The main difference between persuasion and manipulation is that persuasion is open about its objectives while since manipulation has ill intent, it hides the real self-serving motive.
However, in real life things aren’t that simple, of course.
We know that because we dedicated years to learning and studying manipulation dynamics.
And today many consider us the world’s greatest experts on power and manipulation:
“(The Power Moves) is the world’s biggest expert on the topic (of manipulation)”.TPM reader on Linkedin
So if you want to understand the ethics as well as the practical uses of persuasion and manipulation, you will love this article.
- Persuasion VS Manipulation
- Examples Of Manipulation VS Persuasion
- Grey Areas: It’s Degrees, More Than Absolutes
- Assessing People
- You Need To Learn BOTH Persuasion & Manipulation
- The Advantages of Manipulation
- The Advantages of Persuasion
- Ethics of Persuasion VS Manipulation
- Finding The Right Balance: A Life’s Calling
- Manipulation is communication and behavior that serves the speaker and seeks to exploit the victims
- Persuasion is communication and behavior that seeks to influence someone while respecting their self-interest and well-being
We also refer to persuasion here as “straight talk”.
“Straight” is a larger construct going beyond simple communication. It includes a person’s character, and a general approach and expectation towards others.
Persuasion VS Manipulation
Here’s an overview of the difference between persuasion and manipulation:
(persuasion is the communication mode of cooperation)
(manipulation is the communication mode of (unfair) competition)
|✅ Good faith1 |
(has good or neutral intentions and believes in what he says or does)
|❌ Bad faith1|
(has ill intentions and does not believe in what he says or does)
|✅ Value-adding or neutral|
(the effect on the target is neutral or value-giving)
(the effect on the target is value-taking)
|✅ Serving or balanced WIIFM/WIIFY|
(not based on pure self-interest so the persuader may gain, not gain, or lose out)
(manipulation’s first and foremost goal is to benefit the manipulator)
(shows what’s true and dispels falsehoods)
(“truth-seeking” is a subset mode)
|❌ False |
(instills new false beliefs or changes correct ones)
(gaslighting is a subset mode)
(presents data, facts, pros & cons, and different points of views)
(fudges data, hides the cons and over-sells or invents the pros)
|✅ Two-way influence|
(open to being persuaded and changing his mind)
|❌ Not open to influence4|
(not open or interested to changing his mind)
|✅ Transparent |
(transparent in both goals and biases, including “WIIFM”)
|❌ Hidden agendas|
(frames it as good for you, or hides WIIFM behind “higher ideals”)
(respects the individual’s rights, including the right to decide)
|❌ Inconsiderate |
(no respect for other people’s wills and rights)
(with truth and wisdom come liberation, freedom and empowerment)
(with lies and malice come dependence, abuse, and disempowerment)
2 “persuasion is good, manipulation bad” is the most cited sole difference but it’s insufficient. Good VS bad is often complex to ascertain. Manipulation can make you feel good while costing in other terms. Or it can add value, but at the opportunity cost of better alternatives
3 inveterate manipulators are utterly unable to be straight, despite the high costs for them
4 some of the “best” manipulators are good at faking open-mindedness
5 not in the sense of “kind”. One can speak dominantly, offend, or even hurt the receiver. It’s respect for the receiver’s right to ignore, disagree, and do otherwise
What Are NOT Differences
Popular but untrue differences include:
- Persuasion builds trust, manipulation destroys it. Yes, it’s true that manipulation may destroy trust. But only when uncovered. That’s a huge if. If successful, manipulation may also increase trust. As a matter of fact, successful manipulation often depends on developing trust.
On the other hand, poor persuasion may decrease trust
- Persuasion is logical, manipulation is emotional. Manipulation withholds data or logic that surfaces the truth, IF the truth is not what the manipulator wants. But manipulation leverages data or logic if it serves the manipulator’s goals (including, of course, warped logic and fudged data).
On the other hand, persuasion may also use more emotional appeals
- Persuasion is for others’ benefits, manipulation is for the self. It’s true that manipulation is almost always self-serving. But if we accept that all humans pursue self-interest, then also persuasion often includes self-interest as well.
Indeed, the main difference is that persuasion is open about its self-interest. And it balances it out with other people’s best interest
Let’s review some examples now:
Examples Of Manipulation VS Persuasion
Imagine this example:
Mark wants to convince his best friend to break up with his girlfriend.
Mark doesn’t like her, prefers his friend to be single, and he thinks that his friend “can do better”.
Here are the two different approaches:
Persuasion example: persuading friend to breakup
- Frankly, I’d rather you stop seeing her because I think you deserve a better relationship. So it’s good for you.
But also because I don’t like you coming out as a couple and prefer you single and wilder. So I’m a bit biased here (<—- honest introduction presenting the “WIIFM” and what’s in it for his friend)
- We’re young, so also listen to your uncle since he’s been around. (<—- limits his own influence by adding more people in the decision process)
- That being said, I think that if you breakup you’ll probably go through a tough time for a while (<—- presents the likely downside)
- But you’ll have more fun with us as a single guy and gain more experience. And eventually, you may get a better fit for you when you’re ready to settle (<—- presents the upsides of a future girlfriend as hypothetical and avoids the word “better girl”)
- Personally, I’d rather live my 20’s single and just be honest with her. (<—- considerate towards her, a good sign of character)
- But up to you. Whatever you prefer and we’ll be friends anyway. (<—- leaves it up to him)
Manipulation example: manipulating friend to breakup
- Let me say first, I don’t really care what you do (<— hides his preference)
- so I’m saying this just for you (<— social scalping manipulation, tries to frame his own goal, as “for him”)
- I’ve been there, and have seen enough men submitting to relationships in their 20’s. (<—- exaggerates his expertise to talk more authoritatively. And negatively frames the relationship as an act of submission)
- Every single man I’ve seen turned into a submissive beta. (<—- exaggerates the costs)
- Don’t be stupid (<—- frames any different choice as “stupid”)
- More experienced guys have more fun and without fail find better women, too (<—- while it may be generally true, it’s not always true. Plus, the way he says it is aggressive and manipulative. He exaggerates the benefits, without mentioning downsides)
- So if you wanna be a bitch, go ahead. (<—- judge power move that he’ll lose his respect if he doesn’t listen)
- If you wanna be a real man, well, that’s the type of man we like here (<—- ups the coercive power with a covert threat. The whole group may ostracize him if he doesn’t toe his line)
Of course, most situations aren’t this cut and dry.
Most situations are a lot more shades of grey.
Grey Areas: It’s Degrees, More Than Absolutes
Of course, in the real world, things can get muddier.
And while “100% manipulation” is not so rare, “100% persuasion” is quite rare.
So, generally speaking, most communication falls in a spectrum.
A spectrum between the two extremes of persuasion and manipulation:
More blatant manipulation attempts are more common than 100% persuasive attempts. But most communication and exchanges fall in the grey area zone
Let’s review a grey area example as well:
Grey Area Case Study: Assessing A Lying Friend With Good Intentions
Imagine this twist to the previous scenario.
Mark believes that his best friend’s girlfriend is a bad person.
And Mark also heard from someone else that she was drunk at the local club and flirting with another guy. It seems like they even exchanged contacts. Mark sees it as an opportunity to “finally” get his friend to break up.
So he says:
Hey man, it sucks for me to have to tell you this, but you’re my friend and it’s my duty to share.
This past Saturday I saw Jane at the Caesar club. She was drunk and making out with a random dude.
Persuasion VS Manipulation Analysis
In this case, we’d have:
|Persuasion Elements||Manipulative elements|
|✅ Good intentions|
(wanting the best for his friend)
|❌ Lies |
(that she saw her in person)
|✅ Not motivated by self-interest|
(wants his friend to find better, and doesn’t want to get his girlfriend)
|❌ Exaggeration |
(from flirting & potentially exchanging contacts to making out)
|❓Potentially good effects|
(the friend may break up with a low-quality woman and find a much better one for him)
|❓Potentially bad effects|
(what if the friend is wrong and his friend’s girlfriend is actually good for him)
Now the big question:
In this case, would you consider Mark manipulative or “fair”?
Personally, I consider it a big positive that he has good intentions. His heart is in a good place and he wants the best for his friend.
If you are his friend, that’s important.
In my opnion, it’s the most important thing.
But there is much room for improvement.
For example, this is definitely a situation where it’s not cool to lie.
It’s not cool either to his friend, or the woman.
Yes, she wasn’t behaving well. It’s disrespectful to flirt with another man in a small community because that’s very damaging to her boyfriend. Mark was right to be personally annoyed by it and wanting better -and more respect- for his friend.
But if Mark had said that instead of lying, he would have been equally influential AND a straight-talking man. A proper “eagle”.
Instead, he took the sneaky shortcut and went the manipulative way.
And the fact he doesn’t like her isn’t good enough of an excuse. An honorable man should afford a minimum of respect even to those he doesn’t like -especially if they’re close to his friend-.
This approach also takes his friend for stupid.
The lie and intent sub-communicate that he doesn’t think he’s capable enough to make good decisions based on what’s true.
These types of decisions aren’t life or death and concern his life much more than yours. It may be even true that your friend isn’t the smartest guy in the world. But you still want to allow him the freedom and power to decide for himself.
Finally, Mark is “playing God” too much.
He doesn’t know what will be better for his friend long-term. And in those cases, in doubt, it’s best to stick to what’s true -and your thoughts about it-.
The “persuasion VS manipulation continuum” is foundational to assessing people’s character.
But you can’t just look at the mere presence or absence of manipulation.
Instead,c you need to look at the gravity, intensity, and frequency of a man’s manipulation.
It works like this:
- Gravity: how harmful the manipulation is
- Intensity: how far off from reality and “straight talk” the manipulation is
- Frequency: how often a man manipulates VS how often he speaks “straight”
Generally speaking, a man who is unable to put manipulation aside and talk straight with other straight men CANNOT be a high-quality man.
It’s an impossibility and a contradiction of terms.
Such a man is and will always be a low-quality, sneaky turkey.
These men do not deserve your respect, friendship, or time. (albeit, of course, you may strategically deal with them or use them for your own gains).
Red Flags of Manipulation
Other important elements to assess characters:
- Good VS bad faith, independent of the effects
- Compete VS cooperate mode. Some people tend to always be in compete mode. That makes it difficult for them to be straight
- Serving VS Self-serving (intensity). Everyone pursues self-interest, so you can never hold that against someone. So, again, it’s a matter of intensity, frequency, and gravity.
For example: what costs are they comfortable inflicting on others as they pursue self-interest?
- Approach to lies. Some small white lies are common and may even be useful for smooth socialization. So, again, look at intensity, gravity, and frequency. Also, look at the general “comfort with lying”. If someone lies as second nature and acts like “so what, it’s normal” if caught, it’s a bad sign
- Value-givers VS value-takers. It often helps to look at the bottom line. Do they give more, or take more? Inveterate manipulators rarely are givers
You Need To Learn BOTH Persuasion & Manipulation
You need to learn both.
Yes, including manipulation.
And that’s because manipulation is pervasive, ubiquitous, and common.
Naive self-help, which in fact sometimes is manipulative self-help, denies or downplays the frequency and magnitude of manipulation.
Instead, it’s the other way around.
It’s wholly uninterested, truth-based, truth-seeking and 100% honest persuasion that is the exception.
Two sides of the same coin, you need BOTH angel and devil
Manipulation Is Important Because…
More schematically, you need manipulation because:
- Learning persuasion REQUIRES learning manipulation. The best persuaders are also (potentially!) great manipulators.
This is no different than a great hero potentially being a great villain. It comes with the territory. With the ability to add much value also comes the ability to take much value.
- Manipulation-awareness serves for self-defense. It’s one of the foundations of this website. It goes back to Machiavelli’s quote: “a good man is ruined among the many who are not good”.
- Maximum life effectiveness requires manipulation. Only players who know the game inside-out, at 360°, can be effective. And the more you advance in life, the more you’ll likely meet craftier manipulators.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you have to manipulate. But the ability to spot a manipulator is invaluable. (Including for more advanced strategies, such as spotting manipulation but pretending to go along with it).
- Sometimes it’s fair to manipulate. When you deal with the various takers, manipulators, and a**holes of this world it would be stupid to “play it straight”.
- Several relationships and environments require both persuasion and manipulation awareness and “modes”. Think of work, for example. You’ll need teamwork to succeed -and to develop a reputation for one-. But it’s also a place where you must compete for promotions -while hiding it-.
In healthy corporations high-power straight shooters go far. But you must still be aware of corporate manipulation and office politics. And when and with whom to be straight and when not to be.
Remember the general rule:
Straight communication is best when it goes both ways.
So straight communication requires a worthy recipient.
And many people you meet in life simply aren’t worthy of your full honest self.
The Advantages of Manipulation
We go over more practical uses in Power University.
In this article, we share the “higher level” background on manipulation’s advantages.
And it’s this:
Life evolves based on what best serves the “selfish gene“.
And, generally speaking, selfish manipulation serves the selfish gene better than selfless communication.
This concept was clear to Dawkins and Krebs, who in 1978 changed the way scholars thought about communication.
The two argued that evolution rewards animals that can best use the tools in their environment.
And by “tools” they meant both things and other animals.
And by “using” they meant “manipulation”.
Animals who can better manipulate others end are more effective at life.
The orchid mantis developed the looks of an orchid flower to better prey on insects. Any animal that can better manipulate prey and competitors gains an advantage over others
Life Is Intrinsically Manipulative Because Manipulation Is Advantageous
So at a very general level:
manipulation is the natural consequence of life moving towards higher effectiveness. And higher odds of self-advancement.
Any form of life that learns how to better use others will likely beat its peers. And will pass its manipulative genes onto the next generations.
Accelerate that process over generations, and you “naturally” get widespread manipulation.
Manipulation Is “Natural”, Persuasion Must Be Learned
Manipulation probably came before persuasion. (Or at least, at the same time).
This is why today most people don’t just need to learn (more advanced) manipulation.
Most people today must also learn straight communication. Often, from scratch.
The Advantages of Persuasion
If manipulation is natural and confers advantages, why would anyone even bother with persuasion?
Because, of course, there are also benefits.
- Effective cooperation. In many cases collaboration is most effective with straight and honest talk
- Reputation. A strong reputation for a straight shooter does a lot of great things for you. It makes people more likely to want to associate with you, work with you, for you, or generally be more well-disposed towards you
- Prestige as in “people looking up to you”, which is proven to confer status
- Facilitating all-important alliances, including with other straight talkers and high-quality men. The type of men who are most likely to spot -and dislike- manipulation
- Maintaining win-win for the long-term. Instead, manipulators tend to lose social capital over time and their relationships deteriorate. This is all the truer with “power-aware” and high-quality men who can spot a “crooked” and non-straight man
- Enjoying better relationships, which isn’t just a question of “good feelings” but has been proven to be good for health and longevity
These are HUGE benefits.
BUT… Full straight talk without power-awareness is still too high risk.
It’s what we’d call here “being a lamb, hoping there are no wolves (but there are wolves)”.
This is where TPM steps in:
TPM Helps You Be Straight, Without being A Sucker
We help people here to:
- Learn how to talk straight (and persuade with more honesty)
- Reap “straight talker” rewards
- Not turning into a sucker for it, so without the downsides
- Get more straight talk from others by demanding it, expecting it, and sometimes even teaching it
So TPM helps you enjoy all the upsides of high-quality straight talk and persuasion, without the downsides.
Ethics of Persuasion VS Manipulation
Most articles on persuasion VS manipulation default to this:
Persuasion is good, and manipulation is bad.
And yes, there is a large backdrop of truth in that.
But, again, it’s a tad more complex.
Before we delve in, let us to share a warning:
Be careful of those who make too big a show of rejecting manipulation.
Few of them are being truly honest and truthful.
Instead, they’re often either lying to themselves, or totally clueless of anything people-related.
And sometimes, they’re in bad faith.
Same marketer who swears off manipulation and “only teaches to be the best and most authentic version of yourself” markets her online course as “sold out” -an obvious lie, and much closer to manipulation than to persuasion-
I can’t count the times I’ve seen marketers swear against manipulation, tell others to only be 100% honest… Except to then engage themselves in varying degrees of manipulation.
Not by chance, marketers score high in Machiavellianism as a group.
Now, back to us:
When Manipulation Can Be Fair
Sometimes manipulation can be fair.
As a matter of fact, sometimes manipulation is the best course of action. And sometimes manipulation is exactly what you’re supposed to do if you want to be a high-quality man.
Some of these cases include:
- Dealing with another inveterate manipulator. There is no point in being honest with someone who’s not honest with you (ie.: don’t accept lose-wins, don’t be a sucker)
- Dealing with an obvious taker: similar as above. If someone is obviously trying to take from you, and exclusively only looking out for themselves… Maybe so should you
- With abusers and in abusive relationships: going from victim to empowered can be challenging. And your new assertive communication can only to an escalation of abuse. So in your “awakening period”, pretend you’re still a naive, powerless victim while you plot your escape (or revenge)
- Disempowering or replacing unworthy men and leaders. To TPM’s philosophy, this may not only be fair, but a personal responsibility. At the very least, you shouldn’t give dishonorable leaders your best work
Some more “darker grey areas” include:
- When you’re both going to win anyway (take the lion’s share of the pie). For example, when splitting added value in a negotiation, you will both be better off, even if you capture 99% of the value
- When you’re desperate and it’s mission-critical: when to you it’s survival but to others it’s “just a loss”, you get more latitude. This is why many consider stealing in desperation to be a lesser crime
- When the costs to others are very small or uncertain. This is the case in many sales situations. See example later
Finding The Right Balance: A Life’s Calling
TPM stands at a somewhat difficult junction.
We don’t do “ethical philosophy” and we certainly don’t like virtue signaling and moralizing.
In part, this is because we encourage self-advancement and see it as a good thing. And we also understand human nature and prefer working with it, rather than complaining about it.
But we also don’t like obvious “sons of b*tches”, inveterate manipulators who can’t talk straight, and takers who live a life of parasitic exploitation.
Let’s say that we go for an “honorable man approach” to personal success, life, and relationships.
So on one hand, we seek to be honorable.
And at the same time, we want to be ultra-effective at achieving goals.
We walk a sometimes difficult line between maximum effectiveness and respecting others -ideally adding value to others-. That line can be expanded with skills and strategic thinking. But sometimes it may require compromises.
And it’s certainly possible to win while also adding value -or at least without harming- others.
When that’s the case: great.
It’s also certainly possible to find ways creative ways to turn a personal win into a win-win.
Or to find ways to decrease the costs of win-loses.
That’s also part of strategy, and part of what we seek to teach here.
But it’s also true that, sometimes, a personal (larger) win may come at someone else’s cost.
How to navigate the diverging paths between maximum effectiveness and honorable character is one of life’s most pressing questions.
A challenging question because there are no hard and fast rules.
Life will continuously ask and test us again and again with novel situations and people.
However, we’ll try to provide you with some pointers based on TPM’s philosophy:
Sales Persuasion Ethics: It’s Fair To Do Your Best To Sell
Imagine this scenario:
A salesman wants to sell an expensive convertible sportscar to a middle-aged family man.
Selling the car is obviously good for the salesman.
But is it good for the buyer?
It’s a moot point.
The man’s wife and child may be better off with a sedan. And the buyer is definitely financially better off with a cheaper car.
But the buyer may be happier with the sportscar in the long run, and the family better off with a happier father. It may turn out win-win for all.
But we just cannot know that for sure at the moment of persuasion.
The same applies to many other sales situations.
As a matter of fact, it applies to a lot of situations in life, period.
As long as you’re not selling food to a starving man -obviously good for him- or a terrible product -obviously bad for him-, then it’s often a grey area.
Selling obviously poor products while hiding the issues is manipulative. Doing one’s very best to sell good products that may be useful to the customer is not -even though ascertaining the value to the customer may be difficult-.
There are often too many variables to know for sure.
We may think of these situations as on a “range of uncertainty” within the grey area of the persuasion-manipulation continuum.
In our opinion, most grey-area situations in sales and persuasion are “fair game”.
Such as, unless you engage in obvious lying or deception, it’s ethical to do your best to sell.
Compete To Win: It’s Fair (All The More If You’re A TPM Man)
The same can be said of competition.
Who says you’re not going to be a better CEO than your competitor?
And if you’re reading here, chances are higher that you will be a better leader.
So, in those situations, it’s fair to do your best to win.
But always be honest with yourself!
However, avoid the all-common “good samaritan lie”.
The “good samaritan lie” is the idea that your best persuasion is an ethical imperative because the sale is so great for the buyer.
You can hear this approach from some marketers and sales trainers.
But it’s just not true.
It’s not true because we often cannot know what’s best for the prospect.
And this tendency of forcing positive spins on things is weak-ass self-manipulation.
Also bad for your own character development because it denies one’s own fair dark motivation with some BS, fake, savior complex.
being a straight and honorable man starts with telling the truth to yourself.
Just don’t sell lemons, don’t deceive, generally sell good products, and you’re doing good as a salesman.
No need to pretend you’re saving the buyer’s life.
The same goes for many life’s competitions.
If You’re Generally Good… You Don’t Need To Worry About This Much
Many of our alumni learn about advanced manipulations with us for the first time.
For the first time, they learn to spot it in others.
And they wonder if they themselves are being involuntarily manipulative or “nasty”.
In my experience, that’s rarely the case.
Indeed, as a rule of thumb, if you even think about winning without being nasty, chances are you’re not nasty.
Chances are you generally have good intentions and your heart is in a good place.
And if you worry about “being fair”, chances are your main worry should be different. Your main worry should be to avoid exploitation by those who don’t have those moral qualms.
The ultimate guidance on “walking the line”
Walking the tightrope between heaven persuasion and maximum self-advancement hell is one of the eagles’ biggest challenges. To advance while also remaining honorable and value-giving. That is the goal.
Make sure you never stray too far into the flames of manipulative hell
We’d like to end this article with the two simplest forms of guidance.
For the first one, we can’t quote any better than Jesus:
- Don’t do unto others what you don’t want to be done unto you
To which TPM would add:
- Do your absolute best to achieve your goals… Without being a nasty SOB or a sneaky f*ck
- Ideally, win while setting up win-wins and uplifting others… And you put yourself on the side of the angels
So simple, right?
Yeah, it should be simple.
It should be simple because, just as manipulation is inborn, so is our sense of “what’s fair”.
And what’s “fair enough” and what’s “too much”.
Avoid “too much” and you should be good.
Persuasion is honest and upfront about one’s own motives.
Manipulation instead hides its motives because those motives are bad for the victim.
Real-life situations aren’t always cut and dry.
But persuasion and manipulation nonetheless remain two very different forms of communication.
Contrary to what many sources say, there are times and places for both.
It’s important for men who want to be effective in life to know and know how to recognize -and use- both.
But, generally speaking, for most men it’s a worthy goal to try to reduce the manipulation while adopting more straight talk.
Then, demand and seek more people in your life who offer the same. And you’ll soon be flying high with the eagles.
Different authors have different opinions.
Some -such as Robert Greene-, say that manipulation and persuasion are the same. Some others imply they are easily-distinguishable opposites.
The truth is in the middle.
Manipulation and persuasion are very different, but they sit at the opposite end of a continuum with much grey are in the middle.
In some cases, without the ability to read minds and assess intentions, it may be challenging to differentiate the two.
However, there are also plenty of examples of blatant manipulation and some clearer-cut cases of persuasion.
Importantly, it’s also possible to spot inveterate manipulators VS more straight-talking men.
Manipulation and persuasion are two ways of influencing others.
So Influence is the effect of either persuasion or manipulation.
The difference between persuasion and manipulation is more complex but, in brief, manipulation implies bad faith and ill-intention, while persuasion doesn’t.
The difference is that the manipulator has no moral qualms in pursuing self-interest and power.
The persuader instead seeks to achieve his goals while being more honest and ethical.
Persuasion and manipulation are very different, so persuasion is not a “glorified form of manipulation”.
As a matter of fact, that statement reeks of manipulation. It sounds like a gaslighting stance to provide a convenient cover for the manipulator.
The Power Moves (TPM) maintains high standards of sourcing guidelines to provide our readers with accurate and actionable content.
We rely on peer-reviewed studies, accredited experts, psychology textbooks, and academic research. See our full editorial policy.
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- Dawkins, Richard & Krebs, John R. (1978). Animal Signals: Information or Manipulation? In J. R. Krebs & N. B. Davies (eds.), Behavioural Ecology: An Evolutionary Approach. pp. 282–309.
- Cheng, J. T., Tracy, J. L., & Anderson, C. (2014a). The psychology of social status. In Springer eBooks. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4939-0867-7
- Mitchell, J. F. (2004). Aging Well: Surprising guideposts to a Happier Life from the landmark Harvard Study of Adult Development. American Journal of Psychiatry, 161(1), 178–179. https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ajp.161.1.178
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