Manipulation Tactics Abusers Use: Recognizing and Protecting Yourself

infographic of the major manipulation tactics

Manipulation tactics are the various techniques that manipulators use to attack, devalue, and control their victims.

In this artcle you will learn how to recognize different manipulation tactics, from the most basic, to some of the most advanced ones.

major manipulation tactics in infographic form

Intro

First, you must understand this:

The best manipulators are so smooth that most victims don’t even realize they’re being manipulated.

Indeed, manipulation and manipulation detection are part of an evolutionary arms race.
To excel in that race from a manipulator’s point of view means never being perceived as a manipulator.
On the other hand, your job in that manipulation arms race is to excel in detecting manipulators so that you can become manipulation-proof for life.

Unluckily, most resources on manipulation only provide the most basic manipulation tactics.
And that means that you’d only be able to spot the most basic manipulators.

Better than nothing, maybe.
But if you want to aim high in life, you need more than just basics.

Right after learning to “see” manipulation, you want to learn how to deal with manipulation.
And then eventually you want to learn how to strategically use manipulation (when it’s fair to do so!). For great life quality, you then want to develop manipulation-free friendships and relationships with higher-quality people.

We help people walk that full circle in Power University.
But this article is a good start.

To give you the biggest bang for the buck, we’ll share some more advanced manipulation tactics:

1. Social Scalping

Social scalping includes a host of manipulation tactics that frame the manipulator as a giver and the victim as a taker.

Social scalping includes a host of different tactics. They’re all aimed at making you the “taker” of the relationship

That is huge because social exchange dynamics teach us that givers and takers have very different rights and obligations.

Just as an example:

No matter how displeased you may be, you have little rights to demand any change when you are the taker within any given relationship.
Givers instead can demand changes above and beyond what would be fair in a more balanced relationship.
As a matter of fact, givers may even act out because they’d be right to be dissatisfied with the relationship (and dissatisfied with the taker).

Of course there is no “law” that says that takers must put up with abuse. But these dynamics are often far more powerful than laws are.
We didn’t evolve to follow a legal code. But we did all evolve to subconsciously run those give/take calculations.
And we naturally adjust our behavior based on the result of those calculations.

That means that you become far more accepting of abuse when the manipulator presents himself as the giver.

2. Value Scalping

Value scalping includes a host of manipulation tactics that frames the manipulator as higher value than the victim.

a shoeshine cleans a rich man's shoes

The cast system may be over, but the underlying dynamics aren’t. Higher-value people will always enjoy power over others. Sometimes, and especially in the hands of poor characters, that power turns abusive.

Value scalping is a larger umbrella that includes a host of manipulation tactics.
The most helpful way of understanding value scalping is along its two main dimensions:

  • Becoming higher value than you (value inflating for the self). Which also means the manipulator is the “giver”. Especially within relationships, one is the giver simply for being higher value
  • Making you lower value than the manipulator (value deflating for you). Which also means you’re the “taker” in that relationship. And that you must put up with crappy behavior just to make up for that personal imbalance

Several studies across many different species show that higher-value individuals invest less.
It’s a consequence of the sexy-son hypothesis (sexier -and hence “higher value- partners can “allow” themselves to invest and care less).
You may also want to learn more in our articles on the sexual marketplace and the sexual market value.

Tactics to deflate your value:

  • Criticism
  • Aggressive “humor”
  • Negative comparisons

Tactics to inflate his value:

  • Bragging
  • Teacher frames
  • “Confidence game”, where he speaks with certitude
    • Appeal to authority, for example “science”, “research”, or quotes from famous figures
  • ….

Example of confidence game to come across as the higher value authority:

Tom: one of the things that I THINK is foundational to growth is joy <— notice the humble, power-protecting and truthful approach that includes doubt
Sadhguru: (speaking with haughty and babying tone) nononono, there is substantial medical and scientific evidence that (states his point of view as a fact) there is no argument about that, there is enough evidence to show that

Sadhguru is very socially dominant here.
Socially dominant is not the same as manipulative. But dominance can facilitate manipulation. Especially value-scalping manipulation since you submit and become the “lesser of” in the relationship.
Sadhguru is also manipulative with his dominance because he feigns authority to impose his point of view on a topic where the truth is likely in the middle. Sadhguru has also shown enough behavior of NOT being a science-grounded individual. But he references “scientific evidence” to win the argument, impose his point of view, and browbeat the host.

Does it make sense?

If so, then you’re ready to move to another advanced manipulation tactic:

2.3. Statements As Questions (Covert Questions)

Statements as questions serve to maintain power.

I know, if you’re a normal person, this may not make sense at first.

But hear me out for a second.
A sizable chunk of manipulators are power-hungry.
And to understand the power-hungry manipulators’ psychology, you need to understand this:

  • Asking means admitting ignorance. Ignorance means “no knowledge”. And the “have no knowledge” are lower value than the “do have knowledge”
  • Asking means taking from those who provide an answer. And it puts the asker in debt

Power-hungry and fragile ego manipulators cannot admit ignorance. Not even for inconsequential topics.
Indeed, to most people, “ignorance” on most daily matters is situational and inconsequential.
But nothing is too trivial for the power-hungry when it comes to power.

And of course, manipulators also don’t want to be indebted to you -they want you indebted to them-.
What we said for power also applies to give and take. To you, “taking” with a question may seem inconsequential. But power-hungry manipulators take give & take calculations to extremes that normal people wouldn’t even think of.

So now we can understand that a common manipulation tactic is to avoid questions altogether.
The manipulator swaps questions with statements, loud questions that are not directed at you, or blame shifting.

Examples

For example:

  • The key has disappeared” (statement), they may say. But it’s a covert way to ask you to help them find the key. That way, they avoid admitting a mistake, and they get your help without asking
  • You cleaned up and now my key is gone” (blame-shifting). So not only they get your help without asking, but they even blame you for the issue. (Again, to most normal people this isn’t an issue at all. But power-hungry manipulators function differently)
  • I’m thinking of investing in ads these days (loud thinking). They may say while having no idea about what they need to do. It’s a covert way to ask for your expertise. If you share your expertise, they may do it. But they will never say “thanks” or, God forbid, credit you or give back to you

Another annoying tactic is to share a meaningless trope in the presence of an expert to indirectly get the expert’s opinion.
For example, on our forum, they may open a topic saying:

  • You never outshine the master, that’s why when my boss made a mistake on the presentation, I didn’t correct it. Feel free to share your thoughts“.
    Then, they hope, I will feel compelled to correct the generalization and give them some advice to improve their approach

It’s a sort of question-provocation that the expert may be forced to answer out of a sense of responsibility to keep things factual. (An actual user in our forum used to do this).

3. Isolating the Victim

a man storms out of a home with her girlfriend in tow

Good manipulators may provoke the victim’s parents or social circle to be aggressive towards him. That gives him the opportunity to get angry in return and escalate. Then, with an actual fight, he has the perfect excuse to force his partner to “choose him” and cut contact

Isolation is a relatively common manipulation tactic because isolation disempowers the victim and facilitates control.

Mind the difference:

  • People who want the best for you want you to have great relationships. They want you well-connected with other high-quality people.
  • People who want the worst for you want you isolated. They want you to have broken relationships or, better yet, no relationship at all

For example, I remember a woman I was seeing.
She had a nasty tendency to say mean things, escalate, and burn bridges. Including with her family. So after she told me about the fight she had with her sister I told her:

Non-manipulator: Look, you’re an expat here. Your family is abroad. The only family you have here is your sister. I’d rather you have a great relationship with her so that you can take care of each other

Same woman that I convinced to keep a functional relationship with her ex. And same woman that I convinced to email her former landlord instead of going to a lawyer (“make friends, not enemies” principle).

Compare how a manipulator would have acted instead.
A manipulator would have encouraged a legal battle with the landlord. And he would have criticized the sister and encouraged her to “be bold” and cut contact.

Note:
The non-manipulator is ultimately higher power, a better man, and even more attractive.
The non-manipulator sub-communicates that he doesn’t need a woman to be dependent on him. Personally, I didn’t want her to depend on me because it would just be an added responsibility that I didn’t want. Plus, deep down, I trusted myself and that she’d always put me above all the rest.
See more in this video.

Isolation Tactics

There are countless tactics manipulators deploy to isolate their victims.

Bel did a fantastic job with a growing compendium of isolation techniques here.

Some of the main ones include:

  1. Manipulative “us bubbles”. Framing the couple as the only safe and sacred “unit”. Victims who are not very good with people make for the best targets.
    Examples:
    • It’s us against the world
    • You and I forever baby, nobody else
    • We cannot trust anyone, but we have each other
  2. Criticizing the victim’s social circle. Including the victim’s family
  3. Behaving oddly or abusively in the victim’s social circle. That way, the victim will avoid his social circle out of embarrassment and shame
  4. Gaslighting the victim into believing he’s antisocial, or unworthy of having any friends. This is also common with manipulative parents
  5. Making up enemies and encouraging “enemies making”. A manipulation tactic you also see from politicians and cult leaders. The effects of false enemies are two-fold. A self-fulfilling prophecy of false enemies becoming real enemies. And the victim growing more dependent on the manipulator.
    Competitive and disagreeable people make for perfect targets
  6. Setting up the victim in difficult situations with others.
    For example, the manipulator may press his partner to borrow money from family and friends. He may then try to make it difficult for the victim to repay. And he will criticize the lenders for being so “greedy”
  7. Devalue the victim within her social circle. A good manipulator avoids direct criticism. Instead, he may “hint” the partner was unsupportive during his time of need (“yeah, it’s a financially tough time. I cut my expenses, but not everyone around me is willing to make that sacrifice so… Ramen for me tonight guys“)
    • Social circle gaslighting. For example, the manipulator will tell “in confidence” that his relationship is under strain because his partner is acting odd. That way, the victim’s appeals for support fall on untrusting ears
  8. Triangulations with the victim’s social circle. For example, the manipulator may flirt with a friend of the victim, or make the victim resent her friend with unflattering comparisons
    • Exaggerated “love” for the victim’s social circle. It works especially well with jealous or insecure victims
  9. Reframe isolation as “strength“. High-power manipulators who gain the victim’s respect have lots of (emotional) influence. They acquire “judge power“, as we call it here. So when the manipulator says that “strong people don’t need others”, the victim seeks to conform.
    The victim doesn’t realize that you can be “strong” while still tending to people and relationships
  10. Love bombing & monopolizing the victim’s time. Time monopolization can disguise as love at the beginning of a relationship.
    Only later when the manipulator has (emotional) power over the victim it will turn nasty

You can read more here isolation tactics here.

4. False Mistakes

This is a surprising one, right?

But some manipulators make deliberate mistakes as part of a strategy of provocation.

And a strategy of provocation, in turn, can be part of a larger strategy of gaslighting.

It works like this:

  1. The manipulator makes (another) apparently senseless mistake. The type of mistake you think “how’s that even possible”
  2. You get angry because albeit small, it was still important to you. Or because it’s always similar mistakes that “keep happening”. There is no learning. To you, it means not caring enough. (As Eric Berne explains, for some social sadists you getting angry is in itself a payoff. They’re happy to have that “negative power” over you)
  3. The manipulator defends that “it was just a mistake” or that “he was just trying to do a nice thing”
  4. You feel you’re too aggressive, maybe even “not good enough for him”

And once you feel too aggressive, you start devaluing yourself.

Deliberate Mistakes Dynamics

Contrary to what most people may think, the deliberate mistake tactic works better with seemingly smaller mistakes.

This is because smaller mistakes provide better cover for the manipulator.
And smaller mistakes make it easier to frame you as “too over-reactive”.

To be precise, the deliberate mistake sweetspot is this: small enough to be inconsequential to most, but big enough to annoy you.

Hot buttons and personal “weird” preferences are perfect.
Why?
Because that way you can’t complain to others since most people wouldn’t understand (a gaslighting effect).
You know you fell for it when you open up to others, but people say “but come on, it’s such a small thing”.

quadrant for the manipulator's payoffs with the deliberate mistakes tactic

Examples

Some example:

  • At work they print the full presentation “for your convenience” even though you hate wasting paper. When you complain they may say “I thought this investor presentation was important for you”. Now you’re in a double bind because of course the presentation is important, but it still doesn’t mean it had to be printed
  • In the flatshare they take the last one of your favorite snack and replace it with a different brand. When you get angry, they may say “I just got a full package, just take one there”
  • They bring you a yogurt. It’s the brand you love but… The flavor you hate. If you say so, they get angry or sad because they’re being so nice “and you even complain”. “I even got you your favorite brand”, they may say. Or “it’s just a yogurt, who cares, it’s about the gesture”

Him: brings her strawberries as a gift
Her: did you know that there’s only one thing on earth I’m allergic to…
Him: (realizes the “mistake”) strawberries. This is progress, I knew there was a correlation between you and this <— he got his payoff: making her angry and reactive to him. And now he tries to sound smart with his reply

In the movie, this is supposed to be “fun”.
In real life, this is one of the games manipulators play.

Sometimes even the intent or mention of the mistake is enough.
For example:

  • You say not to take any more eggs because you have too many. When they come back they say “ouch I need to go back to get the eggs”. That forces you to intervene to stop them. And you get angry because you already talked about it. (After all, you had too many eggs because they already did the “mistake” the day before)

Notice again that these are all small enough that you may find it difficult to find any support.
Your friends may say “ah come on, does the brand really matter so much?”. And your employer probably has no policy against “printing presentations for review”.

Still, you better have clear in your mind that this is manipulation.
And turkey behavior.

Here’s the rule of thumb:

When similar “mistakes” repeat, they’re not mistakes but deliberate actions to provoke you.

5. Playing on Insecurities (to lower your self-esteem)

Manipulators play on your insecurities to make you self-conscious and lower your self-esteem.

To be precise, this manipulative tactic is part of “value scalping” because you come to believe you’re lower value.
In the worst cases, you may come to believe not only that you’re lower value, but that you’re worthless. And victims who feel worthless are trapped in abusive relationships because that’s what they think they deserve.

Read more on this dynamic here:

Some manipulators are good at sniffing your insecurities.
But one doesn’t even need to be a great mind reader because many insecurities are shared by all. And many more are shared along gender lines.
Women tend to be insecure about looks, weight, inclusion, reputation, “being nice”, etc. etc.
Men tend to be insecure about masculinity, “being an alpha“, confidence, knowledge, expertise, competence, etc. etc.

And both genders in intimate relationships are insecure about competitors.

Example

Him: (grabs her calves) chub chub
Her: (starts getting self-conscious about “not being thin enough” for him)

6. Infantilizing (Teacher Frames)

The manipulator infantilizes -or babies- the victim to make him feel inferior and dependent.

When effective, babying makes the victim feel low IQ, immature, and dependent.

Babying others is also part of “value scalping” because the “baby” is lower value than the “mature and worldly” manipulator.
The manipulator, as the only adult, also becomes the leader of the relationship.

Teacher Frames

Babying sometimes goes with teacher frames.

With teacher frames, the manipulator acts as a teacher, and you become the “pupil”.

An example of manipulative teacher frames:

Saltbae: (talks to people like he’s in charge and explaining the world to them. As a consequence, they become lower value “students” who must learn from him)

Bel noted the dominant finger-pointing power move here.
And indeed, same as we saw and said for Sadhguru applies to Saltbae: dominance here facilitates manipulation.
Saltbae dominantly points at Al Pacino. All the while, he explains things to him so that he is framed as a (higher power) guru.

7. Lying, Denying, Reframing, Etc.

So far we shared some less common and less understood manipulative tactics.

However, the “basics” of manipulative tactics are still valid, of course.

Some of the most common and “basic” manipulative tactics include:

  • Lying: “I never said that, you’re imagining things
    • Denying truth: “that never happened“, which is also part of gaslighting
  • Flattery: “there is a reason why you’re the best at this
    • Positive triangulations: “he’s good, but let’s face it, you’re at another level
  • Minimizing: “yeah, sure, I may have gone over budget, but I’m focusing on the ultimate goal. A few thousand are peanuts when we turn profitable and we’re both millionaires
    • Dismissiveness: “ah come on, you’re even considering that a problem
reframing manipulation tactic

It can be fair to stick to a “strong” opinion or feedback and refuse to apologize. But to hide behind “honesty”, refusing to admit it can be offensive, and to refuse even to acknowledge the words that one has indeed uttered is certainly manipulative. It can seem a fine line when you’re first learning, but it’s a huge difference

This is the rule of thumb:

Any red flag of poor character is also a red flag of manipulation.
Albeit poor character and manipulation are two different concepts, there is an overlap between the two.
That’s because manipulation is inherently more closely associated with poorer characters. And the opposite, talking straight, is associated with high-quality characters.

A good example of a manipulative character showing many red flags:

Him: and a lot of the skills is when they catch you (proceeds to gaslight her into dropping her complaints about infidelity and maker her feel like she’s the one)

Again, we see here how dominance and high power can facilitate manipulation.

The Sorry State of Manipulation Resources

This is my philosophy:

TPM articles are a responsibility to add value to our readers.

So I take them seriously, and prepare myself.
Part of my preparation includes looking at what’s already available.

This time was no exception.
And I was even more disappointed than usual when I looked up other articles on “manipulation tactics”.

Why?
Because the highest-ranking articles for “manipulation tactics”are shockingly poor.
Which is somewhat ironic since they’re all “high-authority” websites.

But to me, this is how they all feel:

little red riding hood teaches a class on manipulation (a meme for the poor state of manipulation resources with clueless people doing the teaching)

The Issue With Popular Resources On Manipulation

Some of the issues include:

  • Very basic information, with no hint of more advanced tactics. Basic articles serve a purpose since many people need to start from somewhere. But it’s an issue when all of them are basic. And not a single resource bridges from basic, to more advanced material
  • No examples means lack of clarity. Almost all available resources have little examples, and zero real-life examples or videos.
    That’s an issue because readers do not get any sense of what manipulative tactics look like in real life.
    For example, imagine the victim reads “gaslighting is a manipulation tactic that makes you doubt reality”. Without examples he never gains the ability to spot gaslighting in his life
  • Little understanding of power dynamics and manipulation dynamics. Manipulation IS about power, so understanding power dynamics is foundational to writing about manipulation. Most articles lack a good understanding of both power dynamics and manipulation
  • Re-hash jobs. Go through a few articles or videos, and you’ll see the same tactics over and over again. Including the same mistakes and limitations

Even worse, it feels like there is no real effort behind most of the available resources.
They feel like minimum effort, 10-minute coffee break re-hash jobs.
The authors may have PhDs or clinical experience. But the truth to anyone who understands this topic is that there is an appalling lack of clear thinking behind most articles on manipulation.

The lack of any real thinking is obvious to me because it’s not just the understanding of manipulation that’s lacking.
Even the meaning of the word “tactic” is lost (see below).
The only common thread of the incoherent hodge-podge lists that clutter Google is to list whatever sounds “negative”.

The Cost of Poor Articles Is Poor Solutions

Most of the available resources also fail to offer truly effective solutions.

That’s to be expected since solutions require an even higher level of sophistication than simply spotting a manipulation tactic.

And it also requires a more general understanding of power dynamics and social effectiveness.

As an example, imagine a girlfriend threatening to breakup.
To begin with, that’s more of a power move, rather than manipulation.
With the threat, the woman is (sub)-communicating loud and clear that she has no respect for him (as a man).

And the solution is NOT therapy as some sources suggest.
In this case, the root-cause solution is not even for the man to demand honest communication.
The true root-cause solution is for the man to work on his power. Including his ability to lead and command respect.

What Are Not Manipulation Tactics

large red "x" with written "not manipulation tactics"

As we mentioned before:

Many of the most popular and expert-written articles lack a clear definition of manipulation tactics.

Some examples of “manipulation tactics” that are NOT tactics include:

  • Gaslighting is a cluster of manipulation tactics -and a large cluster-. It’s not a distinct manipulation tactic
  • Seeking control is a motive that leads the controller to use manipulation tactics. It’s not a manipulation tactic per se.
    Also, listing “seeking control” as a manipulation tactic is confusing. It’s confusing because almost any driven human being “seeks (more) control”. Good men also seek more control. So the question is not whether one seeks control or not. The question is about how, how much, and what costs they’re willing to inflict to get that control
  • Passive aggressiveness is an interpersonal approach and a cluster of behaviors. Passive aggressiveness may include a host of manipulative tactics, but not necessarily so. It’s also not a tactic
  • Coercion imposes on others by leveraging real power to impose one’s will. Coercion is not manipulation because it’s direct and open. Manipulation is hidden. Coercion may only be manipulative when it’s a gambit not backed by real power. But then it’s not coercion but more a “coercion attempt” or a “gambit”.
    Example: governments coerce citizens to pay taxes. But that’s not manipulation
  • Stages of manipulative relationships are possible stages of an abusive relationship, not tactics. Also, only some manipulative intimate relationships follow those (rather pop-psychology) stages. Such as, you can be in a relationship with an inveterate manipulator and never go through any listed “stage”
  • Etc. Etc…

We could go on and on.

But the long story short is:

stick to TPM when it comes to learning, spotting, and dealing with manipulation :).

Conclusions

At the highest level, manipulation tactics are the tools and techniques manipulators use to “take” from their victims.

There are countless manipulation tactics.
A whole book could barely cover them all.

However, the goal shouldn’t be to cover them all.
The goal is to acquire the ability to understand general manipulation dynamics. That way you can spot and deal with manipulative tactics even when you’ve never seen them before.

Also, part of our philosophy is that you even want to master manipulation for those times when it’s fair to use.
A high-quality man is not a person who never ever uses manipulation tactics. A high-quality man is a man who mastered manipulation and transcended manipulation with the best people in his life.
He may though resort to it with the situations and people who don’t don’t deserve his best self.

We help men walk that full path in Power University.

The Power Moves (TPM) maintains high standards of sourcing guidelines to provide our readers with content that is accurate and actionable.
We rely on peer-reviewed studies, accredited experts, psychology textbooks, and academic research institutions. Learn more by reviewing our full editorial policy.

  • Braiker, H. (2003a). Who’s pulling your strings?: How to break the cycle of manipulation and regain control of your life: How to Break the Cycle of Manipulation and Regain Control of Your Life. McGraw Hill Professional.
  • Simon, G. K. (1996a). In Sheep’s Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People. A. J. Christopher.
  • Choosing Therapy. (2023). 17 Manipulation tactics abusers use. Choosing Therapy. https://www.choosingtherapy.com/manipulation-tactics/
  • Dexter, G., PhD. (2023). Signs of manipulative behavior. Verywell Health. https://www.verywellhealth.com/manipulative-behavior-5214329
  • Vogel, K. (2022b, April 15). How to spot Manipulation Tactics. Psych Central. https://psychcentral.com/lib/tactics-manipulators-use-to-win-and-confuse-you#why-it-happens
  • Mann, J. (2023b, June 28). This emotionally abusive habit is a guaranteed relationship killer. InStyle. https://www.instyle.com/lifestyle/hump-day/threatening-breakup-emotional-abuse
  • Anderson, J. (2023, August 19). How to Deal Threatening to Break Up Manipulation: Navigating a Challenging Situation – Intimate Wellness. Intimate Wellness. https://intimatewellness.net/threatening-to-break-up-manipulation/
  • Trivers, R. L. (1972). Parental investment and sexual selection. In B. Campbell (Ed.), Sexual Selection and the Descent of Man 1871-1971 (pp. 136-179). Aldine.
  • Berne, E. (1964). Games people play.
  • Berne, E. (1972). What do you say after you say hello.
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