Some say money makes the world go ‘round, but there is an argument to be made for manipulation. Manipulation is the culprit behind every successful advertising campaign and most of the panhandlers whose pans get filled. It is the outcome of a well-deployed pair of puppy eyes, whether by an actual puppy or a human, the best weapon of insomniac toddlers worldwide. Manipulation is the thing parents learn to do to their children just as they are being dazzled by the ways their children do it to them and to each other on the playground.
In its most dangerous version, manipulation feeds toxic or abusive relationships. It is the invisible and brutal harness that controls the victim, expertly steered by the manipulator. Manipulation may not be as obviously powerful as cash, but it’s surreptitious and if you’re not careful, it comes in the back door and burns the whole place down.
From the Latin root, manipulus, meaning “a handful,” the word originally referred to the measurement a pharmacist might use based on the size of the mano or “hand.” In the verb form, it can have the literal meaning of moving, molding, operating or displacing an object skillfully, like an engineer who manipulates a complex machine. The word is also used to convey the handling and interpretation of data; again, this context also implies the doer’s skill and a beneficial, if biased, outcome.
But when people are the direct object of the verb “to manipulate,” all apparent neutrality is lost. To manipulate another person always implies deception and shady forms of mind control; to be manipulated is always a capitulation to someone else’s power. The more talented the manipulator, the more unjust, malicious, and self-serving the outcome.
Part of our ability to navigate the society we live in depends on learning strategies to avoid situations that drain our time, energy, and resources, without giving benefit to anyone other than an external puppeteer. The first step toward protecting ourselves from a manipulation, which can veer into abuse, is to recognize that it’s happening.
Like in so many other cases, our gut feeling or intuition is a primary line of defense. Psychologists and trauma specialists agree that if we find we chronically doubt ourselves in a relationship or exchange (regardless of whether it is a close connection or a casual encounter) our sensors for manipulation and power play might be firing.
In order to gain clarity over a situation in which we are being manipulated, we must investigate our own motivations for becoming entangled. If we are helping a friend pack her house because we are moved to do so, we are acting out of instinct, friendship, affection, all internal forces. But if the reason we help, whether it be with time, effort, or money, is because we fear the consequences if we don’t or are driven by a sense of obligation or guilt, now an external force is working on us. Therapists agree that engaging in these types of social encounters can be detrimental to our mental health.
Precisely because manipulation relies on subtly casting influence over situations, it does not announce itself, and one problem with being manipulated is that it’s not so easy to tell when it’s happening. Chronic manipulators are exceedingly good at sleight of hand in setting up situations that will have outcomes benefitting mainly, or exclusively, themselves. There is a wide range of manipulative scenarios in which human beings engage. In fact, manipulation is part of the job manual for a variety of professions and at the root of certain relationship stereotypes, most famously that of the controlling parent, who toys with their kids’ emotions in order to obtain a desired outcome.
This effect — the erasure of the puppeteer’s strings — is only amplified by the technique of gaslighting, or making the victim of manipulation believe that she is imagining the ill-effects and is possibly out of her mind. The term was popularized by the George Cukor film noir adaptation (1944) of the 1938 play Gaslight, in which Ingrid Bergman’s character is married to a man she barely knows and subjected to his abuse, consisting mainly of making her believe that she is insane. One of her manipulative husband’s tricks is to lower the gas flow of the lamps around their Gothic space, and try to convince her that it’s all in her imagination. Manipulators who engage in gaslighting have entered the zone of psychological and emotional abuse. Bergman got her revenge in the end — sort of — but the rest of us need to look out for social vampires looking to gaslight us. While a therapist or psychologist is qualified to diagnose us with mental illness, a newer acquaintance, for example, would not be.
Looking at the grand scale of human interaction, the first step toward realizing that we are being manipulated is to recognize what that looks like in its two major forms: the casual manipulation by a stranger versus the intimate knowledge that someone who knows us best can wield as a weapon. These two versions of the same pattern use different tools to achieve the desired result. While emotional distance from a stranger still makes us vulnerable to our own internal fears and insecurities, someone who knows these fears can directly use guilt or a sense of duty to obtain what they want from us.
The kind of manipulation we have all experienced at one time or another is broad-stroke manipulation, like the sort that a salesperson or canvasser might perform as part of their work. I think of these moments, usually short bursts of time out in public when I feel I have to reject the flyer that is being handed to me or politely and even with a smile refuse the sample of perfume/hand cream/luxury bath product will make me smell like a cotillion at the retirement home, as a kind of cosmic manipulation within the giant video game of life. Like in Frogger, my work is to evade them, as if they were motorized obstacles ready to splatter me across the road on contact.
Psychologists have isolated the technique that strangers might use to ensnare other strangers in these casual encounters in public, calling it the “foot-in-the-door” method. By catching a passerby’s attention with a smile and slogan, the canvasser for the special cause gets her to stop and consider giving something. Once the passerby stops, the canvasser has her foot in the door — if she can say the right thing to instill guilt or pity, the pedestrian will contribute. This is the same technique used outside restaurants trying to rustle up business, street promoter with flyers, panhandlers, or telemarketers we don’t hang up on.
These incidental manipulations are stranger-danger scenarios that can range in severity from a regrettable makeover in the cosmetics department or a small contribution to someone who is suffering to downright criminal, as when we fall for internet or telephone scams. In combating all forms of this kind of external control, our own internal sense needs to be the first line of defense against lost time and possibly more. To prepare for situations that are rife with casual manipulators, like traveling, walking through a department store, or clicking open an email from an unknown sender, there are a handful of red flags that indicate we’ve entered a scenario better left unvisited.
Manipulation by retail is perhaps the most common. All advertisement and marketing is a manipulation — of emotions, habits, instinct, spending behavior — and when we agree to participate in economic systems of exchange we will have to dodge many manipulative moments. For example, every cosmetic product contains within itself both the solution to a problem with our physical form and the creation of that problem as a problem in the first place. We walk through the cosmetics store and gather a few reasons to feel self-conscious about our face, the dark companions of the lavishly-packaged, aggressively-priced solutions to the problem that didn’t exist a moment ago. This retail experience is brought to you by the word “manipulation” and the symbol “$.”
Some of the manipulation works on us unconsciously: I purchase a pore-reducer because my large pores are a problem because all of the pictures of the women’s faces have photo(shop) finish skin and so I feel self conscious about my giant pores. Some of the manipulation works in spite of being obvious: I feel compelled to purchase three products, though I stepped in for just one, because the store agent is very friendly and has flagged the buy-two-get-one-free offer. Some of the manipulation is future-thinking: the agent at the register hands me frequent customer card, with which I will exchange points for free mini-sized products, a strategy to secure store loyalty.
In their ideal form, these techniques catch the client by invoking the three sentiments that manipulation: guilt, obligation, and fear. We fear what others think, so we want to look good; we feel obligated to purchase products that are on sale or a good deal because we think we’re being savvy; we will feel guilty shopping at another store in the future because it won’t benefit us in the frequent client program.
The higher-ticket the commodity for sale, the more brutal the manipulative techniques. When purchasing or leasing a vehicle, most famously, salespeople resort to disorientation techniques, like dragging out the process to fatigue the client, displacing blame onto their manager, placing time pressures on the customer to produce a snap decision, and even distortion or confusing presentation of facts intended to make the deal they offer sound beneficial though it is actually onerous. According to Preston Ni, a professor and expert in the psychology of manipulation, lists these common sales techniques as some of the clear flags of emotional manipulation, many of which are much more common in intimate situations unlike like the client/provider one. That said, many of us are car negotiating-averse because it’s very stressful. The use of these manipulative techniques, that border on abusive ones, is one reason.
There are also much more familiar forms of manipulation, like the type a close friend or family member might engage in, which when overboard verge into the abusive. While cosmic manipulation occupies smaller amounts of time, public spaces, and incidental and unrepeatable encounter with strangers, a close friend or family member finds many more resources through their intimate knowledge of the victim’s weaknesses. For instance, playing the victim herself is one of the most effective strategies for manipulating a kind and generous person. Yes, in the micro scenario, this is what someone going through a rough patch resorts to when they write a sign explaining the difficulty of their situation. But at its fullest expression, this is deceptive, grifter-like behavior that can derail lives.
There are some basic premises to follow when making big decisions, like taking our time and doing due diligence to make sure we are making an informed decision. We are also responsible for remembering our basic civil rights, setting boundaries, and learning how to say no.
That said, sometimes we are being gaslighted or simply being targeted for aggressive manipulation, such as bullying or abuse. Being the victim of disproportionate social punishments, such as being given the silent treatment or yelled at, can take a psychological tool and lead to even more bullying. This type of psychological warfare can include being the butt of the joke, being judged or criticized, and getting “roasted” via customized and supposedly funny insults, being vilified, or being targeted due to a vulnerability are situations to remain vigilant of.
The path to resisting bullies and manipulators involves setting boundaries and pushing back against people who use guilt as a means to get self-serving results, learning how to say no, and how to get out of exploitative situations. Doing this safely might involve repeating the unreasonable expectations of the manipulator back to them out loud, so that they can hear how excessive or exaggerated they are and use some self awareness to back off. If you feel as if you can’t get distance from a manipulative person in your life safely, you should use your best judgement and not hesitate to seek the counsel of your local authorities. Manipulation can easily turn into a power play out of which the victim will not emerge from unscathed.