Thoughts on manipulation

Posted: 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.

10 Responses to “Thoughts on manipulation”

  1. Anca Says:

    Are you trying to talk yourself into feeling bad because you are consciously trying to be nice to people? It’s not manipulation when you are actually trying to help people get what THEY want by being polite and giving them the social cues that put them in their comfort zone.

    The trick, of course, is to avoid sounding like you are patronizing people when you talk to them. If *you* feel like you are treating them in some degrading manner, this will come across in your tone of voice, even if you consciously are trying to behave in another way.

  2. Eric Says:

    While walking to work just now, I think I pinpointed my discomfort with using manipulative techniques in a good cause. The key word there is “good” – by manipulating others, I am pushing them in the direction of what I consider to be a “good” cause – I am not letting them choose it of their own free will. This is appropriate with, say, children, who need guidance, but with another person, it should be up to them to decide how they want to live. It is not my prerogative to choose for them, even if it’s in (what I consider to be) their best interest.

    Something like that, at least.

  3. Anca Says:

    So in your customer support scenario, you think it would be appropriate to NOT show sympathy for their problem since you don’t really feel it, thus letting the customer choose whether to deal with you or not of their own free will, knowing that you don’t care one way or another?

  4. Anca Says:

    I do agree with what you’re saying, in the large sense – however I think there are degrees of “manipulation”, some of which are just basic social skills, and others which border on evil (and then there is marketing, which is all about manipulation).

    I’m trying to get you to think about where that line really is.

  5. Eric Says:

    Oh, I think we have to observe social niceties – otherwise society falls apart. Etiquette is a way to keep us all from killing each other.

    And I know the line is out much further than I’m suggesting. And there’s probably no line at all – it’s a slow fade. But the thing that struck me this morning is that, to invoke Godwin’s Law, Hitler was only doing what was best for the German people in his view, and used brilliant manipulation techniques to achieve it. Not saying that all manipulation is bad – it’s a tool. And it’s worth taking the time to consider whether we have the other person’s interest truly in mind or not. Or something like that.

  6. chuck Says:

    As someone who has been pissed off while speaking to people in customer support on the phone, I think that calming techniques are great. I don’t want to be as pissed off at the person on the phone as I am, I just can’t help myself. I know it’s not productive.

    The point at which it is evil is the point where it’s scripted. Though most of the scripting from customer support is for sales. That is the totally unacceptable line. You are taking advantage of me having a question to shove your own agenda on me, and relying on my politeness to not just hang up. I hate that. As for scripting to manipulate attitudes, I don’t know how useful that would be in most cases. Me, stick to a point?

  7. tstop Says:

    What does Carnegie say about using people’s names, Perlick?

    I have to admit that using names regularly is completely bizarre to me, partly because I can almost never remember anyone’s name in the first place. When I’m talking to someone and they use my name it tends to make me really suspicious and edgy. Especially if it is over the telephone!

    That said, in my current management role I’ve had to get over the feeling that manipulation is bad. You have to do it in order to get a large group of people to effectively do anything. Extremists on either side need to be damped down. Folks on fences need to be kicked off of them. Meetings need to be tightly controlled to avoid breakdowns into chaos and polarization of positions rather than moderation. The interesting thing is that, in general, people don’t seem to mind (at least in a business environment) as long as the project is moving in a good direction overall.

    If you wanted to draw a line.. I’d put it that you shouldn’t use these techniques to cause someone to make a decision that you believe is bad for them.

  8. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Mike Murray on Hacking the Mind || July || 2006 Says:

    [...] As somebody who continues to be fascinated by manipulation techniques, this was probably the talk I most wanted to see at the conference. And it was far far far better than I could have expected. [...]

  9. pj Says:

    Everyone needs guidance, not just children. When manipulation tactics are used to channel a client/person into a decision, it should leave both parties in a win-win situation. It should make them feel good! Afterall, it was THEIR decision.

  10. Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist || Whuffie and social capital || August || 2008 Says:

    [...] because we humans are reasonably well-trained in detecting ulterior motives. It’s like using the techniques of Dale Carnegie – when used for good purposes, they increase the value of the interaction for everybody, but when [...]

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