Manipulation vs Persuasion

Ever had that awkward moment when someone calls you an uncompassionate, manipulative asshat (either to your face or behind your back) when you were just trying to debate with that person? Or those moments when you are feeling a bit off when someone is arguing with you, and pulled a really underhanded move such as emotional manipulation? Or perhaps, you just want to identify who are the Machiavellian manipulators in your life?

In this day and age, it has come to my attention that persuasion and manipulation are often confused for one another in the majority of the internet, and American, population. Now, you might be thinking ‘But there isn’t a difference! They both convince people to believe something.’ Yes, that may be the case, but the difference is still there, however subtle it is.

Suppose this: all sorts of manipulation is persuasion, but not all forms of persuasion is manipulation. Let us look further into this.

Suppose that you are a salesperson and you need to sell your product, suppose a car, to your customer. A customer, a woman in her 30s, goes to your store in search of a car best suited for her family needs, but as you converse with her, you discover that she experiences a lot of nostalgia from her youthful days and she misses the rush of driving sports cars. What do you do?

The simple act of persuasion, with not a single drop of manipulation, is to find the car best suited to her needs. You find a minivan equipped with spacious seats for hyperactive children and screens for the children to entertain themselves to decrease the stress levels for the lady. It just happens so that this minivan is much cheaper than that Lexus LS 460 F Sport that you have been trying to sell for months now to impress your superiors and build up your reputation as a good car salesperson.

However, you go on with your choice for the lady and persuade her to buy it- After all, she has a family to take care of and the minivan will just help her do that. The store you work at still gets the profit, and you’ll just have to wait for the right customer to sell that Lexus sports car to for at least $80,000.

What if you decide to persuade the lady anyways to buy that sports car? As you converse with her, you decide to comment, “I totally understand that feeling of losing your youth. But, I try to make the best of it through the little things.”

The woman will ask curiously, “What little things are you talking about?”

You’ll say, “I would buy stuff from my youth. I like to buy lots of clothes and memorabilia.”

The woman comments wistfully that she longs for that, to which you plant a seed in her mind, “What if you did that right now? You said that you like sports cars, right? I have something perfect for you.”

With some convincing, you get her to buy that Lexus and you just made yourself double the amount of money you would’ve gotten if you got her to buy the minivan.

So, what is the difference between the two situations? Both are forms of persuasion, but one is less innocent than the other.

In the first situation, the outcome you achieved benefitted both yourself and the woman. The benefits are about equal, and you didn’t take the chance to tip the scale so you get more than the woman. In the second situation, you reaped all the benefits and left none for the woman- And you did so by making the woman think she reaped more than she actually gained.

This is the basic form of manipulation, and it gets uglier in close relationships.

Here, we get into the twisted realm of emotional manipulation- Leaves a bad taste in you mouth when you do it or delights you if you’re a sadist, and leaves your victim feeling horrible and drained like you sucked their life and happiness out through a straw.

Emotional manipulation commonly occurs in unhealthy familial relationships, friendships, and even romantic relationships. One party is often psychologically unstable, experiencing the common disorders of manipulators, such as narcissistic personality disorder, psychopathy, sociopathy, and other various forms of antisocial disorders (the distinction between psychopathy and sociopathy must be made according to the recent DSM-5). These people would either lack the empathy for the other party, or be too focused on themselves to care about the other party.

Here is the distinction between these disorders:

  1. Psychopathy - People with psychopathy are rarely the serial killers you see on TV. Commonly, psychopaths go through everyday life normally for the most part, and don’t always harm the people around them. What sets psychopaths apart from other people is that they lack the ability to feel emotions due to a simple disconnect from the emotional centers of their brain since birth. Given this, psychopaths will fail to care deeply about the others around them, and manipulate for their own personal, material gain. Psychopaths will score high on the Machiavellian scale in the dark triad personality indicator.
  2. Narcissism - Narcissists are those people with an overinflated ego and will go to any lengths to boost themselves emotionally, either through materialism or attention. Whether it is positive attention or negative attention, narcissists will strive for it. They bask in attention, and when they don’t get enough of it, they will lash out at people- Especially the people who are getting the attention they want. They will manipulate for more emotional gain and status. Narcissists will score high on the Narcissism trait from the dark triad.
  3. Sociopathy - Sociopaths, like psychopaths, are disconnected from their own emotions. However, what sets sociopaths apart from psychopaths is that sociopaths are usually made through child neglect and abuse and therefore strive for the ‘nice things’ in life. They like the rush of adventure and impulsive behavior and lack the self preservation of psychopaths. Sociopaths, like narcissists, manipulate not so much for material gain but rather emotional gain. However, sociopaths do not value status very much. Sociopaths will score high on the ‘Psychopathy’ trait from the dark triad (quoted since psychopathy has been an outdated term to refer to sociopathic behavior).

All three types share a common means of emotional manipulation, though they have different motivations.

Emotional manipulation employs these three emotions: fear, obligation, and guilt (acronym: FOG).

Manipulation by using fear induces a ‘fight or flight’ response in the victim, and puts the pressure on the victim to comply by the manipulator’s wishes to avoid a bad situation that will either harm the victim or someone they remotely care about. An example of this type of manipulation is when an unhealthy boyfriend threatens to kill himself if his girlfriend or boyfriend doesn’t get back together with him in their abusive relationship.

Obligation, similar to peer pressure, forces the victim to comply by more traditional means: “Everyone is doing it, so there’s something wrong with you if you don’t do it too.” Obligation is the most common form of emotional manipulation, since it is seemingly more innocent than fear and guilt. It can take the form of just about anything. A friend may comment derisively about your values that they are “so old-fashioned and no one thinks that anymore, so you’re stupid for continuing to believe what you believe,” which is a form of obligation since the friend is trying to make you adapt a popular belief.

The third form of emotional manipulation, guilt, is exactly as the name suggests. You might have heard of the verb “to guilt-trip” when someone employs guilt to get someone else to do something. An example of this is a parent telling their child that by not attending a dinner, it just shows how much the child doesn’t care for their parent.

TD;DR Here are a few questions to ask yourself if it’s manipulation you’re seeing (or if you’re being unfairly persecuted as a manipulator by others):

  1. Obligation: Is the person trying to pressure you by outnumbering you (i.e dragging other people in to team up against you)?
  2. Fear: Are they making you afraid of consequences that will harm you, the person themselves, or others you care about with threats, implied or not?
  3. Guilt: Are they trying to guilt-trip you into agreeing with them by bringing up a past event, whether it’s related the the current topic or not?

If you answer yes to any of these, then it is manipulation and you should try to limit contact with that person. If you can’t get away, don’t ever fall for their tricks and stand your ground.