Psychological manipulation

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Psychological manipulation is a type of social influence that aims to change the perception or behavior of others through underhanded, deceptive, or even abusive tactics.[1] By advancing the interests of the manipulator, often at another's expense, such methods could be considered exploitative, abusive, devious, and deceptive. Social influence is not necessarily negative. For example, doctors can try to persuade patients to change unhealthy habits. Social influence is generally perceived to be harmless when it respects the right of the influenced to accept or reject and is not unduly coercive. Depending on the context and motivations, social influence may constitute underhanded manipulation.

Requirements for successful manipulation[edit]

According to psychology author George K. Simon, successful psychological manipulation primarily involves the manipulator:[2]

  1. concealing aggressive intentions and behaviors.
  2. knowing the psychological vulnerabilities of the victim to determine what tactics are likely to be the most effective.
  3. having a sufficient level of ruthlessness to have no qualms about causing harm to the victim if necessary.

Consequently, the manipulation is likely to be accomplished through covert aggressive (relational aggressive or passive aggressive) means.[2]

How manipulators control their victims[edit]

According to Braiker[edit]

Clinical psychologist Harriet Braiker wrote a self help book[1] which identified the following basic ways that manipulators control their victims:

According to Simon[edit]

Simon[2] identified the following manipulative techniques:

Vulnerabilities exploited by manipulators[edit]

According to Braiker's self-help book,[1] manipulators exploit the following vulnerabilities (buttons) that may exist in victims:

According to Simon,[2] manipulators exploit the following vulnerabilities that may exist in victims:

Manipulators generally take the time to scope out the characteristics and vulnerabilities of their victim.

Kantor advises in his book,[3] the following are vulnerable to psychopathic manipulators:

Motivations of manipulators[edit]

Manipulators can have various possible motivations, including but not limited to:[1]


Main article: Psychopathy

Being manipulative is in Factor 1 of the Hare Psychopathy Checklist (PCL).[4] The workplace psychopath may often rapidly shift between emotions – used to manipulate people or cause high anxiety.[5]

Antisocial, borderline and narcissistic personality disorders[edit]

According to Kernberg, antisocial, borderline, and narcissistic personality disorders are all organized at a borderline level of personality organization,[6] and the three share some common characterological deficits and overlapping personality traits, with deceitfulness[7] and exceptional manipulative abilities being the most common traits among the three. Sociopaths, borderlines, and narcissists are often both physically attractive (narcissists and borderlines in particular) and highly intelligent and can be efficient, persuasive, and incredible liars. Other shared traits include pathological narcissism,[6] consistent irresponsibility,[8] machiavellianism, lack of empathy,[9] cruelty, meanness, impulsivity, proneness to self-harm and addictions,[10] interpersonal exploitation, hostility, anger and rage, vanity, emotional instability, rejection sensitivity, perfectionism, and the use of primitive defence mechanisms that are pathological and narcissistic. Common narcissistic defences include splitting, denial, projection, projective identification, primitive idealization and devaluation, distortion (including exaggeration, minimization and lies), and omnipotence.[11]

Manipulation to obtain nurturance, approval, attention and control over others is considered by the DSM-IV-TR and many mental health professionals to be a defining characteristic of borderline personality disorder. Manipulative behavior is also common to narcissists, who use manipulation to obtain power and narcissistic supply. Those with antisocial personalities will manipulate for material items, power, and a wide variety of other reasons.[12]

Histrionic personality disorder[edit]

People with histrionic personality disorder are usually high-functioning, both socially and professionally. They usually have good social skills, despite tending to use them to manipulate others into making them the center of attention.[13]


Machiavellianism is a term that some social and personality psychologists use to describe a person's tendency to be unemotional, and therefore able to detach him or herself from conventional morality and hence to deceive and manipulate others. In the 1960s, Richard Christie and Florence L. Geis developed a test for measuring a person's level of Machiavellianism (sometimes referred to as the Machiavelli test).[14]

In popular culture[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Braiker, Harriet B. (2004). Whos Pulling Your Strings ? How to Break The Cycle of Manipulation. ISBN 0-07-144672-9. 
  2. ^ a b c d Simon, George K (1996). In Sheep's Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People. ISBN 978-1935166306.  (reference for the entire section
  3. ^ Kantor, Martin (2006). The Psychopathology of Everyday Life: how to deal with manipulative people. ISBN 978-0-275-98798-5. 
  4. ^ Skeem, J. L.; Polaschek, D. L. L.; Patrick, C. J.; Lilienfeld, S. O. (2011). "Psychopathic Personality: Bridging the Gap Between Scientific Evidence and Public Policy". Psychological Science in the Public Interest 12 (3): 95–162. doi:10.1177/1529100611426706. 
  5. ^ Faggioni M & White M Organizational Psychopaths - Who Are They and How to Protect Your Organization from Them (2009)
  6. ^ a b Kernberg, O (1975). Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism. New York: Jason Aronson. ISBN 978-0-87-668205-0. 
  7. ^ American Psychiatric Association 2000
  8. ^ American Psychiatric Association 2000
  9. ^ Baron-Cohen, S (2012). The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty. Basic Books. pp. 45–98. ISBN 978-0465031429. 
  10. ^ Casillas, A.; Clark, L.A.k (October 2002). "Dependency, impulsivity, and self-harm: traits hypothesized to underlie the association between cluster B personality and substance use disorders". Journal of Personality Disorders 16 (5): 424–36. doi:10.1521/pedi.16.5.424.22124. PMID 12489309. 
  11. ^ Kernberg, O. (1993). Severe Personality Disorders: Psychotherapeutic Strategies (New edition ed.). Yale University Press. pp. 15–18. ISBN 978-0-30-005349-4. 
  12. ^ American Psychiatric Association 2000
  13. ^ "Histrionic Personality Disorder". The Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved 23 November 2011. 
  14. ^ Christie, R., and F. L. Geis. (1970) "How devious are you? Take the Machiavelli test to find out." Journal of Management in Engineering 15.4: 17.

Other references[edit]


Academic journals[edit]