Thoughts on manipulationPosted: March 23, 2006 at 4:45 pm in people
After finishing the Dale Carnegie a couple days ago, I started reading the Cialdini. I have somewhat mixed feelings about these books. These techniques take advantage of all sorts of triggers that have been implanted into us by society. And in the large scale, such triggers are what have enabled human society to exponentially advance. But on the small scale, they can be used to manipulate and coerce people into doing all sorts of things they would not otherwise do. So when (if ever) is it right to use them?
To take an example we discussed in the office, what if somebody calls me up, furious about how something broke in FogBugz, and is just screaming at me about how it ruined their life or something (hypothetical example – I’m not answering the phones yet, and from what I can tell, people who call are pretty mellow). If I use a bunch of techniques from Carnegie’s book (apologize profusely, use their name a lot, express sympathy for their problems, etc.), I can probably calm them down and then we can get to a place where I can actually help them get what they want. Is it selfish for me to use those techniques? Yes. But it still ends up getting them what they want, which is actual help – while they may feel better after yelling, they still need to get stuff working. So is it good or bad that I manipulated them to calm them down?
Maybe such techniques are inherently degrading, because to use them in a planned fashion means that you are treating other people as a means to get what you want rather than as ends in themselves (as one of my coworkers pointed out). But it’s weird because these techniques, especially Carnegie’s, are exactly what good people do naturally. Good people express sympathy, they remember names, they are genuinely interested in those around them. In Carnegie’s view, teaching these techniques to people and getting them to start acting according to these principles is a means to an end, where that end is turning his students into good people who do such things naturally. It’s the idea that if you act one way for long enough, it’s no longer acting, and it’s just who you are.
So if I use these techniques consciously, I’m a bad person, but if I practice them so they’re unconscious then I’m a good person? What if I use them so much for selfish purposes that that becomes automatic and unconscious?
Now that I think about it, I’m going to have to fall back on my default answer that these techniques, like everything else, are tools. They are not intrinsically good or bad; it is up to the user to determine how they are used. In the hands of a genuinely good-hearted person, they bring joy and happiness to all those with whom they interact. In the hands of a cold-hearted manipulator, they leave a trail of ashes and tears.
I’m torn by these questions because I’m aware of my social awkwardness, and do use some of these techniques consciously in an attempt to smooth my way. I’ve definitely gotten more social over the years and able to hold my own in a wider variety of settings. With my friends, I’m comfortable enough that it’s not even an issue, but out in the world, it helps to have some guideposts to cling to.
What’s interesting is that I tend to manipulate myself as well. Heck, this whole move to New York thing is a large scale effort to put me outside of my comfort zone so that I get out of my rut and start to push myself again. So if I have no qualms about manipulating myself, should I feel guilty for manipulating others (not that I’m really even any good at that)? Or does that just prove that I have no morality?
I should note that I’ve always been fascinated by the techniques of manipulation, even though I’m a poor practitioner myself. I remember when I saw In the Company of Men, I thought Chad was awesome and that I wanted to be like him, able to play those around me and convince them to do what I wanted. I said I’d only use my powers for good, of course. Though that concession did not seem to comfort Batman, who was a bit freaked out by how much I enjoyed that movie.
Anyway. Questions, considerations and dark thoughts. Who’da thunk such things would come out of reading Dale Carnegie?
P.S. A couple more pictures are now up on my apartment page, illustrating what it looks like now that I’ve unpacked and put up pictures and stuff.