A former copywriting mentor often referenced the 1973 movie, The Sting as a way of teaching us the art of manipulation.
Paul Newman and Robert Redford played a pair of grifters who teamed up to con a rich gangster. Redford played the young, impetuous upstart, eager to stick it to the guy who killed his friend. Newman played the wise elder, who crushed that desire when he remarked, “He can never know you conned him.” In the ideal con, the mark never knows he’s been taken.
Skilled manipulators follow the same rule. They’ll fool you, fleece you, and deceive you. When they move on, they depart with hugs and handshakes.
It makes sense.
Once you know they’re manipulating you, their game ends. The manipulator seeks to sustain the ruse as long as possible. To accomplish that task, they rely on subtle strategies to lull you into submission while cushioning themselves against reputational damage.
My mentor at the time had been in the copywriting and mail order business for decades and taught me some of the most devious manipulation schemes ever devised.
To make a sale, he said, requires a willingness to get your mark so riled up, so confused, and so out of sorts while you position yourself as their last hope to cure their affliction, find a lover, achieve financial independence, or whatever desire they seek to fulfill.
I didn’t have the stomach for it, so I left the business, but the education paid for itself many times over as I applied the lessons to real life.
No matter the form — the written word, face-to-face communication, or even one-way communication — seasoned manipulators follow a standard fare of tactics, recycled and modernized over the centuries, exploiting the same set of human weaknesses.
Once aware of these five techniques, you’ll equip yourself with the best defense against manipulation — awareness.
They feed your grievances.
Let’s play a game of fill in the blank.
Choose a gripe that stokes your anger. You’re mad at the world because…
What’s the first thing that comes to mind?
Someone struggling might say:
I’m mad at the world because I work 50 hours a week and can’t afford rent.
A rich person might say:
I’m mad at the world because liberals want to bankrupt me with high taxes.
Most of our grievances fall into a generic bucket shared with others in a particular demographic. Manipulators zero in on a handful of these common grievances.
They’ll never try to reason with you or show you another path. Instead, they’ll shovel more coal into the fire, dialing up your anger, selling you vague solutions that will never come to fruition.
That’s the key to their machinations.
If they solve your problem, you won’t need them anymore. If they try to fix your woes and fail, you’ll lose confidence in them.
The smart ones fight for impractical (if not impossible) solutions and then claim victimhood; that’s how they retain you as a follower, customer, or audience; they keep you angry and hungry for more.
Manipulators may reel you in with righteous motives, but they won’t solve your problems. They give you hope while keeping you angry and suffering. The longer they maintain that emotion, the longer they keep you leashed at their side.
They blame the establishment.
We like to think of the establishment as a bureaucratic government, but any entity with power serves the same function.
If you’re selling an alternative health solution, the establishment consists of traditional doctors and hospitals.
If you’re selling luxury condos, the establishment consists of low-income housing advocates and their government cronies. Likewise, if you’re advocating for low-income housing, the big-time developers and their government allies fill the role of evil overseer.
We have a natural inclination to fight for the underdog. By pitting themselves as the ‘David against the Goliath,’ they gain your sympathy and empathy. They’re one of the little guys too, fighting on your behalf, so you root for them, listen to their speeches and donate to their causes.
They trigger emotional gratification.
Have you ever listened to a politician or media personality and thought:
He put into words something I’ve been feeling for a long time.
Magic happens when a trusted figure puts your feelings into words. He articulates what you can’t, creating an intimate connection.
Once they solidify that bond, you feel understood and seen, generating a sense of loyalty and respect.
This connection can serve noble purposes. Who doesn’t like feeling seen and heard? We all do. That’s what makes it so nefarious as a manipulative weapon.
Here’s an example.
Let’s suppose you’re struggling in life even though you have a job and a roof over your head. Someone comes along, describes what you’re feeling in vivid detail. Then, they assign a label to it.
Now you have a name for what ails you. In his book, Tools of Critical Thinking, psychologist David Levy writes, “If we can find, formulate, or invent a special name for something; we can easily fool ourselves into thinking we have explained it.”
Manipulators know this instinctively. That’s why they love to create catchy labels their followers can latch onto. As the creator of the label, they position themselves as the only expert who can solve the problem.
Few folks are actually skilled enough to pull this off with regularity, but when done well, the seductive power proves hard to resist.
They bait you with insurance.
An insurance policy transfers risk from one individual to a third-party. Manipulators use this principle to relieve their marks from guilt or blame.
It works because few of us accept that our problems stem from our own missteps, so we turn our heads and grab the bait, even when we suspect insincerity.
The manipulator succeeds by shifting blame and responsibility to a third party, often a vaguely defined subgroup, allowing you to unload any pain you might have felt.
There are several ways in which they make use of this tactic:
- Transferring blame for a failure. They find a defenseless, often mysterious group to pin the blame for your failure. We often do this ourselves. My business failed because big corporations sabotaged me.
- Transferring responsibility for actions that cause guilt. The feeling of guilt lingers like a bad cold. It’s almost impossible to shake, so we listen when someone says, Don’t feel guilty. You had no choice to do what you did. They made you do it.
Once we feel pain, emotional or physical, we’ll hand over a blank check to whoever promises to make it go away. That’s what makes us so gullible in these situations.
They exploit an indignity.
The last time I faced unemployment, the financial hit sent me into a panic. That wasn’t the worst of it.
The indignity of being out of work hurt most. That’s the kind of pain manipulators exploit.
What is it like to go to the unemployment office and wait in line to ask for a handout?
They dial up the shame until you can’t take it, and then they throw you a shred of hope.
You may not feel an indignity for a typical problem, but the skilled charlatan makes it their business to dial up the humiliation. Once you feel it, the urge to do something about it overpowers you, while the manipulator dangles a life preserver.
Manipulation is easy to spot when you’re aware of the tactics. When all else fails, and you’re unsure whether they’re targeting you, ask yourself, what’s in it for them?
If they’re trying to sell you something, win your attention, or gain your support, be wary. They may harbor good intentions, but that doesn’t mean they care about your best interests.