Who’s Pulling Your Strings? Summary & Review

who's pulling your strings book cover

Who’s Pulling Your Strings? (2013) is an overview of interpersonal manipulation in which Harriet Braiker, the author, discusses the manipulators’ motivations and strategies, as well as the victims’ “enablers” of manipulation, and how people can protect and free themselves from manipulative people


About the Author:
Dr. Harriet Braiker was a social and clinical psychologist.
She holds a Ph.D., albeit I didn’t find precisely on what.
Braiker first wrote about the “Type-E women” (with “E” standing for “everything to everybody”), and which is the female corresponding to “Tye-A men”.
She also focused on relationships and toxic relationships, and with “Who’s Pulling Your Strings” she became regarded as an expert on manipulation and controlling people. Braiker also wrote “The Disease to Please“, another great book.

Introduction: This Is Not For Physical Abuse

Says Braker:

Who’s Pulling Your Strings? is about emotional or psychological manipulation.
It is not intended to apply to relationships in which physical violence—or the threat of physical violence—is used as a means of control.

I wouldn’t personally be so black-and-white about it.
There is often an overlap between the two, but I agree with her general stance: physical battering should mean ending the relationship right away, and only later maybe considering the manipulation that was also going on.

It Takes 2 People For a Manipulative Relationship

The author states that the “victim” of manipulation is also allowing the manipulation to happen.

And that’s great news, because it means that you are also empowered to change -or stop- that relationship.
Say the author:

When you stop rewarding manipulative tactics by ceasing to cooperate, comply, please, acquiesce, apologize, or respond to intimidation or threats, you will unilaterally alter the nature of the manipulative relationship.

The 7 Buttons Manipulators Leverage: Keep An Eye On These 

Braiker says that manipulators seize their victims up based on buttons that “show” whenever you dealing with others.

Manipulators prefer to pick people with big buttons, and they can then use those buttons to control them.

1. Disease to Please

when your self-esteem is tied up to how much you do for others and how successful you are at pleasing them

2. Addiction to Earning the Approval and Acceptance of Others

in includes the need to:

  1. avoid criticism
  2. rejection
  3. abandonment 

At the core of the niceness are dread and fear of rejection and abandonment.

Keep in mind that wanting to be liked and accepted is perfectly normal. It’s when it’s too much, and when it’s acceptance from anyone, that it becomes an issue. 

Your behavior is as easy to control when you’re addicted to approval. All a manipulator need do is a two-step process: Give you his approval and acceptance (make you earn it), and then, once you are hooked, threaten to take it away.

Says the author:

The button that will show most clearly to manipulators is your willingness to do nearly anything to avoid disapproval, rejection, and worst of all, abandonment. In love relationships or romantic entanglements that become manipulative, fear of abandonment is the ultimate lever of control.

Also read this article on “judge social power“, since the author is talking about giving others judge powers over you:

The Judge Role: A Tool For Power & Control

3. “Emotophobia”—Fear of Negative Emotions

We can define “emotophobia” as:

An excessive or irrational fear of conflict and confrontation, as well as of negative feelings, specifically, anger, aggression, hostility.

If this is you, it means that, you will go to almost any lengths to avoid anger, conflict, and confrontation.

A manipulator can control you with as little as raising one’s own voice, or hinting that he is getting angry.
And you will be likely to comply or submit just to avoid confrontation, anger, or any negative emotions.

4. Lack of Assertiveness and Inability to Say No

This is a reality of life:

If you have difficulties saying no, then you will always be victim of some hard-charging, high-powered individual who is going to tell you what you do.

Says Braiker:

If you are like most people-pleasers, your aversion to saying no is probably grounded in the negative angry responses that you anticipate your denial might elicit.

Learn how to say no here:

5. Blurry Sense of Identity (“The Vanishing Self”)

Here is how Braiker describes it:

People with “vanishing selves” have only a blurry sense of their own identity, where they begin and end, whose needs they feel and fill, and what values are central to their core.

And when you’re not sure where you stand, for what you stand, you are also easier to be pushed around or recruited for whatever “cause” the manipulator cares the most -often his “cause” is a screen for his own self-interest, of course-.

It can be both a cause and a consequence of manipulation.

6. Low Self-Reliance

Braiker says:

Low self-reliance means that you distrust your own judgment and reactions, resulting in an impairment of your self-direction.

And if you distrust your judgment, you are more likely to listen and trust others, as well as to cede leadership and decision-making about your life.

It’s related to N.5 and often overlap.
To address it, Braiker says:

Improving your decision-making ability and particularly your skills at resolving postdecisional regret—also known as buyer’s remorse—will go a long way toward increasing self-reliance.

In Power University we help you address the root causes of low self-reliance.

7. External Locus of Control (LOC)

The locus of control refers to how much people feel in control of their lives.

An internal locus of control means that people feel they are in control of their lives and can shape the events in their environment.

An external locus of control means that people feel at the mercy of the world around them.

People with an external locus of control are more likely to let external events and other people control them, and they are more likely to fall prey to “learned helplessness” (Seligman, 1991), such as the belief that no matter what they do events will not change. When that happens, they are less likely to “rebel” to a manipulator.

Manipulators’ Motives

Manipulative Motives Manipulators operate out of three principal interpersonal motives:

  1. Self-interest: to advance their own purposes and their own personal gain at virtually any cost to others. Manipulators are self-serving by disposition, even if they say otherwise
  2. Power craving: the need to attain feelings of power and superiority in relationships with other people. Control over others serves as an acknowledgment of personal efficacy and validation. The victim’s compliance is the ultimate prof
  3. Need for control: some manipulators want and need to feel in control for mental health purposes.
    Feeling out of control or losing control is anxiety-provoking. Some manipulators want to be seen -and see themselves- as in control of their emotions, especially emotions that they associate with weakness, such as anxiety, sadness, or loneliness.
    While these manipulators have a strong or pathologic need to control others, they generally struggle with control issues in their own lives. Their need to maintain control is frequently manifested by a need to “be right” and to make others “wrong.”

Manipulators who need control sometimes have high anxiety

Says the author:

Manipulative people frequently suffer from feelings of high anxiety when their control is threatened. Since they cannot easily or gracefully cede control to others, they will tend to micromanage in business situations.

These manipulators tend to dislike ambiguity. Grey areas make them nervous, and prefer to think in black-and-white terms.

Manipulators’ Mindsets

This part is enlightening: 

  • 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

For some manipulators, these also apply:

  • Others exist to meet their needs
  • Sense of entitlement: others should exist to meet their needs

This makes relationships with manipulators difficult and sometimes impossible, since, says the author:

In cooperation and trust lies the context for mutual respect and healthy interdependence—the blend of autonomy and interdependence that makes intimacy, high self-esteem, strong sense of self, and solid self-reliance possible.

Manipulators Create Their Dog-Eat-Dog World (Game Theory Experiments)

This part was enlightening.

Since the manipulator cannot see how someone could be giving or cooperative, they approach all situations that require choosing 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 defection 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 -it would probably take 2 rounds top for any rational collaborator to adjust his strategy-. 
And then the game turns into a lose-lose for both. If you run this game for 3-4 times or more 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.

Says the author:

Their life experience will wind up confirming their belief system, although they typically do not understand how their own distrusting behavior creates distrust, competition, and rivalry in others.

And this bit, which is crucial to this website’s philosophy (redacted for brevity):

This mindset can affect and poison an interpersonal relationship. Trusting people who allow for the possibility that others can, on occasion, behave altruistically and/or generously (…) because it is rational and adaptive will be open to the possibility of trusting relationships.
If you approach the world with an open but realistic attitude that allows for both kinds of people your experiences will mirror your expectations. You likely will meet both kinds of people and have the opportunity to form relationships in which mutual trust and cooperation exist and are cherished by both participants.

Enlightened Cooperator Is The Way To Go

The author calls it “realistic cooperator”.

This website calls it “smart collaborator” and takes it one step further with “enlightened cooperator”.
In any case, the gist is the same and she hits the nail on the head when she says:

However, the realistic cooperator also knows that competitive manipulators exist in the world; when the competitive opponent is met, the cooperator can adjust and adapt his or her behavior accordingly. You do not have to reward manipulators by allowing their exploitative behavior and tactics to work.

Read more about “enlightened collaboration“:

Life Strategy: The Enlightened Collaborator

Manipulators Are Zero-Sum Game Folks

To expand on the previous paragraph:

The manipulator views power as finite.
There is not enough power to go around for her to share or to acknowledge and respect your right to be empowered to make decisions and to attain control in your own life. If you are empowered to any degree, this represents less power for her. The manipulator views power as a zero-sum game.


There is no room in the manipulator’s model of human relationships for a win-win scenario where power is shared or where everyone comes out gaining or benefiting from a given interaction.

Manipulators’ Excuses

There are countless “fronts” manipulators use to cover their real goals.

Some of them are:

  • Love and caring: “I’m doing this out of care/love for you.”
  • Expertise: “I’m telling you this because I’ve had way more experience in these matters, and I know better.”
  • Altruism and generosity: “I’m doing this for your own good, even though it doesn’t benefit me.”
  • Role endowment: “I’m telling you what to do because that is my role/obligation.”

Manipulators’ Personalities

  • Machiavellian: they buy into Machiavelli’s proposition that a desired end justifies virtually any means. In game theory experiments they are opportunistic, capitalizing on ambiguity regarding the rules
    • manipulative
    • charming
    • confident
    • glib
    • calculating
    • cynic about human nature
    • shred in their social strategies
  • Narcissists: expect special treatment without assuming reciprocal responsibilities in turn (ie.: in the social exchange he takes without giving)
    • entitled
  • Borderline personality disorder: uses silent treatment, rage, and threats -including breakup threats– also see “Sop 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
  • Con or antisocial personality disorder: my note: it seems like the author here ends up discussing psychopath’s controlling strategies and personality, but APD and psychopathy are not the same

Braiker does not list this manipulator’s profile, but from what she says in a different part of the book:

  • The manipulator who got burned: he has been the victim of manipulation, and vows to never be a victim ever again. So now he/she turned in manipulators. 

My Note: that’s the profile of lots of red pill guys.

The 2 Types of Manipulators: Conscious & Unconscious

This is an important distinction -and a FAQ when it comes to manipulation-:

Are manipulators consciously manipulating others? 

Says the author:

Do Manipulators Understand Their Own Motives? Not necessarily. Manipulators generally can be categorized into two groups: those who are aware and conscious of their manipulative motives and goals and those who remain largely unconscious or unaware of the manipulative methods they employ in their relationships with others.

This is an important distinction, because:

Can Manipulator Change? Maybe If They’re Unconscious. But Not Conscious Ones

If you show unconscious manipulators what they are actually doing, that might work as a “wake up call” for them, and might lead them to stop.

Says the author:

When an ego-incongruent manipulator is confronted with exposure of his manipulation, there may be enough inner conflict generated to help motivate change. 

On this website, we defined this method “collaborative shaming”.
But that only works with manipulators who have some conscience, empathy, personal values, and/or a drive to self-improve.

Manipulators who are self-aware instead are “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 as the “proud value-takers”. Such as, they are proud of taking from others.

These manipulators either don’t experience any turmoils when faced with the reality of their manipulative ways, or they are even happy for their manipulative ways.

How Manipulation Works

Braiker says that manipulation, at the core, is simple.

And it acts by activating one or both of the two main levers of human drive:

  • Gain (or reward)
  • Loss (or avoidance)

And the formula of manipulation, at its basic, is:

If you do what I want, I will reward you with [whatever the promised gain is],” or “If you don’t do as I ask, you won’t get what you want and need

Of course, the formula is rarely if ever explicit, and both the promise or the threat can be veiled or implied.

Some of the gains or rewards include:

  • Money / material gifts
  • Power
  • Status (ie.., titles, promotions, admission to a club)
  • Sex, love
  • Approval, acceptance, or praise

And some of the threats that the victims come to fear:

  • Rejection or abandonment
  • Withdrawal of affection or love
  • Failure
  • Exposure (secrets, inadequacies or flaws)
  • Conflict or anger 

She says:

All manipulative relationships depend on certain levers of control that are used to hold out the promise of gain or the fear of loss or the means to avoid something that is undesirable.

The author says that manipulation often moves from offering something that the victim wants, to then threatening to take that something away once the victim is more invested and hooked.
It’s when the manipulation switches from offering something to the threat of loss that the manipulation becomes coercive.

Methods of Manipulation

Braiker groups all possible manipulative strategies into five major groupings:

  1. Positive reinforcement: providing a reward for the behavior you want to promote and expand. This is particularly effective with people-pleasers, but by itself positive reinforcement is NOT manipulative. But manipulators start with positive reinforcement usually, and either make it more elusive, or then “move up the ladder of manipulation”
    1. The positive reward becomes more elusive: the manipulator holds out the promise for gain, but either doesn’t deliver it, or delivers it more rarely. Now a shift happens: the victim is motivated by fear of loss, or fear of the gain never materializing (Note: this step is not added by Braiker, but by me)
  2. Negative reinforcement (or “averse conditioning”): it’s not punishment like people misunderstand (which is also not very effective). It’s the “avoidance of pain when a certain behavior stops”.  Negative reinforcement starts before the victim complies, and stops with the compliance. 
    It includes:
    1. Nagging (see “female relationship control techniques“)
    2. Silent treatment
    3. Pouting
    4. Emotional distance as punishment 
  3. Intermittent or partial reinforcement (or: “gambling schedule”): partial or intermittent schedules of rewards lead to addiction, while random and unpredictable pain creates stress and anxiety
  4. Punishment: negative experience is a direct consequence of undesired behavior on the part of the subject. The message is “if you do something I don’t like, you will be punished”. It’s less effective than positive or negative reinforcement 
  5. Traumatic one-trial learning: to deliver such an over the top response, that the victim will be afraid of triggering the ire of the manipulator ever again

One last technique Braiker adds is the “big lie”, such as the promise of a big gain -which never materializes”, or avoidance of a big loss -which the manipulator might not have been able to deliver-.
In relationships with a psychopath, the “love” of the psychopath is the big lie.

For more on manipulation and manipulation techniques, also see:


Dark Psychology: 7 Ways to Manipulate People

Basic Rules For Dealing With Manipulation

Some of the basic “laws of manipulation”, sometimes reworded by me for simplicity:

  • You cannot and will not out-manipulate a skilled manipulator; do not even try (unless you’re training on ThePowerMoves, then you’re in with a chance 🙂
  • You will hardly change a manipulator by pointing out his or her flaws (my note: Braiker says “will not and cannot”, but she herself said that rarely it’s possible, and you know I hate sweeping generalizations :)
  • Do not bother telling a manipulator that she is not being fair or kind or loving: most manipulators are low in conscience and empathy anyway
  • You cannot appeal to a manipulator’s empathy with your feelings: with manipulators who are low on empathy your “you know how it makes me feel when you…” won’t go far
  • Always pay attention to what the manipulator does, not what he or she says
  • Don’t ask “why”, their answers only add more manipulations. Ask strategically to get truthful replies: do not inquire why he or she is behaving in a particular way and expect to get a valid, useful, or truthful answer
  • The best change is changing yourself: the only effective way to change a manipulator is to make her tactics ineffective by changing yourself

How To Break Free From Manipulation

In Power University we provide deeper and more advanced solutions.

But to give you an idea based on Braiker’s approach:

  1. Play for time: especially useful with pushy manipulators. If it’s on the phone, put them on hold if you need some time. When you stop acting on the manipulator’s time schedule, you take power back (also read “letting people wait“)
  2. Broken record: tell them you need to think about it, and keep repeating it. If they insist, you tell them that you heard them, and that you still need time
  3. Desensitize your feelings: train yourself to be under the same type of pressure the manipulator puts you in, but to remain unreactive (“detachment”)
  4. Label the manipulation: tell the manipulator what they are doing (“going meta”)
  5. Tell them they’re done manipulating you: tell them that what they were doing no longer works with you
  6. Set your terms: tell them that from now on, you will be doing things the way you also like them. If it’s a relationship, tell them how you want to be treated
  7. Compromise and negotiate: come to an agreement on how to go forward

And, more on a mindset level:

  1. Think of yourself as a former victim
  2. Label your current feelings, as feelings not facts: powerlessness, depression, helplessness and dependence are not who you are. They are transitory states, or simply feelings
  3. Trust yourself: taking the first step can be hard. Especially after the manipulator lowered your self-esteem. Trust yourself you can do it

Finally, remember that there are two different approaches:

  1. Resistance: resist and/or try to steer the relationship into healthier territory
  2. Extraction: leave and cut out the manipulator

Also read:

Should I Break Up? Step-by-Step Guide to Overcome Ambivalence

Influence VS Manipulation

Braiker differentiates between influence and manipulation.

She says that the difference “depends primarily on the motives and attitude of the influencer toward his or her target or mark and secondarily on the tactics“.

The influencer recognizes and respects other people’s rights and integrity, while the manipulator does not respect other people’s rights, and seeks influence that is exploitative and that negatively affects the victims.

This is in opposition to Robert Greene, author of “The 48 Laws of Power“, who says that “any attempt to influence is manipulation”.

I believe there is more grey areas than obvious “yes or no” but, overall, I tend to agree with Braiker.


On manipulators and zero-sum games:

Because manipulators see life as a zero-sum game, in almost every important dimension—which to a manipulator primarily comprises power, control, and superiority—the manipulator believes that there are winners and losers.

On the willingness of letting go of the relationship if needed:

If you are not willing to lose the relationship—even when it means losing yourself in the process— then you are not ready to stop being a victim.

Learning manipulation to disable manipulation (manipulation like a magic trick):

Manipulation, simply stated, is much like a magic trick. If you take the time to learn how manipulation works, it is less likely that you will be caught off guard when confronted with it because you will know what to look for. The mystery will be gone.

On nagging as a manipulative tool (“negative reinforcement” type):

She does not tell him what a fine, good boy he is or rewards him. She merely stops yelling. Voilà! Negative reinforcement.
Nagging is the human equivalent of shock grids to the rat.

A dark-humor quote:

I know that my husband really loves me,” a depressed wife who had been victimized by emotional abuse and manipulation for years once told me in a therapy session. “But I am just a constant disappointment to him.”

And the most “The Power Moves” quote:

If he/she is going to come around to a healthier, happier relationship, you will see it happen in response to your strength, not to your weakness.


  • Imperfect analysis of relationship dynamics: conflict-avoidance is not always the hallmark of a bad relationship

Braiker falls for a common misconception about “healthy couples and relationships”:

Conflict avoidance is not the hall-mark of a good relationship. On the contrary, it is a symptom of serious problems and of poor communication.

Albeit that’s indeed common wisdom, sometimes common wisdom is wrong.
Famed relationship researcher Gottman says that the “risk-avoidant” relationship is one of the types of successful relationships (Gottman, 1994).

Of course, this does not mean that all conflict-avoidants are successful, but it means that it’s posible, and that conflict avoidance is not necessarily the sign of “serious problems”.
Also see: “how to solve relationship conflicts“.

  • Imperfect analysis of “low self-esteem” (pop-psychology)

Say the author when talking about the “power craving” of manipulators:

Paradoxically, this need springs from strong underlying—sometimes unconscious—feelings of inferiority and low self-esteem.

This is a widespread pop-psychology myth, but it’s not wholly.
In truth, as psychology researcher Roy Baumeister explains, most people who fit the psychology profile of victimization are high BUT fragile self-esteem (Baumeister, 1997), which is different than low self-esteem.

  • Sometimes I disagreed on what’s manipulation

The author says that a boss telling an employee that not putting in overtime means no chance for promotion is a form of manipulation.

To me, that might be manipulative, but can also simply be straight-up honesty.
What’s the alternative, not saying it and not allowing the new recruit the opportunity of choosing?

  • Mis-represents Machiavelli

Says the author:

Named after the sixteenth-century political philosopher and Italian Prince Machiavelli

Machiavelli was not a prince. He wrote “The Prince” to advise princes, but he wasn’t a prince.


  • Great overview of interpersonal manipulation
  • “How to book” with great defensive techniques: not just great analyses, but a great practical guide as well
  • Great overview & analysis of the psychology of defectors & cheats (& why they often don’t maximize their own life’s  effectiveness)


Who’s Pulling Your Strings? provides a great overview of interpersonal manipulation and is a foundational book for this website’s mission and philosophy. 

Outside of Power University which of course has the advantage of being larger, deeper, and a course with videos and multimedia learning, Who’s Pulling Your Strings? may provide the best overview on manipulation in book format.
And, the best compliment I can pay to the author, her teachings were extremely helpful to craft the Power University module on manipulation.

Check the:

Or get the book on Amazon

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