We are all capable of influencing each other in a variety of ways– both good and bad. Social influence is a powerful tool.
We can influence each other in positive ways, like when someone reminds you to drink water at a concert or to take a deep breath when you’re feeling overwhelmed.
We can also influence each other in negative ways, like when your spouse tells you that you’ll never get that promotion you’re after or when your smoker buddy offers you a cigarette when they know that you’ve just quit.
In my opinion, the worst kind of social influence is when people try to change the perceptions of others in order to intentionally cause harm or to give themselves an advantage. This kind of social influence is called psychological manipulation.
Whether we realize it or not, everyone manipulates occasionally– but some people will make a serious habit of it. Understanding what manipulation is, why people do it, and how it works can help you avoid it.
What is psychological manipulation?
Psychological manipulation is when someone deceives someone else, often at the other person’s expense, in order to advance their own agenda or harm the other person.
Psychology author George K. Simon says that successful psychological manipulation generally involves these three things:
- Concealing aggressive intentions and behaviors and being affable.
- 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.
Having bad intentions, exploiting vulnerabilities, and not caring about the harm caused are the hallmarks of psychological manipulation. Not everyone manipulates on purpose, and some people do care about the harm they’ve caused by having been manipulative.
Why do people manipulate?
Manipulators manipulate for a variety of reasons.
Sometimes, manipulators are just trying to achieve their own goals, and don’t care who they hurt. Some manipulators are addicted to the need to feel powerful or in control.
Some manipulators have issues with impulse control, and some do it because it’s a coping mechanism that they learned in order to survive difficult things.
Manipulators may suffer from a personality disorder, such as antisocial, borderline, narcissistic, or histrionic personality disorders. Some social psychologists also use the word “Machiavellianism” to refer to people who are prone to manipulate and indifferent to conventional ideas about morality.
In the 1960s, social psychologists Florence L. Geis and Richard Christie and developed the MACH-IV, a test for Machiavellian traits.
Not everyone who manipulates has a personality disorder, and not everyone with a personality disorder is necessarily going to manipulate, but the two often go hand in hand.
What kind of vulnerabilities are exploited by manipulators?
In order to avoid psychological manipulation, it’s good to understand what traits in ourselves can be exploited by others.
Clinical and social psychologist Harriet B. Braiker identified low-self reliance, an unclear sense of identity, soft boundaries, the need to please others, and the desire for approval as characteristics that are often exploited by manipulative people.
If you aren’t sure who you are, feel bad about yourself, or try too hard to meet the needs of others, you might be more vulnerable to manipulation.
Martin Kantor, who writes about ASPD, says that those who are immature or naïve may be more vulnerable to being manipulated, as may those who are feeling lonely.
If you’re young, inexperienced, or by yourself, you might be a good target for manipulators. Kantor also suggests that those who are overly trusting or altruistic may end up trusting and helping manipulators.
If you want to help people and try hard to see the good in others, these traits could work against you when dealing with manipulators.
Kantor also describes how some people with negative or volatile traits will also be more susceptible to manipulation, such as those who are greedy, careless, materialistic, impulsive, narcissistic, or cheap. If you’re blinded by greed, conceit, or rashness, you might be unable to see how you are being manipulated.
In addition to all of these, George Simon identified two other traits exploited by manipulators that are seldom mentioned, yet important to mention.
These are over-conscientiousness and over-intellectualization. If you’re a person who tends to overthink things or wants to look at all sides of an issue for fairness, you might be more susceptible to being manipulated.
How do manipulators manipulate?
There are many different ways to manipulate someone. Manipulators may use just one, a few, or all of these tactics.
Lying, denying, and omitting
Manipulators have a bad relationship with the truth. They will lie, cheat, or withhold certain parts of the truth in order to make themselves look better or avoid responsibility. They will refuse to admit when they’ve done something wrong.
“I didn’t do it!”
“That didn’t happen.”
Minimizing and rationalizing
Manipulators will try to make their bad behavior seem like it’s not as bad as it is, or treat you like your suffering is not real. Sometimes, they will make excuses for their behavior, or spin the situation to their advantage.
“It wasn’t that bad.”
“It was just a joke!”
“You deserved it.”
Diversion, evasion, and selective attention
Sometimes, manipulators will avoid giving straight answers to questions or change the subject when discussing their manipulative behaviors.
They will often pretend to be confused, or act surprised when confronted with their own misdeeds. Sometimes they will give responses that are vague, rambling, or otherwise irrelevant to confuse or distract the person they are talking to.
They may choose to pay a great deal of attention to whatever supports their agenda or refuse to listen to anything which does not support it.
“What about the time when you…?”
“I refuse to talk about that.”
“Look outside, it’s bigfoot!”
Shaming and guilt-tripping
Abusive people keep control of those they manipulate by making them feel bad about themselves. Manipulators will insult their victims or use sarcasm maliciously. They will say things to break down the self-esteem of their victims in order to make them doubt themselves.
Manipulators will play on the conscience of a conscientious person, accusing them of not caring enough or being too selfish. This is all aimed at making victims feel anxious, inadequate, and in need of guidance or approval.
“Your nose is kind of big for your face, but don’t worry, I like it.”
“You don’t care about me unless you do X.”
“You owe me.”
Positive and negative reinforcement
The manipulator will reward behavior that supports their manipulation and punish behavior which challenges it. They may use seduction, charm, and flattery in order to get their victims to trust them.
They may cry “crocodile tears,” expressing superficial sympathy, or pretend to care about the past traumas or current problems of their victim.
Manipulators will reward people who are obedient to their will and punish people who are defiant. Rewards may include attention, praise, gifts, money, and approval.
Punishments may include violence, threats, intimidation, yelling, sulking, or silent treatment. These punishments and rewards condition the victim in an almost Pavlovian way to bend to the will of the manipulator.
“See what happens when you do X?”
“As long as you do X, nothing bad will happen to you.”
“You’d better do X, or else I’ll do Y.”
Playing the victim and projecting blame
Sometimes manipulators will engage in role-reversal, painting their victims as the abusive ones in order to make themselves look like the victim.
Sometimes the manipulator will blame someone else for the consequences of their manipulative behavior, or say someone else “drove them” to their bad behavior.
“They’re lying to make me look bad; they are the real abuser.”
“It’s your fault.”
“You made me do this.”
Anger and intimidation
The manipulator will become loud, angry, and threatening in order to scare the victim into complying or to distract from their manipulation tactics.
They may engage in blackmail, like threatening to reveal private things about the victim or threatening to hurt the victim if the victim reveals what the manipulator is doing.
“I’ll tell your boss/spouse/friends/family.”
“I’ll sue you.”
Psychological manipulation can have all sorts of nasty consequences. At best, you might feel hurt or embarrassed because you were manipulated. At worst, you might feel like your life has been ruined.
You might lose time, money, or opportunities due to being manipulated. If you were manipulated in a terrible way, for a long period of time, or if the manipulation had bad consequences, you may suffer trauma from having been manipulated. This might cause long-term mental health issues and make it difficult to trust people in the future.
There’s nothing wrong with an optimistic outlook when it comes to people and their intentions, but make sure to temper your trust with a little bit of healthy skepticism. You’ll thank yourself later.