The Penner Doctrine: How Jonathon Defused a Survivor Cold War

The following is a guest post from Contributor, Glenn Holford  – @GlennHolford

Human beings are a collaborative species. From infancy, we learn to function as cogs in complex social machinery. We develop our relationships based on laws of complex indirect reciprocity. I’ll help you, so that you can help someone else, so that they can help me. Relationships are tools. They provide the leverage we need to accomplish tasks.

There’s a famous story from World War I that’s usually called “The Chrismas Truce”. The Germans and the British were holed up in trenches and foxholes along the Western Front, locked in a stalemate. Weeks dragged by. Both armies kept digging in their heels. Neither army’s soldiers could hope to advance without being torn apart by the other’s concealed shooters. No progress was possible. Gridlock.
Eventually, soldiers began timidly venturing, unarmed, out of their trenches, and opponents would meet one another in the “No Man’s Land” at the center of the battlefield. Since neither could attack the other without facing certain death themselves, the enemies would sit together, share meals, exchange stories, play games, and bury one another’s dead. No shots were fired from either side on these neutral gatherings. A lengthy unofficial cease-fire began. Some German and British soldiers even exchanged Christmas gifts, and sang carols together. By all accounts these were bizarre behaviors for mortal enemies sworn to kill each other.
Human beings behave in startling ways when we find ourselves even matched by an opponent. We might push against them for a while, but soon it becomes obvious that our tactics will fail. So we stop wasting our energy, our ammunition. We sit back. We decide to wait. We hope that our foe will make the first mistake. And meanwhile, of course, they are patiently waiting for the same thing from us.
It certainly appeared as if Kalabaw and Tandang could have stayed out in that muddy field forever. Neither had managed to overpower the other, and neither was willing to yield. Our Survivorcastaways had reached a very curious point in the realm of human conflict. Winner-take-all was not going to work. Their natural, instinctual, animalistic aggression had failed. The conflict itself began to seem silly. They began to question why they were even participating at all.
When brute force fails to work, humans begin to negotiate. We use our social faculties to apply leverage to our problem. We can use the power of collaboration to get ourselves past the impasse. It’s a fascinating process to watch unfold, and it is unlike anything you will ever see elsewhere in nature. When human beings are forced to negotiate, we are engaging in a behavior that is perhaps unique in the universe. Who said nothing interesting ever happens on Survivor?
There are so many parts of this reward challenge negotiation process that I loved, but the man who orchestrated the entire surrender was, of course, Jonathon Penner. Eleven castaways took part in the Battle of The Wicker Ball, and each was using a unique strategy (I’m counting the sideline players because they were allowed to participate in the negotiation). How did he move from being crippled by eleven conflicting perspectives into finding a united single course of action?Penner is our resident lateral thinker. He has always realized, more so than any other castaway, that Survivor is a game. It isn’t real. Games have rules which can be bent, or broken. You are never obligated to play along. In the world in which we live, the effects of reality are imposed upon us. In a game, the opposite is true. Games empower us as players to impose our rational minds upon our surroundings.

That’s why Penner was willing to Mutiny in Cook Islands. He understood that loyalty is not real in Survivor. Tribal boundaries are arbitrary. Alliances are fluid. This isn’t God and Country. Nothing bad will necessarily happen to you if you refuse to remain steadfast and salute the flag of Aitu. There is no reason in Survivor, or indeed in any game, to blindly accept a disadvantageous position if tweaking circumstances can offer you a better option.

So it should come as no surprise that, when confronted with this stalemate in the mud, Penner’s mind started ticking. There was no way for Kalabaw to physically outmaneuver Tandang. Any attempt he made to physically sabotage the others would necessarily involve releasing his own hold on the Wicker Ball, thus weakening his own tribe’s defenses. So, what can you do? Start talking.
Skupin seemed happy to discuss surrender terms, which I thought was interesting. Tandang clearly had the offensive advantage. Lisa outmatched Denise, Pete outmatched Carter. Kalabaw’s only option was to dig in and refuse to move. But if Tandang had truly been willing to wait long enough, Kalabaw’s warriors would have tired. Their defenses would have weakened. The stalemate would be over. Given an infinite timeline, Tandang wins this challenge 100% of the time. Time was on Skupin’s side.
And yet, to hear Skupin and RC talk later, Skupin never realized he was negotiating from the power position. Penner certainly knew, though. Notice, Penner never suggested that Tandang give up all of their rice in exchange for a Kalabaw surrender. Kalabaw’s defeat was inevitable. Penner was just hoping to get something in exchange for expediting the process. I actually didn’t see this as a trade at all. I saw this as Penner getting something for nothing.
A lot of people have been getting on Penner about this decision to sacrifice long-term sustenance, in the form of rice, in exchange for a short-term boost of high calorie food. I actually loved the move. Ever the gamer, Penner is trying to keep a bird’s-eye-view of the trajectory of the game. He isn’t just trying to outmaneuver his fellow castaways, he’s trying to predict the actions of production.
From Penner’s perspective, a merge seemed likely to be imminent. I’m sure he was banking on this upcoming Immunity Challenge being the final one before a merge. Since he can clearly see that his tribemates are physically outmatched, the food from the reward challenge becomes a strategic asset. Maybe some short-term high calorie food could help them to win one last immunity challenge. And, if so, then maybe they can stumble into the merge, a little hungry and uncomfortable, but in a strategically better position with better numbers. If Tandang loses, the tribes merge, and Denise pulls Malcolm over, suddenly Penner is in a great merge position. I’m certain he was more than willing to gamble a couple of hungry nights if it made that scenario more likely.
Artis knew that Skupin had struck a bad deal. He just handed his opponents a food advantage going in to a critical Immunity Challenge. But Artis never spoke up against the deal. He wanted the challenge to be over. They all did. The most impressive thing to me is not that Penner thought of this idea, it’s that he convinced Tandang to agree to it. And if he had to spend an hour laying down in the mud with a face full of Skupin’s crotch to make it happen, so be it. Penner used their impatience against them. He tricked them, plain and simple. There’s only one problem: the advantage he had hoped to secure from the reward challenge food wasn’t enough. Tandang still managed to win immunity.
So, Penner rolled the dice and lost. That’s okay. It was a low-risk, high-reward gamble for him anyway, of course, because he designed it to be that way. The tribes are going to merge, and production is not going to let four people starve to death. And any resentment that swings Penner’s way when Kalabaw bellies start grumbling is still going to be quelled by the power of his Hidden Immunity Idol. His soldiers will stay in line. Penner is a genius, plain and simple.
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