Why do we fall for manipulation

The most susceptible to manipulation are the people who believe their strong emotions are realistic.

Most people seem to believe that the more intense their emotion, the more realistic it is. But the reality is often quite the opposite (except maybe when our life is in imminent danger).

This is, quite likely, an unpopular claim. But if you’ve read my earlier articles, you probably know what I’m talking about. Intense emotions are often a reaction to childhood “programming”, especially suppressed emotions we never resolved. (Read more in this article). Adult emotions, those which involve our life experience and the adult part of the brain, are usually calmer and more complex. But no one teaches us about it, especially not in a clear and reasonable way.

Some intense emotions can be fueled by innate instincts (e.g., instincts to struggle for power, tribal instincts, fear of death) or learned from unhealthy role models. Most of them can be triggered with just a few select words or symbols. Many people abandon their critical thinking as soon as keywords or symbols, such as national flags, religious symbols, or words such as patriotism, freedom, faith, and the like are used. (As George Carlin used to say, “symbols are for symbol-minded” 🙂

Any human emotion can be used to manipulate people. Manipulators often exploit not only fear, greed, guilt, shame, but also the human desire for cooperation, connection, to be good people, empathy – and, especially lately, the desire for freedom and independent thinking. Abusers in intimate relationships, politicians, religions, and marketers especially like to take advantage of hope. And that’s just the beginning of the list.

Manipulation is by definition covert. The manipulator seeks to induce another person to behave in a way that person would not choose if they knew more about the situation and of the consequences of induced behavior, not just the selected information the manipulator offers them. Any communication skill can be used for good, but also for manipulation if we hide our intentions.

Therefore, in the first step – recognizing manipulation – we usually have to rely on our inner voice and the impression of a mismatch between the message we receive verbally and the message we receive nonverbally. But in doing so, we need to pay attention to distinguish healthy intuition from manipulated or childish emotions. Healthy intuition is usually subtler.

Evolution has given us, among other things, very subtle instincts for subconsciously analyzing nonverbal speech. Yet they obviously don’t always work, because even quite obvious mass manipulation often succeeds. These instincts don’t seem to work equally well for all people. Childhood environment certainly influences their development.

Some families, and even entire cultures, are full of manipulation or at least lack authenticity. In some cases, especially if in addition to manipulative relatives we have enough role models of authentic behavior, we can learn the difference well enough to rarely be fooled. But if almost everyone around us is inauthentic, if such an environment is normal to us from the youngest age, we can learn to accept inauthentic behavior as natural and even desirable.

Manipulation does not always have to be malicious and conscious. Some people manipulate because they have experienced that they will be punished if they are direct. Some because it was normal in their family. And unconscious manipulation is still manipulation, but it can be more successful because of less internal discord within such manipulator, and thus less uncoordinated nonverbal signals.

The modern problem is also that through electronic media, if we do not watch the person speaking on the recording, we receive only the verbal message, while the non-verbal one is hidden from us. If we hear only the voice, sometimes we can receive part of the unconscious signals the speaker sends through tonality, inflection, and the like, but if it is written content, we do not even have that.

In this case, it’s a good idea to ask yourself: does this content provoke certain emotions in me (eg fear, anger, pride…), and to what extent does it seem to do so in a conscious and deliberate manner? Does it seek to stimulate my emotions to obscure my objectivity and reason? What could be the result of that and who would benefit from it?

How we help the manipulator

Manipulation often succeeds if we are offered something that at least a part of us wants to believe in, especially if it plays on our more primitive instincts or unfulfilled childish emotions and needs. Manipulation is a form of seduction, and in order to be successful, we must in some way accept that seduction.

Hate, for example, can stimulate endorphins – the so-called hormones of happiness – so it’s easy to get addicted to hatred. Some people seem to carry hidden desires for violence and war, which they can control as long as they are socially unacceptable, but as soon as war is justified in public, these urges will recognize their opportunity and flourish. Greed and hope are also very seductive emotions. A great definition of marketing is “selling hope“. Even when it is unconvincing, even when it does not show the expected results, we can convince ourselves for a long time that it is at least partly true – because we want it to be.

The desire to prove ourselves in some way, whether we want to be good, smart, special, or “cool,” can also often lead us to participate in the game. The need for love, community, and even a substitute for the family can bind us to toxic relationships and organizations. Religions and cults usually exploit the human need for a community, and often offer a surrogate family (e.g. by using terms such as “holy father”, “brother”, “sister”). You can end up trying to earn love, approval, or reward through obedience and trust, as you probably did in your early family.

If we feel fear of conflict or abandonment – or perhaps fear of missing out – we can convince ourselves to agree with the manipulator despite intuitive discomfort. Love can be used as manipulation, too: “I do it for you, for your own good, because I love you”, or “if you loved me, you would …” The manipulator needs some form of our cooperation, because if there is no cooperation there are no results.

Manipulation strategies

Manipulation seems to be evolving along with human society and becoming more sophisticated and elaborate – including more and more pseudoscience and manipulation of science.

In addition to the above, some of the countless forms of manipulation are:

  • manipulation through nonverbal communication, e.g., self-confidence, role of victim
  • touching people, entering personal space is a popular method used by salespeople in “physical” stores to either distract you or make you feel friendlier to them
  • subtle, verbal or non-verbal, threats of abandonment; anger, rejection, blame … (more about emotional blackmail in this article)
  • among so-called “pick up artists”, a popular method is called “negging”, which is essentially a kind of direct or indirect depreciating of the “target” in order to arouse in them the desire to prove themselves and do what the manipulator wants. In modern political manipulation, this is also often used.
  • distraction, confusion, rapid and endless talking with the aim to not allow the target to have space and time to think clearly
  • “forced rapport” – too fast and unsolicited signaling of intimacy and friendliness with a stranger
  • Slowly pushing the boundaries and waiting until the victim gets used to such a situation, followed by pushing the boundaries further. A common strategy of abusers in romantic relationships, sometimes in business as well in politics.
  • Unsolicited gifts and services (a subtle version of this are vendors offering free candy in their stores to encourage the need to give something in return)
  • Long-term games, making friends with a “target” with no visible short-term benefits, but with long-term goals in mind
  • the manipulator may ask the “target” for advice or a small favor, in order to take advantage of the human need for consistent behavior, that is, to continue to have an open attitude towards the manipulator in the future. A similar principle is used in a strategy whereby if you ask someone the first few questions which they are likely to answer yes, then they are more likely to say yes later.
  • Apparent objectivity, extreme rationality without acknowledging emotions is also manipulation. Ignoring emotions means ignoring the fundamental humanity of others, which is automatically manipulative when such “objectivity” is used as an argument in any personal or political topic.
  • Distortion, exaggeration and simplification of precious ideals is typical of mass manipulations and many ideologies – political, religious and the like.
  • And so on indefinitely …

How to recognize manipulation

Since manipulation is by definition covert, the most important thing is to expose it. The first step is internal clarity: analyze what is going on with your own feelings. What emotion does the manipulator encourage in you, and what kind of behavior do they seem to want from you? To be able to do this, one needs to learn to listen to intuition and subtle feelings. More about that in this article.

On the other hand, when analyzing our own feelings we also need to distinguish childish feelings and primitive instincts, which manipulators often exploit, from healthy and adult feelings and needs, which are wise to listen to. (Read more about distinguishing between healthy and unhealthy emotions here). In doing so, we need to be careful not to deceive and manipulate ourselves by finding excuses to follow immature emotions and desires.

Manipulators will recognize your weaknesses quickly (or they will probe until they find some) – so you must be aware of your weaknesses as well. Is it the fear of saying no, the urge to cooperate and please others, vanity, loneliness, guilt, responsibility, trust, desire to prove yourself …? Be aware of your weak points and pay special attention when you feel like someone is triggering them.

Some people may have trouble trusting their own healthy feelings and needs if they have been manipulated since childhood that their needs don’t matter. This requires longer-term, patient work on valuing and expressing your feelings both internally and externally.

Hypersensitive people may have an additional problem that information overload can prevent them from being aware of their own subtle intuition, especially when a lot is going on, or a quick decision is required. They can also help themselves by practicing recognizing subtle internal emotional impulses, and whenever possible they should take time alone to relax and think without distractions.

Dealing with a manipulator

A lot of small everyday manipulation is easy to ignore. It’s harder when it comes to people close to you, or business colleagues. Often people ask: How to defeat a manipulator without having to confront them? But to defeat manipulation means to face it. First within your own emotions and behavioral habits, then directly with the manipulator. Manipulators seek to keep their intent hidden; once it is clearly revealed, their strategies lose power.

Just as the strategies of manipulation are innumerable, so can confrontation vary. Here are a few ideas:

  • Sometimes it is enough for the confrontation to be just non-verbal – for the manipulator to see you are watching them carefully. You could also raise your eyebrows theatrically. This can work with more “shy” manipulators, but it probably won’t with more severe cases.
  • The simplest and most direct question is: what do you hope to achieve? What are you trying to make me feel? You might add: I’d rather you tell me directly. Or just ask: What do you really want?
  • A slightly more provocative approach is to say: Interesting strategy, where did you learn it? Does this normally work for you?
  • If you say “No” to the manipulator, they will often ask “But why?” in the hope to draw you into a debate in which you would feel the need to prove your reasoning, which they will never allow you. You can deflect by asking, “And why should I?” (Of course, there is some danger here that you will get involved in the argument. Don’t. Ignore if necessary.)
  • If you see that the manipulator is using vague and distorted arguments, you can ask: Can you explain that to me, I didn’t quite understand the logic, how did you come to that conclusion? If they mumble an unconvincing answer, you can raise your eyebrows theatrically again. You can also add: Are you serious?
  • If you feel pressured to say yes or no, if at all possible say: I need some time to think about this, I’ll get back to you later.

However, sometimes confrontation is not so simple and you might fail to clearly explain your perspective. Or the manipulator will set out to convince you that your feelings are irrational. If you feel the need to convince that person that you are right, and to make them agree with you, it pulls you back into the game and you open up to manipulation again. Because manipulators already know your reasons quite well, they just don’t want to respect them.

Note that manipulators will not discuss “in good faith” and honestly. Their goal is to manipulate you, and for that purpose they will happily ignore facts, logic, objectivity and anything else. And if they are adept at selective argumentation, while you feel the need to avoid conflict and come to some sort of agreement, you may find yourself “played” without even noticing, and eventually give in despite the inner knowledge that something isn’t right.

That is why sometimes it is necessary to give up on harmony and conclusion. To successfully oppose a manipulator who uses selective arguments to refute your reasons, you must take a firm stand that you have the right to say No, without an explanation the other person would agree with. That you don’t have to prove anything. That you have the right to make a decision the other person doesn’t like. You don’t have to explain the logic of your emotions and needs, as long as you can clearly say that something is important to you, and that if it is ignored, the consequences will follow.

Manipulators will try to make you feel rude, selfish or stupid if you stand up for yourself. Most cultures teach children that if they notice something other people hide, then it must not be talked about and they will be punished if they speak out. Often such silence is well-intentioned. But when it comes to manipulation, one should learn to resist this type of childhood conditioning. The manipulator just takes advantage of your habit of respecting someone else’s intimacy. The manipulator does not deserve that kind of respect.

It is clear that this type of confrontation requires deeper and long term work on our emotional patterns – on knowing ourselves well, on respecting our own boundaries, on developing inner strength and learning to express ourselves clearly. It is also understandable that one can feel resistance to do such work. But the benefits of it are much greater than just resisting manipulation.

Related articles:

How To Stand Up For Yourself

When Hope is a “Negative” Emotion

5 Reasons Why I Hate Manipulation

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Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.

Kosjenka Muk

I’m an Integrative Systemic Coaching trainer and special education teacher. I taught workshops and gave lectures in 10 countries, and helped hundreds of people in 20+ countries on 5 continents (on- and offline) find solutions for their emotional patterns. I wrote the book “Emotional Maturity In Everyday Life” and a related series of workbooks.

Some people ask me if I do bodywork such as massage too – sadly, the only type of massage I can do is rubbing salt into wounds.  😉

Just kidding. I’m actually very gentle. Most of the time.

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