2013-02-07

Manipulation

In a perfect world, people would deal with each other honestly and decently. In the real world, there are a lot of manipulative people out there.

Manipulation is a psychologically interesting topic. There is an inherent irony built into it, one which I think a lot of people fail to recognize. That irony is that a manipulator attempts to dominate and control every situation, yet this implies that the manipulator would feel he or she lacks control in any situation in which he or she fails to engage in manipulation.

Think of it this way: Here I am, sitting at a desk, typing a blog post. Were someone to ask whether I felt completely in control of the operation of my car, I would answer yes, even though I am not currently driving it. Similarly, I feel I have adequate control over my own little universe, even if I do not happen to find myself controlling every single situation I'm in.

Put another way, I can even let someone else drive my car sometimes. I can ride in the passenger seat. What matters in life is not who steers my car, but whether my actions can affect meaningfully positive outcomes. What does it matter who drives the car to the grocery store if my goal is to go grocery shopping?

To manipulators, who drives the car is something that matters a lot. It seems to me that the reason for this is because a manipulator fundamentally feels out of control in his or her natural state. That is, a manipulator will feel out of control in any situation until he or she gains control (or thinks so) by engaging in manipulation.

This results in two key phenomena.

The first is that those who are most susceptible to manipulation will easily hand control over to the manipulator for the reasons established by the manipulator. That is, if someone is easily manipulated because he seeks approval, the manipulator will withhold approval until the manipulator gets what he/she wants. If someone desperately seeks to avoid controversy, the manipulator will cause a scene - or at least threaten to do so - unless the manipulated gives in on the matter. And so on, and so forth, on down the list of ways manipulators do what t hey do.

The second key phenomenon is this: Those who feel they are in good control of themselves and their lives will do little to stop the manipulator's behavior. This is because the behavior of the manipulator matters very little to those who cannot be manipulated. For example, what does it matter if the neighbor's toddler throws a tantrum in the grocery store because he was not given a piece of candy? It might matter to the toddler's mother, but it is irrelevant to the neighbor. So, there is no point to doing anything about the manipulative tantrum the toddler decides to throw. In fact, the more in-control a person feels over his or her life, the less that person is inclined to do anything about a manipulator.

So manipulative people continue manipulating those who can be manipulated, and will do so unobstructed by people who cannot be manipulated.

The only way to stop a manipulator is to out-manipulate him or her. Typically, those who are in the best position to do this - those who cannot be manipulated - are in the worst position to do it, because they are least practiced in the art of manipulation. They can see through the whole charade, but lack either the knack or the nerve to exploit the manipulable in order to put a stop to the manipulator.

I'm not sure how to resolve this issue. It's a tough one. We cannot prevent weak people from being manipulated, no matter how much it offends our sense of justice or morality. It would be nice to experience a life in which manipulators didn't exist and confound the situations into which they insinuate themselves.

But some devils can't be vanquished by angels, only by bigger and more terrifying devils.