Dark Psychology: 7 Ways to Manipulate People

representation of dark psychology with a manipulate muppet

In the dictionary of power dynamics, dark psychology is defined as the use of psychological principles in ways that harm the target.

There is a lot of interest in dark psychology around the web.
But there is not much good information.

This article is here to clarify and explain what dark psychology is, what it’s not, and how it’s deployed for manipulation purposes.

muppetter holding dark psychology cards

What’s Dark Psychology

I will define dark psychology as such:

The use of psychological principles of influence, manipulation, and coercion, for ends that can benefit the perpetrator but that harm or limits the freedom and power of the receiver.

From now on, I will call “dark psychologist” anyone who deploys tools of influence and persuasion in a way that harms the receiver.

Since dark psychology is a tool of manipulation, any dark psychologist is a manipulator, trickster, scoundrel, or outright criminal or abuser.

Of course, sometimes the lines between a normal person, and a dark psychologist can blur.
And it’s also possible to manipulate others to exact fair revenge or for personal defense.
Yet, let’s not get lost in a sea of relativism, and let’s be realistic. Some people are “darker” than others, and manipulate far more than others. And the opposite is true: some people have stronger values and ethics, and you can more reliably expect them to be honest and fair.

Now let’s quickly review some myths of dark psychology.

What Dark Psychology is Not

First of all:

Dark psychology does not allow anyone to surreptitiously control people’s minds, at will, and against the targets’ will.

This section will dispel some dark psychology myths.

1. Dark psychology is not hypnosis to make anyone do anything

Hypnosis is powerful.

A series of well-placed commands embedded within a distracting word-salad of nonsense can bewilder people enough to give you some control over them.
Once they disengage their critical thinking, you can then quickly escalate their compliance until you can successfully ask them to hand over their wallets, for example.
Or let you go instead of giving you a ticket, if they are cops.

See here an example for the latter:

This video is impressive.
Yet, it also shows hypnosis’ limitations:

  1. The cop was friendly enough that allowed the driver to dominate the frame at will
  2. The hypnotist was himself shocked it worked, which tells us that it doesn’t usually work
  3. The hypnotist admits that he picked a bunch of tickets trying to finally “hypnotize” a cop (ie.: it didn’t work most of the times)
  4. That fact that one technique worked once tells you little about how effective it generally is. Namely, a friendlier approach might have worked as well, and without being creepy

As a matter of fact, I think there are far more reliable ways of talking yourself off a traffic ticket than trying to hypnotize the cop.

Plus, these types of hypnosis depend heavily on the “target” you select.
If you watch some of the most shocking “robbing people” videos, Derren Brown only uses passive and very compliant subjects who never defend their boundaries.
These people are happy to let him touch them all over, and are happy to execute initial small tasks without ever becoming suspicious (plus he sometimes films the interactions with a troupe and a big camera, which increases trust while making the subject more nervous).

2. Dark psychology is not NLP and “undercover seduction triggers”

Again, there is some truth, here.

Well-designed stimuli, including auditory patterns, can change people’s moods, and induce trance-like states that can help seduction and/or increase its feelings (I did it once, and I talk about it here on how to set up your room for seduction).

However, NLP or “secret combinations of words” have been over-hyped by unscrupulous snake oil salesmen.
Have you ever seen those advertisements of “send her these 3 texts and she’ll be all over you”?
Total BS. 
In truth, she has to like you and trust you before you can induce any turnaround -or any trance-like states-.

And to change her mind with words, you also need to have some value in her eyes.
Otherwise, the more you speak and chase, the more she will dislike you.

Overall, you are better off working on more basic stuff than focusing on the exact words.

3. Dark psychology does not turn anyone into a cult-sect follower

Again, some truth.

Cults and sects are real.
And cult leaders do deploy solid psychological principles to ensnare people (plus they are often very good with power dynamics).

It’s a myth though that anyone could be recruited into a sect and become a blind follower.
Remember this general truth about manipulation:

Manipulators’ biggest skill is always in picking the targets who are easiest to manipulate

That’s not to say that you should have too much confidence in yourself. After all, the best way to put yourself in danger is to believe you’re unassailable.
But it does mean that the power of dark psychology in cults is also limited by the targets’ own power, which includes his knowledge of power dynamics and his knowledge of manipulation principles.

When you read of cult leaders who had their members do this or that crazy and dangerous acts, including self-harm, never forget this: most of those people were not the mentally strongest and most fiercely independent people to begin with.

And if you are reading here and enjoying The Power Moves’ content, chances are very low that you’d end up in a sect.

Also, dark psychology is not:

  • Brainwashing: brainwashing requires total control over someone, do not work on everyone -possibly only work on a minority of people-, take a long time, and its effects tend to dissipate with time
  • World control by a small subset of people: the idea that government, CIA, Jews, or any specific small group of people can control what everyone thinks and does thanks to the power of propaganda is a failure of appreciating the complexity of our world. Yes, propaganda is powerful. But, luckily, the world is far messier, and far more complex to be manipulated in some fantasy war-room
  • Hannibal Lecter types of predators: that’s just a BS Hollywood movie
  • Psychopathy: psychopathy a mental disorder. And while some psychopaths are good users of dark psychology, many aren’t. 
  • Sears, psychics, spells, curses, potions, fortune tellers… : those are not psychology, neither dark, nor light. That’s just, well… Largely BS
  • Subliminal manipulation: subliminal advertising works, but it’s been largely overstated by some fabricated false reports (Lindstrom, 2008). It only works when existing associations are already present in our brain. And you can probably hardly change deep-seated beliefs with subliminal messages
  • Creepy pictures: clowns, dolls without eyes, Halloween costumes… Those are not dark psychology, they’re just creepy artwork
creepy picture of a woman

I don’t know why, but google “dark psychology”, and you get a bunch of creepy pictures. 

So, what is dark psychology, instead?
Well, let’s start:

1. Dark Psychology For Social Manipulation

Dark psychology in social settings consists of strategies and techniques to manipulate people to do what’s good for the dark psychologist, but harmful for the victims

Robert Greene, author of “The 48 Laws of Power“, says that persuasion is manipulation.

I disagree.
I think that not only we can differentiate between the psychology of persuasion and the psychology of manipulation, but that we must differentiate between the two.

The difference between persuasion and manipulation is that persuasion does not necessarily harm the target of persuasion or, at least, the persuader is not out to willingly harm the target of his persuasion.
Manipulation instead entails a loss for the victim of manipulation. That loss can be financial, material, emotional, or loss in his personal power or freedom.

In short:

Persuasion does not harm people, while manipulation does.

At times, that line can be up to interpretation and framing, and persuasion and manipulation can also overlap.
For example, the Nike marketing department might say that they are doing a good thing by making the customers happy with a great product. Someone else might say that Nike is manipulating people to overpay for pieces of poor quality plastics.

The same can be said for McDonald’s marketing department, or for a pastry shop.

But the line between persuasion and manipulation is not infinitely elastic and, many times, it’s pretty easy to differentiate between persuasion and manipulation.
For example, it would much harder for a tobacco company to frame themselves as “helping people enjoy life”.
And it’s next to impossible for an abusive man to convincingly make the case that his manipulations for relationship control is for “helping his partner staying with the high-quality man he is”.

Both persuasion and manipulation are highly relevant for power dynamics, so on this website, we talk about manipulative techniques as well as games people play -“games” are patterns or defined instances of interpersonal manipulation”.

Manipulative Dark Psychology Techniques

On this website, we talk a lot about things like persuasion, negotiation strategies, power dynamics and, as well, manipulation.

Some examples of manipulative techniques that dark psychologists might use:

Please note that many people will use these techniques without even knowing their names. They just have a natural feel for manipulation.

2. Dark Psychology in Dating

Dark psychology in dating applies psychological principles to meet one’s own sexual strategies at the detriment of the dating partner

We said this several times on this website:

Dating between men and women presents common objectives as well as some diverging interests.

For example:

  • Men gain from having sex ASAP, women lose
  • Men gain from sex without commitment, women lose
  • Women gain from lots of investment before sex, men lose
  • Women gain when men in their lives dote on them, men lose

Of course there are exceptions, and there are plenty of ways to smoothen out the divergences -with collaborative frames, for example-. But the above statements are still true plenty of times to make dating a fertile ground for manipulators and dark psychologists.

The dark psychologist dates with complete disregard of the well being of their dating partner, while seeking to exclusively maximize their own self-interest.

The Male Dark Psychologist

The male dark psychologist:

  • Strings her along without a relationship: he lies about his future goals and plans, pretends he wants to settle down, but just “later”
  • Seeks “sex on the side”: he gives commitment, but does not keep his word (very common)
  • Chameleon manipulation: he presents a mask of the man she wants, instead of the man he is. The game is to pretend there are no conflicts of interests, and that they want the same thing, which in turn helps to lower her defenses, and get to sex quicker

An example of the latter, and a cheap one at that, is the man who feigns to be into long term relationships to get women who are seeking a relationship.
Like this guy: selling the “ideal relationship guy”:

Him: now, that’s my idea of a perfect marriage
Her: totally (he stares at her and sighs)

Finally, seeking sex ASAP is not “dark” per se. That’s just a fair, and potentially smart, lover strategy.
But it can become dark when the man cajoles, lies, or offer fake rewards that never materialize (see Weinstein promising acting roles).

Also read:

The Female Dark Psychologist

Among the female manipulations:

  • Position herself as the prize: reject him, feign low interest, make him chase… These all serve to keep him on his toes and make him invest
  • Control him through sex: most men need sex more than women. And some women use sex, dispensed as a reward or withhold as punishment, to get what they want.
    P.S.: one of the most popular articles on this website is “how to make him crazy” and one of the most searched keyword is “how to mindfuck a guy”. That should tell you a lot about women who seek to use sex to keep men around

Also read:

10 Nasty Games Women Play (Women, Stop These!)

2.1. Dark Psychology in Seduction (Advanced)

Be especially careful of least common, but far more dangerous dark psychology in seduction.

This is how I define dark psychology in seduction:

Dark psychology in seduction seeks bonds and attachments based not on mature love and affection, but on traumatic bonds that leverages or creates psychological wounds

Some examples include:

  • Regression seduction: seduction through mother / father roles
  • Judge seductions: the individual frames himself as superior, and makes the partner chase for his approval (see: “the judge role“)
  • Traumatic bonding: the individual makes their partner attached through physical and/or emotional abuse
  • Emotional roller-coaster bonding: the individual makes their partner attached through cycles of fights and re-pacification (also see: anxious-avoidant attachment)
  • Control through personal kinks: the dark psychologist can provide sexual satisfaction through kinks that the target keeps secret. The dark psychologist becomes the only person that can sexually satisfy them, plus they acquire an important secret the target wishes to keep secret, which gives them leverage 
  • Love bombing: the individual seeks to make the partner feel special and unique through a showering of endless attention and adulation. Psychopaths often use this method

Some of the above techniques are sometimes deployed subconsciously, and sometimes they are even the natural consequence of an individual’s psychological makeup, as it’s the case with the anxious-avoidant attachment, for example.
But some other times, they are premeditated. Love bombing, for example, tends to be more premeditated.

3. Dark Psychology in Relationships

Dark psychology in relationships applies psychological principles to gain power and control one’s partner

There is less conflict in relationships than in dating. 
But there is still some conflict.

For example, each partner can gain by keeping one nominally committed relationship, with all the sexual and emotional benefits that entails, while also seeking more sex on the side -and that’s why cheating exists: it can pay off-.

Read more:

  • Psychological tools of female control: women naturally deploy a set of very specific (dark) psychological tools to control their men
  • Males techniques for mate-control: men more than women gain from controlling their partner, so they deploy a set of both physical and psychological tools to guard their partners. These range from outright abuse, to jealous controlling, to shaming techniques, to lowering her self-esteem so that she is more dependent on him
  • The psychopath’s control tools: which include:
    • Devaluation
    • Operant conditioning with punishment / reward
    • Drama to induce cycles of positive and negative emotions
    • Fear of abandonment to make the partner submit (“dread game”)

But the whole article is a shocking read on Machiavellian strategies and dark psychology techniques:

Psychopaths’ Sexual Strategy: Marauders of Sex

4. Dark Psychology in Politics

Dark psychology in politics consists of techniques of propaganda and political debating designed to negatively frame one’s opponent, influence voters, and enduce citizens to abandon individualistic behavior in favor of the collective

There are many levels of political dark psychology, and we can separate them into two major groups: during campaigns, and in office.

In democracies, these two phases can overlap since politicians in power are still campaigning for the next elections.
But even in democracies, you can still notice a marked switch from campaign to office.

Here is a quick difference:

  • During campaigns
    • Frame the opponent as ineffective and unworthy
    • Frame the current state as hopeless
    • Frame yourself as the man to fix the situation
    • In extreme situations, make up an enemy and paint yourself as the right person to destroy that enemy (see: “burning stake power move“)
  • Once in power
    • Frame the status quo as positive
    • Take personal credit for things going well
    • Find scapegoats for things going poorly (see Trump with China)
    • Foster ideals of nationalism to drop rational selfishness in favor of the group (which ultimately benefits the politicians who lead those groups)

The last stage is common in many groups. 
Government officials indeed can be seen as group leaders. And in the case of extremist governments, despots act the same way as cult leaders and hate groups leaders act, using the same principles of dark psychology.
That includes:

  • Making up enemies
  • Increasing group cohesion through extremist values and religious zealot
  • Stoking fears and framing oneself as the only one to effectively tackle the danger (see Trump with immigrants)
  • Stoking anger as a diversion tactic 

5. Dark Psychology in Groups

Dark psychology seeks to reduce the followers’ power and independence, while increasing the leaders’ power and control

Have you read the Power Moves’ values?

One of them advises readers to develop themselves before getting too deep into any group.
Why do I advise so?

Because most group leaders want to decreases members’ power and independence while increasing their power and influence over those same group members. 

To make people more dependent on the group, group leaders will deploy several tactics of dark psychology, including:

  • Make people’s problems appear as bigger than they actually are: so people believe they will need the group and group leader to solve them
  • Ridicule, disempower, or exclude discording voices: cult leaders seek to cut out all discordant opinions. Since that’s rarely possible, group leaders frame any discordant voices as “idiotic”, “uninformed”, or “manipulative” (funny, eh?), so that they can inoculate their effect and keep followers loyal to the group’s diktats and dogmas
    For example:
    • Don’t listen to the “femininized society” = that’s what manosphere groups say
    • Don’t listen to the “patriarchal society” = that’s what feminist groups say
      Funny, eh? Same exact society, but two specularly opposite way of framing it, to keep the group loyal.
  • Make up a big, huge enemy that can only be fought as a group: see the feminists with the “patriarchy”, or the red pill with “feminized society”. When people perceive a big external enemy, they will want to seek refuge in the group

More dark psychology techniques in groups are:

  • Fostering group’s superiority over the individual: humanist and enlightened ideals of individualism and personal freedom are a threat to group leaders. They seek instead to prioritize the group over any individual. The more people sacrifice themselves for the group, the more power they have.
  • Dissolving members’ ego with the group: the more members identify with the group, the more power the group -and the group leader- will have on its members
  • Fusing the group with the leader: the last stage of dark psychology is for the leader to embody the group. That way, he can reach total control over its members. At that point, there is no group anymore, just the leader and its followers who are in it for the leader

A case study:

And a manipulation-resistance approach for life success:

6. Dark Psychology in War

Dark psychology seeks to instill terror, to mentally dominate or unsettle the enemy in a way that will handicap its fighting abibility and, ideally, to make their fight and resistance seem futile. 
Manipulative communication during war frames the enemy as barbaric, and brutal, and spreads that view as widely as possible.

The armed conflict is only one aspect of war.
Psychology, information, and propaganda all become crucial strategic tools to support a military campaign.

6.1. Terror to Win Without Conflict

The biggest dark psychology power move in war is this:

Lead the enemy to surrender without even firing a shot

For example, Genghis Khan purposefully crafted a reputation of merciless brutality towards anyone who resisted him.
That way many walled cities and castles on his path simply opened the door without opposing any resistance.
That was the equivalent of a big display of submissiveness in exchange for their lives.

Encirclement tactics or displays of superior firepower also serve to win without firing a single shot.
In a way, dark psychology at war can actually save lives.

6.2. The Nazi Stuka: Noise as Psychological Warfare

There are countless examples of psychological warfare.

A genius and innovative one was the light bomber plane Stuka, which had a siren attached to its nose.

The nazi engineers planned it that way to spread fear among the ground troops under attack. The goal was to build in the minds of the enemies an association between the sound of the siren with impending disaster and death.

From a psychological point of view, the Stuka siren wanted ground troops to “learn helplessness” (Seligman, 1967).
Once troops learn they can’t defend from an attack from the sky, they paralyze in fear, disband, and retreat in chaos. Exactly what the Germans wanted. And exactly what happened in Dunkirk.

6.3. Dark Psychology on The Air

During wartime, psychology is even more effectively deployed to control and sway public opinion. 

Wartime manipulation consists of five different elements:

  1. Frame oneself as “good”: ideally, as “holy”, or as having a responsibility to export “good” wherever you’re going to fight
  2. Frame the enemy as evil: the enemy is oppressive, brutal or, even better, a threat to our way of life or our own same existence
  3. Make victory seem easy and obvious: few people want to actually go fight that war. So make it seem like a quick and easy business
  4. Hide the true costs of war: nobody wants to pay for that war. So hide the costs, make it seem like the people will gain from it
  5. Hide the true emotional costs: nobody wants to see that our holy war is bringing death and suffering. So hide the casualties, the mothers with dead children, and the children crying on the bodies of their dead parents. How’s that for dark psychology :(.
bush quote "god told me to go to war"

Claiming holiness and God on one’s side helps in two ways:

  1. It makes one’s own troops feel destined to victory
  2. Props up internal civil support for the ongoing war efforts

6.4. Mo’ Power, Mo’ Manipulation

Dark Psychology can provide the cover for brutality to keep going unchecked.

Countries with bigger budgets engage in dark psychology to control what the world thinks of their wars.
By dominating the informational war, more powerful countries can keep engaging in modern-day colonialism and invasions without people realizing what they’re truly up to.

For example, few people in the West would think of Israel as a bullying, invading force. In good part, that’s because many major media outlets frame Israel as a victim, and Palestinian fighters are often referred to as “terrorists”. 

Thanks to that friendly support, Israel can continue to wage war with little international blowback and little repercussions.

7. Dark Psychology in Business

Dark psychology in business manipulates employees into giving up their indivual self-interest in favor of the organization, while accepting only a small portion of their true contribution.

There is no point in saddling you with more information here.

There is already a large resource on this phenomenon, with plenty of examples:

Summary

Dark psychology is not a formal and recognized branch of psychology.

There is no such thing as research labeled as “dark psychology”, or any formal education courses on it.

That’s why if you research it on the web you get a lot of dubious sites and books on the topic (many of which are poor, see my reviews on “Dark Psychology 101” and “Dark Psychology 202“).
However, that is not to say that dark psychology itself is ineffective, or wholly unsubstantiated. Quite the opposite.

Dark psychology is effective because dark psychology is psychology.
Dark psychology is simply psychology -or social science in general- applied for harmful and abusive ends.

Refer to Power University for more -and for defending against manipulation- 

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