of the purest human moments I’ve ever seen on television came when Chrissy tells Ben, “People are starting to feel a tiny bit steamrolled by you.” “No,” Ben says. “No they’re not.” In any other television show, that moment would be played as broad parody. Here on Survivor, it’s daily reality.

In defense of Ben, it’s easy to get lost pursuing your own plans, and forget that everybody else is pursuing theirs. Things are going really well for Ben right now. He seems to be in charge of his alliance, and he’s the only one who knows about both Lauren’s advantage and Ryan’s idol. He’s playing a very smart game, using the information he has as a tool to build alliances with others.

But it’s just when things are going well on Survivor that you need to be at your most self-aware.

At Tribal Council, Joe stays safe, and it’s Cole who ends up going home. Mike needlessly plays his idol after a confusing maneuver, where it seemed like perhaps he was trying and failing to draw votes on himself.

I actually wonder if Joe’s a-hole strategy might pay huge dividends, and he could see Ben and Mike both hit the jury before he does. And of course next week, there could be yet another idol in play.

Survivor airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. ET on CBS.

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