to control something or someone to your advantage, often unfairly or dishonestly.
What do you picture when you hear the word, “manipulator”? We often associate “manipulators” as truly evil individuals; individuals who use the weaknesses or traumas of others for their personal gain.
However, manipulation comes in so many different forms. From a bold salesperson to a cheating significant other, we unknowingly face different degrees of manipulation a lot more than we expect. And this means we might be manipulating others unconsciously too.
But what IS manipulation?
Let us start with understanding what manipulation is in psychology. Manipulation is a type of social influence, where an individual attempts to change the behavior or perception of others through the use of covert or implicit methods.
According to a psychology author, George K. Simon, manipulators hide their insidious intentions by behaving friendly and affable, use others’ vulnerabilities to their advantage, and are willing to harm someone to reach their goal.
Depending on the context of the situation, manipulators have various motivations for their actions. A few motivations, according to the psychologist Harriet B. Braiker, are needing to gain self-purpose, needing to establish power or control over others, feeling bored of their surroundings, or lacking self-control.
Manipulation is often associated with various personality disorders. Personality disorders, such as antisocial, borderline, or narcissistic personality disorders, all share certain personality traits such as manipulation, Machiavellianism, lack of empathy, or impulsiveness.
…manipulators hide their insidious intentions by behaving friendly and affable, use others’ vulnerabilities to their advantage, and are willing to harm someone to reach their goal.George k. simon
The mentioned traits or intentions most likely do not resonate with many people. Not everyone is apathetic. Not everyone is devious. How can the average human be a manipulator? It all comes down to the tactics.
There is a multitude of covert techniques employed by pathological manipulators, but some are prevalent in society today.
The Norm of Reciprocity
The norm of reciprocity is a type of societal norm where we feel obliged to repay the act of another person. It is an expectation that people will respond positively to each other by returning favors, or hostility when met with negativity.
If someone completed a favor for you, you are inclined to feel guilt and return the favor. However, according to Jay Olson, a doctoral researcher at McGill University, “exploiting the norms and expectations of reciprocity is one of the most common forms of manipulation”.
Even if an individual completes a favor insincerely, we reciprocate favors because it is normal to do so. We let it happen because it is the unconscious norm in our society.
…exploiting the norms and expectations of reciprocity is one of the most common forms of manipulationjay olson
Take YouTube for example. Have you ever watched a YouTube video where, at the end of the video, the creator launches into a monologue, urging you to support them on Patreon to help them “continue to make good content”? We, the viewers, pay zero money to watch YouTube videos. When we come across a well-produced, informational, or entertaining content, buzzwords like “help me continue to make good content” compels us to consider becoming their patron. Why? Because you just watched an intriguing video completely for free! Consider how these individuals might be making a living by creating free content. Wouldn’t you want to support them? This line of reasoning is how the norm of reciprocity functions.
The “Foot-In-The-Door” and “Door-In-The-Face” Techniques
The foot-in-the-door technique is to initially offer a smaller, reasonable request, then following up with a greater request. This tactic assumes that agreeing to the smaller request increases the likelihood of getting the second request accepted as well. The foot-in-the-door technique works due to the humans’ natural tendency of needing to stay consistent. Usually, the two requests are somewhat related to a topic. If the individual accepts the first, modest request, it would be inconsistent to reject the second, closely related request. This technique is often used by salespeople. One small request will be continuously followed by another slightly bigger request to gain their clients’ compliance and persuade them to purchase more products.
The door-in-the-face technique is the opposite of the foot-in-the-door technique. A big, unreasonable request is initially made which is likely to be rejected. Then, a smaller request is made. This tactic works due to the norm of reciprocity. As the first request was rejected, the individual may feel like they owe the requester, so they are more likely to accept the second request. An instance would be asking your parents for a hundred dollar allowance. Once they refuse, you would ask them to give you a fifty dollar allowance instead.
Are we all Manipulators?!
I guess so. But a better question is, is manipulating inherently bad?
The definition of manipulation in psychology, as discussed earlier, is portrayed as strictly wrongful or immoral.
Manipulation is when you order a facial cleanser advertised on your Instagram feed. It claims to magically get rid of all your blackheads and disgusting gunk out of your face. Little do you know, you are probably just rubbing some basic, repackaged drugstore cleanser.
Manipulation is also when a parent tells their child that terrifying ghosts and specters haunt children who are not asleep late at night. When, in reality, the parent is simply putting the child to sleep.
Manipulation lies on a spectrum, where its tactics are used with different intentions. It is ironic how our society negatively labels “manipulators”, despite the fact that manipulation is a societal behavior. Don’t get me wrong; I am not telling you to go gaslight your significant other without feeling bad. Manipulating, in general, is ethically wrong, as it is commonly used with aggressive intent. Yet, minor manipulative tactics are a large component of human social interaction, and, sometimes, even required to become successful. So, the question I want to ask YOU is, what does this signify about our society? Why is it expected of humans to quietly manipulate each other to make a living?