Psychological manipulation is a type of social influence that aims to change the behavior or perception of others through abusive, deceptive, or underhanded tactics. By advancing the interests of the manipulator, often at another's expense, such methods could be considered exploitative, abusive, devious, and deceptive.
Social influence is not necessarily negative. For example, doctors can try to persuade patients to change unhealthy habits. Social influence is generally perceived to be harmless when it respects the right of the influenced to accept or reject it, and is not unduly coercive. Depending on the context and motivations, social influence may constitute underhanded manipulation.
Requirements for successful manipulation
According to psychology author George K. Simon, successful psychological manipulation primarily involves the manipulator:
- Concealing aggressive intentions and behaviors.
- Knowing the psychological vulnerabilities of the victim to determine which tactics are likely to be the most effective.
- Having a sufficient level of ruthlessness to have no qualms about causing harm to the victim if necessary.
Consequently, the manipulation is likely to be accomplished through covert aggressive (relational aggressive or passive aggressive) means.
How manipulators control their victims
According to Braiker
Braiker identified the following ways that manipulators control their victims:
- Positive reinforcement: includes praise, superficial charm, superficial sympathy (crocodile tears), excessive apologizing, money, approval, gifts, attention, facial expressions such as a forced laugh or smile, and public recognition.
- Negative reinforcement: involves removing one from a negative situation as a reward, e.g. "You won't have to do your homework if you allow me to do this to you."
- Intermittent or partial reinforcement: Partial or intermittent negative reinforcement can create an effective climate of fear and doubt. Partial or intermittent positive reinforcement can encourage the victim to persist - for example in most forms of gambling, the gambler is likely to win now and again but still lose money overall.
- Punishment: includes nagging, yelling, the silent treatment, intimidation, threats, swearing, emotional blackmail, the guilt trip, sulking, crying, and playing the victim.
- Traumatic one-trial learning: using verbal abuse, explosive anger, or other intimidating behavior to establish dominance or superiority; even one incident of such behavior can condition or train victims to avoid upsetting, confronting or contradicting the manipulator.
According to Simon
Simon identified the following manipulative techniques:
- Lying (by commission) : It is hard to tell if somebody is lying at the time they do it, although often the truth may be apparent later when it is too late. One way to minimize the chances of being lied to is to understand that some personality types (particularly psychopaths) are experts at the art of lying and cheating, doing it frequently, and often in subtle ways.
- Lying by omission: This is a very subtle form of lying by withholding a significant amount of the truth. This technique is also used in propaganda.
- Denial: Manipulator refuses to admit that they have done something wrong.
- Rationalization: An excuse made by the manipulator for inappropriate behavior. Rationalization is closely related to spin.
- Minimization: This is a type of denial coupled with rationalization. The manipulator asserts that their behavior is not as harmful or irresponsible as someone else was suggesting, for example, saying that a taunt or insult was only a joke.
- Selective inattention or selective attention: Manipulator refuses to pay attention to anything that may distract from their agenda, saying things like "I don't want to hear it".
- Diversion: Manipulator not giving a straight answer to a straight question and instead being diversionary, steering the conversation onto another topic.
- Evasion: Similar to diversion but giving irrelevant, rambling, vague responses, weasel words.
- Covert intimidation: Manipulator throwing the victim onto the defensive by using veiled (subtle, indirect or implied) threats.
- Guilt trip: A special kind of intimidation tactic. A manipulator suggests to the conscientious victim that they do not care enough, are too selfish or have it easy. This usually results in the victim feeling bad, keeping them in a self-doubting, anxious and submissive position.
- Shaming: Manipulator uses sarcasm and put-downs to increase fear and self-doubt in the victim. Manipulators use this tactic to make others feel unworthy and therefore defer to them. Shaming tactics can be very subtle such as a fierce look or glance, unpleasant tone of voice, rhetorical comments, subtle sarcasm. Manipulators can make one feel ashamed for even daring to challenge them. It is an effective way to foster a sense of inadequacy in the victim.
- Vilifying the victim: More than any other, this tactic is a powerful means of putting the victim on the defensive while simultaneously masking the aggressive intent of the manipulator, while the manipulator falsely accuses the victim as being an abuser in response when the victim stands up for or defends themselves or their position.
- Playing the victim role: Manipulator portrays themself as a victim of circumstance or of someone else's behavior in order to gain pity, sympathy or evoke compassion and thereby get something from another. Caring and conscientious people cannot stand to see anyone suffering and the manipulator often finds it easy to play on sympathy to get cooperation.
- Playing the servant role: Cloaking a self-serving agenda in guise of a service to a more noble cause, for example saying they are acting in a certain way to be "obedient" to or in "service" to an authority figure or "just doing their job".
- Seduction: Manipulator uses charm, praise, flattery or overtly supporting others in order to get them to lower their defenses and give their trust and loyalty to the manipulator. They will also offer help with the intent to gain trust and access to an unsuspecting victim they have charmed.
- Projecting the blame (blaming others): Manipulator scapegoats in often subtle, hard-to-detect ways. Often, the manipulator will project their own thinking onto the victim, making the victim look like they have done something wrong. Manipulators will also claim that the victim is the one who is at fault for believing lies that they were conned into believing, as if the victim forced the manipulator to be deceitful. All blame, except for the part that is used by the manipulator to accept false guilt, is done in order to make the victim feel guilty about making healthy choices, correct thinking and good behaviors. It is frequently used as a means of psychological and emotional manipulation and control. Manipulators lie about lying, only to re-manipulate the original, less believable story into a "more acceptable" truth that the victim will believe. Projecting lies as being the truth is another common method of control and manipulation. Manipulators love to falsely accuse the victim as "deserving to be treated that way." They often claim that the victim is crazy and/or abusive, especially when there is evidence against the manipulator. (See Feigning, below.)
- Feigning innocence: Manipulator tries to suggest that any harm done was unintentional or that they did not do something that they were accused of. Manipulator may put on a look of surprise or indignation. This tactic makes the victim question their own judgment and possibly their own sanity.
- Feigning confusion: Manipulator tries to play dumb by pretending they do not know what the victim is talking about or is confused about an important issue brought to their attention. The manipulator intentionally confuses the victim in order for the victim to doubt their own accuracy of perception, often pointing out key elements that the manipulator intentionally included in case there is room for doubt. Sometimes manipulators will have used cohorts in advance to help back up their story.
- Brandishing anger: Manipulator uses anger to brandish sufficient emotional intensity and rage to shock the victim into submission. The manipulator is not actually angry, they just put on an act. They just want what they want and get "angry" when denied. Controlled anger is often used as a manipulation tactic to avoid confrontation, avoid telling the truth or to further hide intent. There are often threats used by the manipulator of going to police, or falsely reporting abuses that the manipulator intentionally contrived to scare or intimidate the victim into submission. Blackmail and other threats of exposure are other forms of controlled anger and manipulation, especially when the victim refuses initial requests or suggestions by the manipulator. Anger is also used as a defense so the manipulator can avoid telling truths at inconvenient times or circumstances. Anger is often used as a tool or defense to ward off inquiries or suspicion. The victim becomes more focused on the anger instead of the manipulation tactic.
- Bandwagon effect: Manipulator comforts the victim into submission by claiming (whether true or false) that many people already have done something, and the victim should as well. These include phrases such as "Many people like you ..." or "Everyone does this anyways." Such manipulation can be seen in peer pressure situations, often occurring in scenarios where the manipulator attempts to influence the victim into trying drugs or other substances.
Vulnerabilities exploited by manipulators
According to Braiker's self-help book, manipulators exploit the following vulnerabilities (buttons) that may exist in victims:
- the "disease to please"
- addiction to earning the approval and acceptance of others
- Emotophobia (fear of negative emotion; i.e. a fear of expressing anger, frustration or disapproval)
- lack of assertiveness and ability to say no
- blurry sense of identity (with soft personal boundaries)
- low self-reliance
- external locus of control
According to Simon, manipulators exploit the following vulnerabilities that may exist in victims:
- naïveté - victim finds it too hard to accept the idea that some people are cunning, devious and ruthless or is "in denial" if they are being victimized.
- over-conscientiousness - victim is too willing to give manipulator the benefit of the doubt and see their side of things in which they blame the victim.
- low self-confidence - victim is self-doubting, lacking in confidence and assertiveness, likely to go on the defensive too easily.
- over-intellectualization - victim tries too hard to understand and believes the manipulator has some understandable reason to be hurtful.
- emotional dependency - victim has a submissive or dependent personality. The more emotionally dependent the victim is, the more vulnerable they are to being exploited and manipulated.
Manipulators generally take the time to scope out the characteristics and vulnerabilities of their victims.
Kantor advises in his book The Psychopathology of Everyday Life: How to Deal with Manipulative People that vulnerability to psychopathic manipulators involves being too:
- dependent - dependent people need to be loved and are therefore gullible and liable to say yes to something to which they should say no.
- immature - has impaired judgment and so tends to believe exaggerated advertising claims.
- naïve - cannot believe there are dishonest people in the world, or takes it for granted that if there are any, they will not be allowed to prey on others.
- impressionable - overly seduced by charmers. For example, they might vote for the seemingly charming politician who kisses babies.
- trusting - people who are honest often assume that everyone else is honest. They are more likely to commit themselves to people they hardly know without checking credentials, etc., and less likely to question so-called experts.
- lonely - lonely people may accept any offer of human contact. A psychopathic stranger may offer human companionship for a price.
- narcissistic - narcissists are prone to falling for unmerited flattery.
- impulsive - make snap decisions about, for example, what to buy or whom to marry without consulting others.
- altruistic - the opposite of psychopathic: too honest, too fair, too empathetic.
- frugal - cannot say no to a bargain even if they know the reason it is so cheap.
- materialistic - easy prey for loan sharks or get-rich-quick schemes.
- greedy - the greedy and dishonest may fall prey to a psychopath who can easily entice them to act in an immoral way.
- masochistic - lack self-respect and so unconsciously let psychopaths take advantage of them. They think they deserve it out of a sense of guilt.
- the elderly - the elderly can become fatigued and less capable of multi-tasking. When hearing a sales pitch they are less likely to consider that it could be a con. They are prone to giving money to someone with a hard-luck story. See elder abuse.
Motivations of manipulators
Manipulators can have various possible motivations, including but not limited to:
- the need to advance their own purposes and personal gain at virtually any cost to others
- a strong need to attain feelings of power and superiority in relationships with others
- a want and need to feel in control
- a desire to gain a feeling of power over others in order to raise their perception of self-esteem
- boredom, or growing tired of their surroundings, seeing it as a game more than hurting others
- covert agenda, criminal or otherwise, including financial manipulation (often seen when the elderly or unsuspecting, unprotected wealthy are intentionally targeted for the sole purpose of obtaining a victim's financial assets)
Being manipulative is in Factor 1 of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist (PCL).
In the workplace
The workplace psychopath may often rapidly shift between emotions – used to manipulate people or cause high anxiety.
The authors of the book Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths Go to Work describe a five phase model of how a typical workplace psychopath climbs to and maintains power. In phase three (manipulation) - the psychopath will create a scenario of "psychopathic fiction" where positive information about themselves and negative disinformation about others will be created, where your role as a part of a network of pawns or patrons will be utilised and you will be groomed into accepting the psychopath's agenda.
According to Kernberg, antisocial, borderline, and narcissistic personality disorders are all organized at a borderline level of personality organization, and the three share some common characterological deficits and overlapping personality traits, with deceitfulness and exceptional manipulative abilities being the most common traits among antisocial and narcissism. Borderline is emphasized by unintentional and dysfunctional manipulation, but stigma towards borderlines being deceitful still wrongfully persists. Antisocials, borderlines, and narcissists are often pathological liars. Other shared traits may include pathological narcissism, consistent irresponsibility, machiavellianism, lack of empathy, cruelty, meanness, impulsivity, proneness to self-harm and addictions, interpersonal exploitation, hostility, anger and rage, vanity, emotional instability, rejection sensitivity, perfectionism, and the use of primitive defence mechanisms that are pathological and narcissistic. Common narcissistic defences include splitting, denial, projection, projective identification, primitive idealization and devaluation, distortion (including exaggeration, minimization and lies), and omnipotence.
Psychologist Marsha M. Linehan has stated that people with borderline personality disorder often exhibit behaviors which are not truly manipulative, but are erroneously interpreted as such. According to her, these behaviors often appear as unthinking manifestations of intense pain, and are often not deliberate as to be considered truly manipulative. In the DSM-V, manipulation was removed as a defining characteristic of borderline personality disorder.
Manipulative behavior is intrinsic to narcissists, who use manipulation to obtain power and narcissistic supply. Those with antisocial personalities will manipulate for material items, power, revenge, and a wide variety of other reasons.
Histrionic personality disorder
People with histrionic personality disorder are usually high-functioning, both socially and professionally. They usually have good social skills, despite tending to use them to manipulate others into making them the center of attention.
Machiavellianism is a term that some social and personality psychologists use to describe a person's tendency to be unemotional, and therefore able to detach them self from conventional morality and hence to deceive and manipulate others. In the 1960s, Richard Christie and Florence L. Geis developed a test for measuring a person's level of Machiavellianism (sometimes referred to as the Machiavelli test).
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