The human toolkit — manipulation

I have heard it termed ‘ the dark side of emotional intelligence’. Why is manipulation part of the human tool kit? Why do we engage in manipulation in much more of our daily lives than we are willing to admit — how malign a term is it? And why have my cost centres learnt to run rings around me from an early age — in what world is such an innate sneaky ability in a child sensible?!!

In 2007 Professor Elizabeth Austin developed a scale (which she subsequently evolved) measuring how manipulative an individual is. A high scorer feels no compunction about the negative consequences on others of their twists of nature. It also determined that the higher you are on this scale the more likely you were to have a significant bias towards a Machiavellian trait they had set on for being ‘callous and morally indifferent’ (www.sciencefocus.com). I say that lightly as the term Machiavellian is much mis-understood.

The word manipulation was initially used in 1827 and meant ‘skilful action by hand’ although over time the definition has broadened to include ‘managing’ people and situations. A theory called Cognitive balance suggests manipulation works because our preferences are affected by how we feel about an individual and in turn what those people like or think; which has implications for who has control and power. Put like this, It feels immoral. But it is actually more nuanced if you take a step back.

We use ‘micro-cons’ daily (Themarginalian.org) on the people around us — flattery, white lies, feigning ignorance. We think nothing of it. We even use these aspects to manipulate ourselves into certain actions. Broadening out what constitutes manipulation, at one end of distaste it could include gaslighting — causing an individual to doubt themselves; playing people off against each other to downright lying — con artists who achieve success by preying on what another wishes to be truth; embarrassing someone and employing peer pressure — in order to change their actions. At the other extreme where it feels cloudy, is harnessing the impact of compliment, engaging empathy, guilt tripping or concealing to bring them round to your way of thinking or persuading them down a path you think is in their interest. Actually when you write it down like that it isn’t as simple as good manipulation versus bad. How graceful would some of the great tales be without a star manipulator from Satan, Dr Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs, Professor Moriarty in Sherlock, Iago from Othello….

And here is something else to throw into the mix. Influence. We are taught as young adults to ‘influence’ another is a much needed or powerful tool to progress or achieve anything of note and we must strive to build those guiding skills. But influence and manipulation are bed fellows and it seems odd to denigrate one behaviour yet applaud its close confidant because influence is of mixed rectitude and can be bought and threatened as well as properly earnt. Studies show, extravert people tend to use influence and those who are high on emotional intelligence are more likely to use strategies around manipulation. It has been rationalised that in Influencing, the person being affected has free will and is aware of your intention; manipulation takes that away by hiding your true motive — whether it is good or bad.

Accepting that, I have justified to myself, influence or manipulation can be considered ‘good’ or ‘bad’ dependant on intent or as an article in Aeon explains it by motive and whether the manipulator is attempting to embed a false belief or a lie.

But I realise we ‘ain’t in Kansas anymore’ so there isn’t always an unequivocal answer about what can be deemed the right or wrong behaviour of another. Truth is at those times we may need to look to ourselves and the outcome and ask what did we expect or hope for? We search for patterns and look for validation. Confirmation bias is seeking out that which supports and re-enforces our personal views, therefore when we look for information, say, on the internet or in speaking to others, we look to that which agrees with our own view, and more often than not disregard information outside of that.

Human beings are ambiguous and changeable and ready to be credulous or greedy; a veritable feast for opportunists and do-gooders. Sometimes we need to be honest. We bring situations on ourselves.

But layered on top how do we escape today’s technological wizardly society where we are bombarded, manipulated, coerced into swaying our beliefs and desires by advertising, social media, search engines, news, fake news, influencers in very sophisticated manners….Not that we weren’t dazzled by a confusing array of ideas, advertising and persuasion in the past, but in today’s world, it has become increasingly hard to discern the upstanding voice. In today’s world, it has become increasingly hard to have a passive moment.

‘We shape our tools and there-after our tools shape us’. Father John Culkin.

The broad brush ‘the dark side of emotional intelligence’ feels appropriate when describing manipulation whether we look to someone else or within ourselves as the altered or offender. Such a learnt or natural trait is a normal facet of human character when it comes to individuals even very young individuals. And technology and distortion? Well it is all pervasive. With the genie out of the box there is no turning back. But it doesn’t mean we can’t be guarded or thoughtful; escorting awareness to our interactions — in person or via a screen. Coupled with knowledge — these are forcible weapons by our side. And for those truly doubtful intent moments, a question mark is an effective tool in our armour. Use it freely and dynamically and see what you unveil….

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Curious Rascal

I want to learn and understand more of the the world, people, history, science, making sense of the random. Join me if you feel the same!