Manipulation: Techniques, Strategies, & Ethics

woman holding red apple of manipulation

The definitive dictionary of power dynamics defines manipulation as:

The act of influencing and convincing others to embrace beliefs or behaviors that advance the interests of the manipulator, while coming at a cost for the manipulator’s target(s)

In this article, we explore:

  • Manipulation techniques
  • Practical examples of manipulation
  • Manipulative strategies for personal success
  • The ethics and morality of manipulation
woman holds a red apple

Social Manipulation

From a social-exchange point of view, this is a simple definition of manipulation:

Manipulation is a form of social exchange that benefits the manipulator while pushing the costs onto the manipulation’s target

Here are techniques of social manipulation:

1. Social Manipulation (Social Scalping)

Social scalping is a form of social exchange manipulation, that seeks to inflate one’s own contribution and devalue the victim’s contribution as a way of taking more than they give

Social scalping is a way of exploiting the social exchange system.

Let’s take “debt inflating”, for example.

One of the most basic social exchange rules postulates that people who feel indebted to others will feel an obligation to give back. 
That obligation is based on what Cialdini called “reciprocity” (Cialdini, 1994). Reciprocity is the feeling of indebtedness that, if someone gave us, then we owe them. 

That’s what the social scalper exploits.
The social scalper makes you feel indebted so that he can get back more than he gives.

He does it in many ways:

  1. Makes the favor seem “special”: “This is just for you, don’t tell anyone else” (and then does the exact same with anyone else)
  2. Makes the favor seem costly: “It took me 3 days of 12h work a day. But I know you needed it” (and maybe it took him just one day)
  3. Reminds you of old favor he’s done for you: “Remember that time you had to move, and I helped you out? Well, now I’m just asking you for $100 bucks man” (and maybe you thought that “favor” was part of your friendship, and repaid with the dinner and drinks you offered)

Here’s an overview of social exchange manipulation:

Social exchange manipulation infographic
Thanks to Ali & Matthew on the infographics thread

Don’t sweat it if it seems too complex.
In short, this infographic says that the manipulator seeks to get more, while giving back less.

It’s simpler with some real life examples:

To deal with this social manipulation, read here:

There is a fairer, non-manipulative way of making sure you get back what you gave.
And it’s to make it clear you expect something back.

  • Honest exchange talk: directly lets you know you’ll have to make a favor back

An example of “honest exchange talk” from “The Godfather”:

Godfather: some day, and that day may never come, I’ll call upon you to do a service. But until that day, accept this as a wedding gift

It might be annoying to have someone tell you “you owe me”, or that they “might have to call you in the future”. But at least, you know what you’re getting. Fair deal.

2. Guilt Tripping

Guilt tripping manipulation makes the target feel bad for something they either did or failed to do, and manipulates them into acting to “make up” for their wrongdoings

Here is a text example of guilt-tripping:

an example of guilt tripping

The lady from the above text tries to make me feel guilty for not having taken her out of the country.
It implies that it’s my duty to let her travel, and that, by not doing so, I am responsible for her depression.

Also read:

2.1. Pity Plays

The pity play is a special technique of guilt-tripping where the perpetrator paints himself as either hopelessly helpless, or as a victim.

The pity play seeks to make the target act “out of pity”.
A beggar who is doing his best to look hungry and desperate is using pity plays.

Pity plays are more effective when they are combined with guilt-tripping, as the guilt-tripping pity play says:

“I’m a victim because of you, that’s why you should feel guilty, and that’s why you need to make it up to me”.

Pity plays are effective as manipulations of last resort.
When you have absolutely no more leverage, you can go for a pity play.

Pity plays, as most other manipulations, can be used for potentially good causes.
But you need to watch out, as they can also be instrumentalized to frame an opponent as barbaric:

I couldn’t help by crying at the video and images of that shell-shocked, bloodied kid. But those same strong emotions can be manipulated for less-ideal causes

3. Manipulative Moralizing

Manipulative moralizing makes the target feel guilty for behaviors or beliefs that do not conform to the manipulator’s set of morals and ethics

How is moralizing manipulation?

Simple:

Who is to decide what’s a “good” set of morals and ethics to obey?

If it’s the manipulator who decides, then he might have a second motive.
By making us feel bad, the moralizing manipulator seeks to change our behavior to fit his ideal of “proper” behavior.
When the moralizing manipulator is good at it, the target feels “judged” poorly, and “not good enough”. And so they change their beliefs and behavior to conform to the manipulator’s judgment -or, at least, they hide their true selves-.

Moralizing is most often delivered from a judge role and with a judge frame, and is sometimes referred to as “moral policing”.

We have already seen examples of moralizing on this website:

woman with a scarlet letter

“A” stands for “adulteress”. The scarlet letter is an example of moralist shaming

The scarlet letter is an example of sexual moralizing, and sexual mores are some of the biggest targets for moralists.

It goes both ways, of course.
Women seek to manipulate men into shaming them into providing and committing, while men seek to shame women into being caste and faithful, which is an (understandable) way of protecting against possible “non-paternity events”.

3.1. Shame Attacks

Shame attacks are concentrated, high-powered moralizations.

Individuals who seek power resort to shame attacks through what I call “burning stake shows”.
We don’t burn people on stakes anymore in the West, but burning stake power moves can still destroy someone’s reputation and livelihood.

We have one shame attack case study here, where you can learn how to deal with them:

4. Manipulative Self-Disclosure

Manipulative self-disclosure offers fake or unrequested personal information to gain social credits that will be later exploited to ask for more valuable information from the manipulation’s target

Personal information is highly valuable in social exchanges.

Personal information potentially empowers the receiver of the information, and puts the information giver in a potentially vulnerable position. 
It also increases trust and, potentially, increases bond and connection.

Thus, because of the exchange nature of social relations, giving potentially valuable information begets the ability to receive valuable information.

Or, at least, it puts pressure on the target to disclose valuable information because of the law of reciprocity.

The manipulator abuses the social exchange system by sharing either dud or unrequested personal information that puts pressure on the target to share their own valuable information.
Alternatively, if the manipulator has a clear objective, he can share unrequested personal information, and then directly ask for the juicy information they wanted (tit-for-that self-disclosure).

Tit For Tat Manipulative Self-Disclosure: Example

This is a meme, but it’s very similar to what happened to me the first time I met my floor-neighbor soon after I had moved in:

meme of manipulation technique

You can read the full details here:

  • Manipulative tit for tat self-disclosure: Read more in the link. From that day on, I knew I had to watch out with her. Plus, I knew I had free rein to manipulate as well, because manipulating a manipulator is fair game

5. Prosocial Feints

Prosocial feints encourage others to adhere to a set of prosocial rule that limit their personal fredom or impairs their life effectiveness, while the manipulator himself either defects on those rules, or enjoys more power because people follow those rules

Prosocial feints are based on the dichotomy between group collaboration and selfish defection. 
Such as, if everyone were prosocial, everyone would gain. But if the manipulator could convince others to be prosocial while he surreptitiously defects, he enjoys far bigger gains.

There are three different types of prosocial feints:

  • Manipulate & defect: the prosocial manipulator professes prosocial ideals and behaviors. He pretends to obey them in public but, in private and whenever he can, he defects
  • Abide & proselytize: prosocial behavior when nobody else is prosocial can be costly. Thus, a true believer tries to enlist others to avoid a comparative loss (note: abiding and proselytizing can be a respectable, value-adding choice in life)
  • Frame powerlessness as a virtue: the manipulator cannot compete in an open system, so he seeks to promote virtues and ethics that limit people’s ability to achieve certain goals

In all of these cases, the prosocial feinter also gains social points by looking selfless and prosocial.

5.1. Pro-group Feints

Pro-groups feints encourage others to adhere to a set of pro-group morals and values that limit or harm personal freedom and personal power, while increasing the manipulator’s freedom and power

Of all the manipulation techniques, this is the one I dislike the most.

The feints aren’t even pro-humanity or aimed at protecting public goods, but they encourage aggressive and bellicose attitudes towards an external out-group, making people bitter and angry.

Here are some examples:

  • Feminist feints by feminists: Encouraging women to be strong and independent and, at worst, “not to need a man”, decreases women’s dating and sexual options.
    The feminist feinter can then either defect, for example being kind and submissive with men she likes, or enjoy an easier dating life when more and more women disempower themselves with “strong-woman” ideals.
    In short: the more women she can convince, the better it is for her -and not necessarily for the women she convinces-.
  • Male rights feints by misogynists: the angry misogynists seeks to turn more men into angry misogynists to help them with their anti-women’s campaign.
  • Patriotic feints by politicians: why do you think it’s politicians who always encourage patriotism? Because the more patriotic people are, the more they give to the country. And the more power the leaders of those countries have, of course.
  • Idealistic feints by generals: the military is the most pro-group feinter of them all, with patriotism, ideals of freedom and democracy, and appeals to “brothers in arms”.
    It’s not surprising, since soldiers are asked to give up their lives. To make that sucker’s trade seem acceptable, you need all psychological manipulation you can muster.

6. More social manipulations

There are countless social manipulations. 
Here is just a few more of them:

  • Get denied to deny: propose something they’re forced to say “no” to, which makes them socially indebted. Then exploit that social credit to deny their future, fair request 
  • Manipulative peace feints: pretending to be friendly and collaborative when you’re not. For example, telling others to “stop being so defensive
  • Manipulative aggression: getting angry, aggressive, or overly dominant to instill fear and make you the target more pliable and submissive.

Seduction Manipulation

man hypnotizing an attractive woman

Let’s keep it simple.

There are three main ways to manipulate in seduction:

  1. Inflate one’s own perceived sexual market value: higher SMV allows for more sexual options, quicker sex, and higher quality mates.
    Among the countless manipulative techniques for higher SMV:
    1. Instilling fear: flaunting options, triangulation, “my hot exes” games, etc.
    2. Judge frames: when others prove themselves you, you are in charge and they are chasing your (emotional) validation
    3. Sexualization: framing oneself as a skilled lover. Works best with disinhibited and high sex drive targets
  2. Deflate the target’s perceived sexual market value: it makes the target more pliable to being seduced
  3. Faking chemistry & common goals: manipulators don’t date based on who they are, but rather seek to embody the partner their target wishes for

For concrete manipulation examples see:

  • 10 manipulative ways to make him value more: written from the point of view of women with men as targets
  • Female seduction techniques: techniques that some of the best female seductresses use to ensnare men
  • Dark psychology in seduction: a few techniques of dark psychology that can be considered highly manipulative
  • Sexual conflict: the areas where interests diverge are also the areas more fertile for manipulation to evolve
  • “Piggyback and run (I love you)“: the manipulator picks a lower SMV partner, pretends to be in love, then dumps him/her (visa scams, trumped-up charges of battering, or divorce)
meme of manipulation

And I also recommend:

Sexual Manipulation

There are two types of sexual manipulation:

  • Intra-sexual manipulation: manipulation aimed at making same-sex individuals less competitive 
  • Intersexual manipulation: manipulation aimed at reducing the dating power of the opposite gender

Some examples:

  • Cultures of sexual loyalty (men on women): cultural-level intersexual manipulation where men repress women’s freedoms to choose another man as a way of more easily controlling “their” women
  • Slut-shaming (women on women): women shame promiscuity in other women as a way of more easily controlling their partners (the less sex his partner can get outside of the relationship, the more power she has)
  • “Bro codes”: Or rules like “not sleeping with married women”. Some men might actually obey that rule while they proselytize it -I respect that-. But some are (also) saying it to decrease the odds anyone will sleep with their wife. And then, if I get a chance with a married woman they like… 

Some really f*cked up, twisted manipulations here, eh?

Relationship Manipulation

Manipulation in relationships can be divided in:

  • Trapping the partner manipulations: most useful when partners have different SMVs, when the SMV of each partner diverges with time, or when one partner starts losing interest.
    The manipulation includes:
    • Lowering one partner’s self-esteem: low self-esteem partner fail to see they even have other options
    • Isolating the partner: convincing or pressuring the partner to give up their friends and cut ties with their families
    • Increasing partner’s dependency: convince the partner to give up their job, pool or divide resources, or make them emotionally dependent
    • Slut-shaming: the male partner embraces and promotes cultures of honors as a way of shaming his partner into never-ending faithfulness
  • Acquiring power in the relationship: good relationships are heavy in collaboration, but manipulators prefer power, to collaboration. Many techniques of relationship manipulation are based on emotional manipulation, including:
    • Gaslighting 
    • Belittling the partner’s achievements
    • Ignoring the partner’s achievements
    • Withholding praise or admiration
    • Minimizing own’s own bad behavior
    • Invalidating the partner’s feelings

Some articles that show the manipulative dynamics in relationships:

Business Manipulation

Business manipulation can be understood at different levels:

  • Regulators’ relationships: business owners talk up their troubles and social contribution to get undue support or protection. The goal is to nationalize the costs while privatizing the profits
  • Corporate manipulation of employees: similar to group’s and political manipulations, plus:
    • Framing the company’s goal as prosocial
    • Making employees feel cherished as in a family
    • Owners hide their contempt for employees while showing public admiration (see “psychopathy at work” for how some owners feel about employees)
  • PR manipulation: the company exists to add value to humanity, and never to make money for the owners no matter what 
  • Negotiation manipulation: business is about dealmaking, and there is lots of potential for manipulation in negotiation
  • Marketing manipulation: at the high level it’s developing emotional association towards a certain brand, logo, or product (“No Logo” and “Start With Why” are great, non-technical books for that).
    At the tactical level, it’s about:
    • Scarcity principle: pretend your product is limited. Especially effective if the product is scarce because of demand
    • Promotions
    • Experts opinions: “doctors recommend… “
    • Subliminal marketing: over-hyped by initially fabricated reports, but it can be effective in leveraging already-present internal associations (Lindstrom, 2008)
    • Feigned intimacy: see an example below
example of marketing manipulation

I was disgusted when I received that automated email from Nel Patel, pretending he personally asked about me. It was too manipulative, and an offense to the receiver’s intelligence.
P.S.: I willingly use a different name with marketers so their manipulative games are even more obvious (“Matteo” here instead of “Lucio”)

Critical thinking is always a great antidote to marketing manipulation.
See an example here:

Leadership Manipulations

Leaders can do great things for individuals and groups alike.

But leaders, groups, and individuals’ interests can also diverge, which make the leader-follower relationship one that is ripe for manipulation.

Here is some of them:

1. Owners Manipulate Employee to Give More & Take Less

Owners prioritize profit over the individual, and manipulates the individuals into giving up their self-interest for the company’s goals

There is an inherent conflict of interest between business leaders and employees.

Owners gain when the individuals are selfless and self-sacrificing individuals, while the individuals gain when they retain their independence together with a healthy self-interest.

team work ad with an ant

A colony of ants working for the gains of the queen owners. The dream of every business leader (be my guest).

That’s why almost every company stresses the value of teamwork.
The teamwork mantra is an attempt at manipulating individuals into giving up their self-interest.

Take Ray Dalio, for example, who says that “what’s good for the whole is good”.
Easy for Dalio, since he owns the whole. 
But what’s good for the whole is not necessarily good for the individual.

Employee Wants to Be Special, Owners Wants Them Disposable

The secret goal of most business leaders is to make employees disposable.

Unique employees gain negotiation power, and owners don’t like that.
So owners seek to make employees disposable while manipulating them into feeling special and as part of a special family.
When employees feel like part of a big family, the owners can get more out of them, for less money (for more on intrinsic motivation see Pink, 2009)

See more here:

2. Leaders Manipulate Followers to Give Up The Self

Group leaders seek to manipulate the individuals into giving up their self-identities to fuse with with the group idendity

A group of selfless followers who identify with their teams is a leader’s dream.

Selfless individuals who identify with the team will readily die for that team -and for the leader-.
And that empowers the leader -while disempowering the individuals-.

Hence, much of leaders’ manipulation seeks to influence people into investing more and more into the group, including emotional and identity-based investment.

Some of the manipulations:

  • “We” & “Us” talk: the leader seeks to instill a culture of “WEs” as part of his group-identity strategy
  • Talk up the group: the leader wants the individuals to see the group as the solution to all of the problems
  • Making up enemies: the good old ingroup/outgroup manipulation. Make up an enemy, and people naturally become more cohesive (Haslam, 2006)
  • Make the individuals dependent: the leaders don’t want to fix the individuals for good, but prefers them dependent on the group

For more on the dynamics of group:

And to see this manipulation from the point of view leaders, see:

3. Leaders Naturally Engage in Pro-Group Feints

Leaders engage heavily in the pro-group feints we discussed before.

Why?

Simple: as the leaders of those groups they gain the most if everyone gives up personal power to empower the group.
Leaders sometimes don’t even have to fake to be pro-group. It’s easy and costless for leaders to give up the self for the group when they control that group.
But it might not be the same for the individual.

george bush on a flying suit

Be patriotic and “ask what you can do for your country”, or give your life for the leaders’ profit?

Stay especially away from fanatical group leaders. 
As a rule of thumb, the more fanatical and intense a leader is, the more he wants you to give up your personal power for his own power.

4. Purists Seek Leadership Through Fanatism

First, a definition of the purist manipulator:

The purist manipulator picks an enemy and puts on an act of being angry, shocked, or indignant to look better by comparison, and to gain personal power by leading the masses of disenfranchised

The purist manipulators deploy shame attacks and seeks to lead mobs of people to figurative burning stake shows.

Here are examples of purist manipulator:

Political purist: rich people are disgusting, they got rich cheating and lying. Death to the rich

Political purists tend to lead the masses of unhappy folks who need an excuse for their failures. 
You can see them springing up all over these days with the populist movements.

There are several layers of the purist manipulator, depending on their level of danger:

  1. Social Justice Warrior level: annoying, but mostly an innocuous idiot
  2. Digital firestarter level: he is the guy who writes angry posts on Facebook, always in absolute and black and white terms
  3. Lynching mob level: here is where the fanatism starts, but he never makes it to real offices of power. Savonarola was an example.
  4. The social-revolutionary fanatic: politicians who seek power by making up enemies and pretending to be the usherers of a new, better world
  5. Purists in power: the Stalin and Hitler of this world. Fanatics who achieved power and keep pretending they are still revolutionaries for good

Digital Firestarter Example

The firestarter uses shame attacks for a quick burst of feel-good power.

You can see an example here with your truly as the target to be burned on the Twitter digital stake:

public assault on power dynamics expert lucio buffalmano

As a rule of thumb, be very careful of both purists and fanatics.
They seem good and candid, and great leaders you can follow. But they’re all but.

For more on group power dynamics and success strategies read “enlightened individualism“:

Self-Manipulations

Strange eh?

Of all of there sources on manipulation, none of them ever tackles one of the most important manipulations of them all: how we manipulate ourselves.

As Feynman said:

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool

Self-manipulation, or inner-manipulation, must be addressed because it supports external manipulation, and makes it more likely that we will be and remain victims.

For example:

  • Minimizing: “oh, she is not that bad, she just got emotional, that’s why she started breaking dishes”, and men stick with abusive and manipulative women
  • Optimism bias: “if I just keep loving him, I am sure I can change him”, and so women stick with abusive and manipulative men
  • Sunk-cost fallacy: “we have spent so much time together, we need to find a way to keep it”, and so people stick with manipulators

There is many more of course. But learning psychology and developing critical thinking will go a long way to fix our self-manipulation.

Integrating Your Manipulative Tendencies

The worst self-manipulation is believing you have no drive and willingness to manipulate others.

It might seem counterintuitive, but accepting your own manipulative tendencies is the very first step to becoming a bigger force for good in the world.
In short, accepting your own dark side is a necessary step of self-development.

As Jordan Peterson said:

Jordan Peterson: by denying the worst in yourself, you preclude the possibility for the best

Peterson is talking about aggression here. 
But it’s the exact same for manipulation.

Remember:

The inability to manipulate doesn’t make you virtuous. It only makes you ignorant of human nature.
-The Power Moves

It’s the ability to manipulate and to willingly avoid using it for harmful goals that make you moral.

Socio-Cultural Manipulations

At a social level, each individual and/or social group seeks to influence the public opinion to adopt frames or moral norms that benefit themselves, or their own group.

Among cultural manipulations:

  • Promoting the belief that success is all about choice and hard work: the rich wants society to believe that success and wealth is all about hard work and dedication, which helps them frame socialist policies of wealth redistribution as theft on the productive folks
  • Promoting the belief of “poor but happy”: Fiske found out that when those in power can frame the underclass as high in warmth, but low in competence, it can help stabilize the status quo (Fiske and Cuddy, 2002; and Sapolsky, 2017).
  • Culture of honors: men seek to instill a culture that represses women’s sexual freedoms to defend against non-paternity events
  • “Me too”-like movements: a culture with an easy trigger against men and within which it’s easy for women to shame and ruin men for any type of advance empowers women against men (especially the most manipulative women)
  • Political framing: each party seeks to frame the public discourse in a way that benefits them. For example, when expression such as “tax relief” or “pro-life” are adopted by everyone, the conservatives are far more likely to win debates and influence policy choices (Lakoff, 2004)

At different points of time, this or that group manages to gain an edge over another. 
But since there are so many competing interests at play, rarely a group can completely dominate all others.

More Manipulations

It’s difficult to write a comprehensive article on manipulation while also being brief.

So here are a few more forms of manipulation, in a shorter format:

1. Standard Manipulations: What We All Do

Standard manipulations are everyday manipulations we all engage in.
As a matter of fact, some everyday manipulations are a sign that we are well-adjusted human beings.

For example:

  • Makeup to look younger for women
  • Tailored clothes for men to look at their best
  • Talking up our strengths to impress someone with power (think about job interviews)

Some everyday manipulations are also a sign that we are effective individuals:

  • Concealing inappropriate emotions
  • Behaving in ways that are effective, but not reflective of how we feel

However, overdoing standard manipulations can make you come across as submissive or nervous.
Think for example:

  • Smiling when we don’t feel like smiling
  • Being friendly when we are actually disappointed
  • Repeating that “we are fine” when we are actually angry

These types of overly-social manipulations all communicate that you lack confidence, that you don’t respect yourself nearly enough, and that you lack power and assertiveness.

2. Familial Manipulation

You only need to look at family dynamics to realize that yes, we are indeed all designed to engage in manipulations.

Among the familial manipulations:

  • Fetus manipulation: yes, it starts that early. Fetuses fight to remain alive and divert nutrients from the mother, even if that might make the mother sick (Buss, 1998)
  • Babies manipulation: children cry, get in between parents, and act seductive as a way of attracting love and resources (Pinker, 1997)
  • “Look at me mom”: children showing off for their parents are subconsciously saying “I am worthy of your continued support and investment”

Familial manipulation also shows us that some people manipulate more than others, and that they start early.
M.E. Thomas, a diagnosed sociopath, realized she was different when she realized her siblings weren’t as interested in becoming the parents’ favorites to the detriment of others (Thomas, 2013)
I believe indeed that one of the signs of female sociopathy is a daughter’s antagonization of her mother to “win” her father over.
An alpha female sociopath I once dated gloated telling me how she pushed her mother over to become the “queen bitch of the household”. The title meant she was the father’s favorite, and had the power of influencing the family’s decisions.

3. Media Manipulation

It includes:

  • Feigned neutrality: pretending of reporting facts while instead promoting a specific agenda
  • Sensationalism: “new record”, “never seen before”, “first woman ever to”
  • Fear-mongering: fear sells and attracts viewers. The media overstates risks while downplaying long-term, positive trends (Pinker, 2018)
greta thunberg angry with media manipulation comments

Greta is a victim of manipulative reporting and sensationalist media

Greta Thunberg really believes that global warming means she has no future.
Global warming is a serious issue we need to tackle. But it’s far from being the main risk to her life.
She is too young and naive to understand that some media outlets overblew the severity of global warming to human life to attract more viewers.

4. Machiavellian Manipulations

Machiavellian manipulations are more refined and effective manipulations schemes.

One example: 

  • Shine up, praise down: kiss up kick down is a weak strategy. As James Fallon said: “you don’t manipulate by snarling, you manipulate by being sweet as shit”.
    Smart manipulators make their reports feel great to maximize their output, but then maximize selfish self-interest by only maneuvering for their own promotions

Manipulative Strategies

Today, evolutionary psychology widely accepts that self-interest can often be best achieved through cooperation (Ridley, 1996).

So, from a life-strategy point of view, it’s not the selfish player who succeeds.
It’s the collaborators who can expand the scope of collaboration that maximize their results the most (“enlightened collaborator“).
And that’s why we say here that cooperative frames are one of the fundamental strategies for personal power.

However, stopping there would be only half-way towards truth.

And this is not the place for naive self-help.
The truth is that selfishness and manipulation can also pay off within a collaborative framework.
Much of manipulation is based on a dichotomy between collaboration and self-interest:

Honest collaboration can create win-win, but feigning collaboration can create even more proficuous win-lose

That’s why, as much as collaboration naturally emerges through natural selection, so does manipulation.
In short: collaboration and manipulation are two faces of the same coin.

However, manipulators who let their selfish side goes too far take big risks, including:

  • Exclusion from cooperative circles: in cooperative circles, everyone gains. Manipulators who focus too much on taking ruin the system, so they get booted out
  • Loss of access to high-quality cooperators: many high-quality individuals have little patience for the most blatantly self-interested manipulators (many of these people build their success with honest collaboration, after all)

In short: blatant manipulation is not a smart strategy.
It cuts you off from lots of high-quality people and from many opportunities for win-win and collaboration.

Opportunistic Manipulator Strategy

That being said, one must not be either always honest, or always a crook.

Indeed, from a purely Machiavellian and self-interested point of view, the best strategy is to frame oneself as an honest giver and collaborator, while defecting and manipulating any time you can get away with it.
Let’s call this strategy the “opportunistic manipulator”.

As usual, I’m not happy to say that and I don’t condone nor endorse that stance, but I must tell the truth first and foremost.

Also keep in mind that, in some cases, Machiavellianism is a fair approach. Sometimes even the best approach. And it’s also always useful for self-defense.
Developing your Machiavellianism is something that any value-adding individual should work on (see: “why you need to be bad“).
A Machiavellian approach is also needed to advance in naturally competitive environments like in the workplace.

A Case Against Opportunistic Manipulation

Luckily, there are some good reasons against a strategy out of constant opportunistic manipulation.

The main con is that it’s a far higher-risk strategy than it looks.

As a rule of thumb, the closer the relationship, the more you deal with the same people over time, and the longer the time horizon, the higher risk the opportunistic manipulator strategy becomes.

If you think about it, it makes immediate sense.
As a general rule, the more manipulations you spin, the more you increase the risk that some of them will be discovered and/or that they will come back to haunt you in the future.

So, as a rule of thumb, the longer or closer the relationship is, and the healthier the relationship you seek, the more it pays off to minimize manipulation and behave as an honest collaborator.
See here a real-life example from my own brother.

  1. It works less well with high-quality people: higher quality people have better antennas to spot manipulators, and that includes opportunistic manipulators
  2. Poorer on your self-esteem: knowing yourself as a straight shooter makes you far more confident. Also read this forum entry.
  3. Mindsets: “If you think like a lame, you will learn to limp”. The risk is that you acquire the mindset of a small-time cheat 
  4. Poorer relationships: The Machiavellian strategy to life makes for toxic relationships

Manipulator’s Profiling: Who Manipulates?

Here’s the profiling of the most prolific manipulators:

  • Machiavellians: they buy into Machiavelli’s proposition that a desired end justifies virtually any means. In game theory experiment they are opportunistic, capitalizing on ambiguity regarding the rules
    • manipulative
    • charming
    • confident
    • glib
    • calculating
    • cynic about human nature (the bad type of cynic, of course)
    • shrewd in their social strategies
  • Individuals with a scarcity mindset: Susan Foward says that manipulation often springs from a belief that the supply of attention and affection available to them is finite – and shrinking fast (Forward, 1998)
  • Insecure (but driven to succeed): they don’t think they have a fair shot without cheating, so they manipulate
  • Insecure in relationships: they fear abandonment, and would do anything to keep it (anxious attachment types are more likely to manipulate)
  • Narcissists: expect special treatment without assuming reciprocal responsibilities in turn (ie.: in the social exchange he takes without giving)
    • entitled: they feel entitled to receiving, and any mean to that end is fair
  • Borderline personality disorder: uses silent treatment, rage, and threats -including breakup threats– also see “Stop Walking on Eggshells” and “I Hate You Don’t Leave Me
  • Dependent personality disorder: they indirectly manipulate others to assume responsibilities for them. Men tend to use demands, while women tend to use submissiveness and feigned ineptitude. Also read “Codependent No More
  • Histrionic personality disorder: the drama queens and kings, they manipulate to get more attention. They can be both manipulated and manipulators, and often resort to sexuality and seduction to manipulate. They can resort to emotional explosions, and frequently cry rape
  • Passive-aggressive personalities: passive resistance like procrastination, intentional inefficiency, and feet dragging. They will never say “no” to their bosses, but will always complain behind the boss’ back
  • Type A angry personality: highly competitive, and obsessed with quantitative measures of success. They are often very concerned in maintaining control over their environment. They tend to manipulate with more aggressive tactics, and sometimes evoke “avoidance strategies” in others
  • Addictive personality: lies, denies, and wreaks havoc in people’s lives. Can become extremely needy
  • Sociopaths/ Psychopaths: have little or no empathy. Or, better, the little empathy only helps them understand others better as a way of manipulating them better. Also see psychopath’s controlling strategies 

To which, I also add one more category of people who could instead be more empathic and higher quality:  

  • The manipulator who got burned: he has been the victim of manipulation, and vows to never be a victim ever again. So now they turned into manipulators. That’s the profile of lots of red pill men (and bitter women)

Manipulators’ Mindset

The most hardened and conscious manipulators often have this mindset:

  • You either play or get played: it’s a zero-sum world of dog eat dog. You either play, or get played
  • There is no win-win: in a zero-sum world full of nasty people, there cannot be win-win
  • Relationships between equals do not exist: it’s either one wins, or lose. So they want to make sure their parnter loses
  • You cannot trust others: since everyone is out to play you, manipulators obviously cannot trust others. They also don’t see themselves as trustworthy

This makes healthy and “value-adding” relationships with manipulators difficult or outright impossible.

Manipulators Create Their Own Dog-Eat-Dog Reality

Since the manipulator cannot see how someone could be giving or cooperative, they approach all situations that require to choose between trust/cooperation and distrust/competition with the latter strategy.

But in repeated games, which in real life are the equivalent of relationships, that mindset creates a world of lose-lose.

Let me repeat it because this is crucial:

The manipulator’s mindset of perennial distrust creates his own world of lose-lose.

Here is how it’s experimentally tested. 
Take this variation of the prisoner’s dilemma:

prisoner dilemma matrix
  • Win-win: When they both cooperate, they both get $10
  • Win-lose: when one cooperates and the other defects, the defector gets $20 and the other gets nothing (cheating)
  • Lose-lose: When they both defect, they both get $1

The cheater “wins big” the first time. 
But as soon as the game is repeated, the collaborator will most likely adjust his strategy to defect as well.
And the game quickly turns into a lose-lose for both. If you run this game for 3-4 times, the defector strategy is a losing one.

In any long-term game, collaboration maximizes gains, but the cheater misses out on the gains because of his mindset.

Post-interviews confirm the two different mindsets.
Cooperators who played against defectors may say that “it is just like life: There are all different sorts of people”.

The manipulator instead uses the reality of his own making to justify his own strategy and life approach.

As Braiker notes, the manipulator’s mindset poisons all of his interpersonal relationships

Can you reform a manipulator?

Rarely, it’s possible.

If the manipulator wasn’t aware of his manipulation, showing him what he was doing, plus the destructive effects it’s having, can serve as enough of a shocker to change his behavior (we call this approach here “collaborative shaming”).

But in case the manipulator was aware of his behavior, then the chances of changing drop precipitously.
Conscious manipulators tend to be self-aware and “ego-congruent“. Such as, their manipulation fits what they consciously think of themselves.
On this website, we define the worst type of this category of people the “proud value-takers”. Such as, they are proud of taking from others.

Manipulators’ Victims

Who gets manipulated?

Two popular psychologists addressed that question: George Simon (Simon, 1996) and Harriet Braiker (Braiker, 2003).
These are the people most likely to fall for manipulators:

  • Naive people (blind to evil): good people tend to think there is less evil and manipulation than there actually is
  • Naive people 2 (blind to lies): people who don’t lie are more easily a victim of the “truth by default interpretation” (Levine, 2014). Such as, since they tend to lie little, they also think others lie little
  • Over-conscientious people:  the victim focuses too much on their own part of the blame, and too little on the manipulator’s contribution
  • Unassertive people: the victim is unable or unwilling to give firm “nos” and enforce their boundaries
  • Low self-confidence people: the victims are more likely to believe the manipulator’s version of the events
  • Over-intellectualizing people: the victim justifies the manipulation because of supposedly underlying issues. Some psychologists contributed to this problem by making excuses for manipulation (Stout, 2005)
  • (Emotionally) dependent people: the victim is very submissive, emotionally and/or financially dependent
  • Emotionally vulnerable: people who are going through a hard time
  • Financially vulnerable: people who are in financially dire straits are far more likely to fall for “get rich quick” schemes (Konnikova, 2016)
  • Narcissists: people who believe or want to believe they’re special, destined for greatness. They’re more likely to believe impossibly good things can -and should- happen to them. Solution: antifragile ego.
  • Approval seekers: the manipulator takes a judge role and the victim accepts it, seeking the manipulator’s approval
  • Emotophobic people: the victim fears either feeling or expressing stronger emotions such as anger, disappointment, and disapproval

To this list, I also add:

  • Powerlessness: which takes place at three different levels:
    • Lack in awareness of power dynamics,
    • Lack of mental fortitude, including assertiveness
    • Lack of options, which makes people more dependent on manipulators

Manipulation VS Persuasion

What’s the difference between persuasion and manipulation?

Robert Greene, author of “The 48 Laws of Power“, says that persuasion and manipulation are the same, and any attempt at persuasion is an attempt at manipulation.

That argument is often presented with the cynic rationalization that “everyone manipulates”, and those who don’t, are lying.

Well, it’s not 100% wrong.
But it’s not wholly right, either.
We could probably plot manipulators within the population as a bell-curve:

bell curve of manipulation

As much as there are few people who lie and manipulate all the time, there are also very few people who are always honest.

Still, that does not mean that persuasion and manipulation are one and the same.
The difference between persuasion and manipulation is that manipulation comes at a cost to the target, while persuasion does not.

There is plenty of grey area, of course, but grey areas are grey because they are not highly harmful.

Let’s consider two examples:

  1. Salesman persuades prospect to buy a cool sports car, but the buyer didn’t strictly need a car
  2. Man persuades woman who wanted a relationship into sleeping with him, but they don’t get into a relationship

These are typically grey areas. 
But they are not harmful.

Because of back-rationalization, the car prospect is probably happy in either case.
Same for the woman.
If the man managed to make it a good experience, she will most often be glad they became lovers.

So, in my opinion, most grey areas of persuasion are fair game and, in the absence of obvious harm to the target, it’s fair to attempt to influence others to your point of view.

Yet, that grey area is not infinitely elastic, and it’s spurious to pretend there is no difference whatsoever between persuasion and manipulation.

Examples of manipulation from the above cases would include:

  1. Salesman manipulates prospect to buy a used sports car, while hiding important safety issues
  2. Man who never wanted a relationship seduces virgin and strictly religious woman who wanted a relationship into sleeping with him by hinting at a future together

Summary

Manipulation is natural to every living creature.

But some people are better at it, while some others happily use it for more harmful objectives than others.

For true self-development, and to become a more enlightened human being, you must first recognize your own tendency towards manipulation.

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

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