In this world where awareness about the need for good mental health is growing, people are slowly getting aware about the psychological manipulation they themselves face or which they exert upon others. Manipulation directly questions the human values of the situation; because controlling someone against their will, emotionally tormenting them and driving them to a state where their mental health is disturbed and their life is affected by it, is what is morally wrong.
Psychological manipulation, or simply termed as manipulation, can be defined as exerting devious influence over a person for one’s own advantage. It is also called emotional manipulation. It aims to change the behavior or perception of others through indirect, deceptive, or underhanded tactics. The art of manipulation is not about making people do what the manipulators want them to do, rather it is about making them ‘want’ to do the things that the manipulators want them to do. Manipulators introduce mostly negative emotions like stress, anxiety, or discomfort to the victim in an effort to achieve the desired goal.
Can Psychological Manipulation be good?
Manipulation is commonly thought to include an element of immorality. But manipulation is not always immoral. The situation, intent and the desired results determine whether manipulating someone was right or not. Hence, it is important to know when manipulation is morally right. For example, sometimes terrorists or criminals are interrogated and manipulated by police personnel to extract information from them which may save other people, localities or the whole nation from potential future attacks or some other dangers.
Apart from these exceptional cases, manipulation directly questions the human value because controlling someone against their will, emotionally tormenting them and driving them to a state where their mental health is disturbed and life is affected is what is morally wrong, and is the focus of this topic.
According to Preston Ni (2019), “Chronic manipulation is often used as a survival mechanism to cope with a challenging and competitive environment, especially when one lacks relative power and control.” A feeling of deprivation, disadvantage, or a craving for more power, leads the person to resort to cunning and underhanded tactics in order to attain what he or she desires. A person deprived of love, care, and security during his/her childhood, has suffered from social weaknesses, or was brought up in an environment that encourages exploiting others’ weaknesses, may become a manipulator.
Manipulative people often lack insight into a situation and think that what they are doing is the only way of meeting their needs. They are insensitive towards other’s emotions and disregard boundaries. They don’t care who gets hurt along the way. (Brenner, 2016).
Motives of Manipulators
1. The need to fulfill their desires at any cost.
2. The need to have power and superiority in relationships with others.
3. A need to feel and be in control.
4. Seeing it as a game rather than hurting others. This arises out of boredom.
Manipulation associated with Personality Disorders
It is to be kept in mind that some personality disorders may involve an element of manipulation, that is, the person suffering from that disorder may come off as manipulative.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder: Narcissists are highly self-centered. They feed on admiration, praises, and flattery from others. Manipulation is intrinsic to people with this disorder. They often have difficulty in forming close relationships and may use manipulative tactics such as gaslighting, playing the victim role and blaming, in order to keep their relationships.
Histrionic Personality Disorder: People with Histrionic Personality disorder constantly seek attention, and exhibit extreme emotions to manipulate others into keeping the attention on them. Histrionic people can become uncomfortable when they are not the center of attention.
Antisocial Personality Disorder: People with Antisocial Personality Disorder are characterized by having a perceived disregard for others. They often engage in manipulative and deceitful behavior in order to get power, money, revenge, or amusement. They lack empathy and remorse for hurting or offending others.
Borderline Personality Disorder: Manipulation is commonly associated with Borderline Personality Disorder. But most of the time their behaviors are misjudged as being manipulative. For instance, those who constantly need reassurance and validation are viewed as forcing others to say what the person wants to hear. But often they seek reassurance because they are anxious and doubtful about their social skills.
TYPES OF MANIPULATION:
There are many different techniques or tactics used by people to manipulate others (Simon, 1996):
1. Guilt trips: Manipulators excel at playing the victim role. They make the other person feel guilty by feigning sadness or by blaming them. This makes the victim feel confused and anxious. For example, when your family tells you that they’ve emigrated for you to have a better life than the one you had in the old country, expecting unquestioning obedience in return.
2. Spinning the truth: The manipulators lie about their motives. They twist the facts to make the victims believe in them and follow them. For example, some religious extremists distort history and mythological stories to create hate and rage in their followers towards other religions.
3. Withholding information: Manipulators often keep an important part of the story to themselves, to put the victim at a disadvantage.
4. Over sharing: Manipulators often over share information to make the victim feel special and that they are chosen to know precious and vital parts of the manipulator’s life. By this the manipulators try to make the victim feel responsible for their feelings and also try to pressurize them into over sharing.
5. Gaslighting: The manipulator makes the victim doubt and questions their own perception about reality and their sanity, so that the victim blames himself/herself for the other person’s actions. Gaslighting undermines the victim’s confidence and leaves them feeling insecure and worthless. For example, “Come on, I never said that”, “You are imagining it”. A survey conducted by Warshaw and his associates in 2014 found that gaslighting is common in domestic violence situations, preventing women from accessing resources.
6. Instilling fear and expressing anger: Some people display anger and throw tantrums in order to get what they want. The victim often submits to these aggressive acts to calm them down, or avoid embarrassment in front of others. A manipulator also sometimes instills fear in their victims saying that they will face dangerous and unpleasant consequences if they don’t do as he/she says.
7. Isolation: Manipulators isolate their victims from family members and friends who could shed some light and truth on the situation, to easily control their victims. For example, a research on vulnerability of youth to getting manipulated towards using violence within the borders of Kyrgyzstan and beyond by Mercy Corps and FTI in 2016 found that the tactic of separation and isolation was used to separate the youth from other ethnic groups. This resulted in lack of contact due to which they were unable to interact and challenge their negative perceptions. Also, a perceived threat to their national identity and culture, and exaggerated differences in religiosity between groups were instilled in them and pushed them towards using violence.
8. Feigning Innocence: Manipulators often react with confusion and shock when accused of any wrongdoing. They do so to act as if they are innocent and are being falsely accused. Their reactions are often so convincing that the victim may question their own judgment.
9. Sarcasm: The manipulator often uses sarcastic comments about the victim in front of others to lower the victim’s self-esteem and make him/her feel unworthy. They may even make the victim feel ashamed and foster a feeling of inadequacy.
10. Flattery: Manipulators praise, flatter, or charm the victims to gain their trust. It makes the victims lower their guards and become easily manipulated. For example, if you consider yourself to be unattractive, they’ll constantly praise your beauty. If you doubt your intelligence, they will perpetually remind you of their wish to be as smart as you are – all of this to serve them at the end.
Every one of us is vulnerable to getting manipulated. But whether one gets manipulated or not depends upon whether one is able to sense motives of others and is able to do something about it, or is not affected by the manipulator’s tactics at all.
People who are naïve, have a ‘disease to please’, have a lower self esteem and self-confidence, are dependent on others, are immature, and are easily trusting; they are vulnerable to getting manipulated. They are much vulnerable to showing their inner weaknesses which manipulators prey upon. Manipulators also often play with our strengths, qualities, and goodness. Our ethics and conscientiousness, optimism and compassion can also put us at risk.
EFFECTS OF PSYCHOLOGICAL MANIPULATION:
Victims of psychological manipulation often develop poor mental health conditions. Chronic manipulation may lead the victim to feel traumatized, particularly in cases where the victim is made to feel ashamed or guilty; develop depression and anxiety; develop unhealthy coping patterns; the victim’s self-esteem may get harmed which may lead him/her to develop a poor self-concept; the victims may question their own perception which may lead them to think that something is wrong with them; they may find difficulty in trusting others; seek approval or reassurance from others; and they may hide their feelings and become socially withdrawn.
KEEPING OURSELVES SAFE FROM PSYCHOLOGICAL MANIPULATION:
We can keep ourselves safe from being manipulated by being vigilant and aware of various manipulative tactics and behaviors that people show. Manipulation at the end mostly generates an uncomfortable feeling that “something is not right” and we should monitor any such feelings and try to address what is causing them.
When we feel that we are getting manipulated, we can:
- Confront the manipulator: At first we should measure the dangers of confronting that person, and if we feel that it is safe to confront them, we should address the situation and confront the manipulator about his/her behavior.
- Be assertive: We should learn to say no to things which we don’t feel comfortable doing or which we feel is forced upon us.
- Set our boundaries: Making clear of one’s boundaries in any relationship can help in avoiding being taken advantage of.
- Be confident: Being confident and knowing the facts can help us in trusting ourselves in any situation so as to not fall into the trap of false stories or manipulative tactics.
The victims of manipulation can be helped through counseling, family and peer support. Once it is identified that they are getting psychologically or emotionally manipulated, they can be helped by giving them assertive training, helping them become vigilant, improving their self-esteem and self-confidence, and helping them become more strong and resilient. Victims, who have been chronically manipulated and have developed depression, anxiety, trauma, and other conditions, can be helped through counseling and medication.
The manipulators, on the other hand, may be difficult to get identified as most of the time they would deny being manipulative. If at all they do get identified, they can be confronted and talked through about their manipulative behavior. Manipulators associated with personality disorders may get identified and can be helped through psychotherapy and medication.
Psychological manipulation, apart from some exceptional circumstances, is morally and ethically wrong as it is a devious act benefitting self at the expense of others’ thoughts, feelings, and emotions. Everyone is vulnerable to getting psychologically manipulated, but becoming aware about it and watching out for signs of manipulation can help us in staying safe.
BY – SAMPURNA PADHI
Masters in Psychology, 1st Division
Utkal University, Vani Vihar
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