UPDATE 9/20/15: It has come to my attention that this was posted on reddit and 50,000 people have visited this post as a result. Wow, cool! Based on comments from redditors I want to clarify some things. One–manipulation is about attempting to control someone else’s behavior. I’d never claim that everyone who does any of these things is manipulating. If you buy a gift or give a compliment because you want to be kind and you do not have an ulterior motive, clearly that isn’t manipulation. Two–most of these examples are made up and not from my personal life so any assumptions you make about my personal life based on these examples are probably false. Three–I switch gender pronouns throughout the post so if you comment or message me saying this post is anti-men or that all the examples are about men, it will be obvious to me that you didn’t read the whole thing/went into it with existing assumptions that are incorrect. That said, thanks everyone for reading! PS, can one of you post my Workaholics post to reddit? I feel like it’d do well there.
I’ve dealt with roommates, boyfriends, friends, co-workers, bosses, and even casual acquaintances who used manipulation techniques to try and get me to do what they wanted. Everyone uses manipulation at some point in time, but for most people it’s not a way of life.
Why do some people relentlessly attempt to manipulate and control others? I don’t know. Some manipulators probably have a personality disorder; others are probably unconsciously mimicking behavior they grew up with and haven’t yet examined; others are probably using planned, calculated attempts to get what they want in life. My concern isn’t why people manipulate, but how I can identify the manipulation and shut it down. I enjoy making decisions of my own free will and resent the idea of anyone trying to control me, even if it’s in a minor way.
Here I have brainstormed all of the manipulation techniques I can think of in order to help myself and others identify and resist them. I googled each concept and used the existing name for it, if I found one. For many of them, I created a name. At some point in time, someone has attempted each of these on me, with varying degrees of success.
Frog-in-pot is based on the idea that a frog will jump out of a pot of boiling water, but if it’s sitting in a pot of cold water that is slowly brought to a boil, won’t notice the gradual change and will die. Most manipulators know that if they are nasty to you right off the bat, or they try to openly coerce or intimidate you, it won’t work. Alarm bells will go off and you’ll immediately think, “Get me away from this monster.” Instead, they work gradually. Frog-in-pot is how strong, confident women find themselves in abusive relationships years after meeting someone, unsure of how they got there or if it’s truly abusive. This is also called creeping normality.
Frog-in-pot is more of a meta-manipulation technique. Manipulators apply manipulation techniques lightly at first, testing what they can get away with, and over time become more and more manipulative as you adjust to their behavior and accept it as normal. I’ve listed the manipulation techniques in the order I think people are most likely to chronologically use them as they crank up the manipulative heat on the metaphorical frog in the pot. Frog-in-pot is essentially the foot-in-door technique applied to control–once you (often unknowingly) allow the manipulator to control you in some small way, they know they will most likely be able to control you in larger ways later on.
2. Fun and Excitement.
Some manipulators draw people in through fun and excitement. These manipulators are really great to be around, at first. You might view them as the gateway to a good time. When you’re having more fun than you’ve had in ages, you don’t mind being the one to pick up the tab or drive the car or do whatever else it is that the manipulator is expecting of you. This is especially true if you also have a romantic interest in the manipulator. You’re willing to overlook initial red flags because you’re pursuing the fantasy life or relationship you think this person might help bring you. All people who are fun and exciting aren’t manipulators, of course. The manipulator uses fun and excitement to divert your attention so you don’t realize you’re being manipulated.
Flattery is a well-known manipulation technique in which the person gives a disingenuous compliment in order to “butter you up” and encourage you to do what they want. Kids seem to learn flattery pretty early. “Mom, you look beautiful today. Can I spend the night at David’s?” An easy way to get someone you’ve just met to like you is to give them a compliment.
We are self-centered beings that crave approval, which is why flattery works even when it’s obvious. While basking in the glow of compliments, some people can be convinced to do almost anything. A master manipulator will hone in on a person’s insecurities and tailor their flattery to provide the person the reassurance they need. Of course, once the manipulator gets what they want, the flattery often ends.
4. The Favor/Gift
Manipulators can be well-liked not only for being fun and charming, but also because of how generous they seem, giving large gifts or doing major favors for people they hardly know. The catch is, they are doing these things in order to better manipulate later on. The favor could be as small as buying your drinks or meal when it takes you a minute to find your cash, or as large as lending you a vehicle, offering to dog sit for free, or connecting you with a job. This is similar to bribery, except it is subtle and not explicit. You are unaware there are strings attached or an ulterior motive.
Either immediately after providing a favor or gift (as is true with the salesperson who expects you to listen to his spiel in exchange for a free sample, or the douchebag who expects sex because he bought an expensive dinner) or down the line, the manipulator will ask for some sort of favor in return. You will be more likely to comply because of the “reciprocity norm.” If you do say no, the manipulator might couple this with a guilt trip (see technique #13) by bringing up that you “owe” him for all he’s done for you in the past. Reminder: true gifts/favors come without expectations or strings attached.
5. False Intimacy
False Intimacy is similar to the favor/gift technique in the sense that the manipulator gives you something with the ulterior motive of receiving something in return. Instead of giving a tangible gift or favor, however, he shares information. The manipulator might tell you a secret, acting as if you are special and the only one he’s told in order to gain your trust and get you to share private information about yourself in return. The manipulator might pretend to have feelings he doesn’t have so you are mistaken about the depth of the relationship and more willing to do what he wants as a result.
False intimacy is being used by sales people when they pretend to have something in common with you, or whisper an industry secret, asking you to keep it “just between you and me.” False intimacy is being used by the teenage boy who says “I love you” to his girlfriend even though he doesn’t mean it because he knows it will get him sex. False intimacy is being used by the new friend who tells you heart-breaking details about her past way too soon, right before asking you for a favor.
6. False Agreement
False agreement is when the manipulator pretends to agree with you when she really does not. She might pretend to have the same political beliefs or the same favorite band–anything to make you think of her as being more likable and more similar to yourself. This is similar to flattery and false intimacy. It builds trust and will make you more likely to go along with what she wants. Many manipulators do this when trying to gain a romantic relationship, suddenly showing a strong interest in all of the things their object of affection is interested in.
With scarcity, your manipulator pretends that whatever she wants you to do is scarce in order to entice you to do it. She’ll make it look like a limited time offer or a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity although it is not. Maybe she’ll say, “You can probably come with me to the concert on Saturday, but tickets are sold out so I’ll have to try really hard to find one” when the truth is she has an extra ticket at home on her dresser top but knows the lie could help ensure you say “yes.” In dating, scarcity is known as “playing hard to get,” and the manipulator will pretend her time and attention is scarce in hopes that you view her as more valuable.
8. Fake Expectations
With fake expectations, the manipulator pretends he thinks things are a certain way–the way he wants them to be–forcing you to contradict him and create a potentially awkward situation if you want things to be different. This technique works especially well when you aren’t very close yet and you’re still highly motivated to be polite and avoid confrontation with someone you hardly know. Fake expectations often manifest in the form of the manipulator telling you what is going to happen, when really anyone who respected you would be asking you.
For example, a new boss might say, “See you tomorrow! We’re all working Saturdays this month,” instead of asking if you’re available and interested in overtime. After inviting you out, a new friend might say, “See you Friday–pick me up around eight,” although you haven’t yet agreed to attend the event on Friday, much less drive her to it. A new boyfriend might say, “Of course you won’t hang out with him one-on-one anymore now that you’re dating me,” when you turn down plans with a male friend because of a schedule conflict, although you weren’t planning on making any such rule for yourself.
9. Fake Normal
This is similar to fake expectations, except instead of implicitly pressuring you to adhere to his expectations, the manipulator explicitly pressures you to adhere to what he presents as socially normal. If you took DARE, you might remember this as the hallmark of peer pressure–the “everyone is doing it” technique. Your manipulator will point out that the thing he wants you to do is so normal that literally everyone is doing it except for you. Of course you’ll feel inclined to join in because you don’t want to be ostracized or to feel weird, crazy, uncool, or left out. If you’re doing something he doesn’t want you to do, he’ll point out that no one is doing it except you. Regardless of what “everyone” (or “no one”) is actually doing, the intent here is to control your behavior.
10. Facts & Figures
With facts & figures, the manipulator again tries to make you feel like you’re doing something wrong, but instead of being socially wrong, you’re made to feel factually incorrect. She might use logic, quote experts or authority figures, and reference scientific studies. The purpose is for you to change your behavior to fit what the manipulator wants, but to think you’re changing it in order to be right or in line with science. Although this sounds like an official argument, it might not be presented that way. In fact, a manipulator could try to present the information as casually as possible so her manipulative intent is less noticeable, off-handedly remarking that she’s surprised to see you do x, y, or z given the results of latest study on the topic.
11. Fake Help
Fake help is–you guessed it–when a person pretends to try and help you, but really their “help” is just an attempt to control your behavior. The manipulator frames their argument as advice and suggests that it is in your own best interest. Maybe a jealous friend will “help” you by pointing out that your favorite jeans make you look fat and suggesting you change out of them, when in reality they make you look so good she feels threatened and doesn’t want you wearing them when she’s around.
Fake help becomes gaslighting when someone disingenuously “helps” you with some sort of psychological problem, either one you really have or one invented by them, with some motive other than helping. For example, when you question a cheating boyfriend, he might convince you that the real issue is your own deep insecurity and nobly offer to help you deal with it…in a way that keeps you from asking questions that would cause you to discover his cheating ways, of course.
12. Subject Change
A manipulator will change the subject in order to distract you any time you bring up something he doesn’t want to talk about, especially if it involves calling him out on a manipulation. A master manipulator will bring up a new subject that genuinely interests you–hot gossip or surprising news–so you get so drawn into the new topic it isn’t until much later you remember what you were trying to talk about originally. If he can’t think of anything interesting to bring up, he might falsely accuse you of wrong-doing in hopes that you’ll get caught up in defending yourself.
Changing the subject often goes hand-in-hand with fake expectations. The manipulator will slip in his fake expectation quickly and move on to a different topic before you can speak up and disagree. Now, not only do you have to contradict something he said in order to avoid manipulation, you have to bring up a subject that he’s pretending is already settled, agreed upon, and in the past. This puts more pressure on you to go along with what he wants in order to avoid awkwardness (if you don’t know him well) or a fight (if you do know him well).
13. The Guilt Trip/Shaming
The guilt trip can take many forms, but the bottom line is the person makes you feel bad about something you’ve done or are going to do (or haven’t done, or are not going to do) and because of the resulting guilt or shame, you say or do what the manipulator wants. Often times they will frame the guilt trip as a question so it is less obvious. A master manipulator will identify the things you are most likely to feel guilty about/ashamed of and focus on those.
- “You seriously aren’t going to be at my birthday party?”
- “Is that your third cookie today?”
- “You’re going home with him? Didn’t you go home with someone else last week?”
14. The Insecurity Trip
Similar to the guilt trip, the insecurity trip is intended to make you feel bad so you will do (or not do) what the manipulator wants in order to feel less bad. The manipulator will make a casual comment intended to hurt your feelings while acting completely innocent and oblivious to the comment’s effect. His goal is to convey the insult in such a way that you do not realize it was intended as an insult, and you accept it as true. It will generally be directed at an area in which you already feel insecure. For example, if you are self-conscious about your weight, the manipulator might ask you if the jeans you’re wearing shrunk in the dryer. Of course, when you say they did not, the manipulator will pretend to be embarrassed about the mix-up and apologize profusely.
Sometimes, especially in a romantic relationship, the manipulator will use the insecurity trip to purposely break down your confidence so you will become more dependent on him to bump up your self-esteem. After “accidentally” insulting you, the manipulator might switch over to flattery. You might feel immensely grateful for the reassurance that at least he loves you despite your flaws. You might even be less likely to leave him when things go wrong, thinking that no one could love you the way he does when really he is the one who orchestrated your insecurity in the first place.
15. The Pity Party
The pity party is similar to the guilt and insecurity trips in the sense that the manipulator is trying to make you feel bad, except instead of feeling bad about yourself, you feel sorry for her. I’ve noticed many manipulators try to play the victim very early on after meeting someone, giving a sob story of how awful their friends/family/ex-boyfriends have treated them. If you’re a kind person, you’ll naturally feel empathy and want to help. It could take quite a while to realize the manipulator’s “problems” you felt bad about were either self-created, greatly exaggerated, or outright lies.
Manipulators often have to stop using this technique as someone gets to know them better since most people aren’t willing to buy into someone else’s crises for an extended period of time. I’ve noticed manipulators will pull the pity party out again much later though, as a last result, after being called out for using manipulation techniques. “You’re right, I’m a liar. I’m awful. I need to change. There’s something wrong with me. I’m insane. No one loves me. I’ll be alone forever.” While some people might mistakenly view this as the manipulator finally changing or owning up to mistakes, it is simply another manipulation technique. Perhaps their words are more honest than usual, but the honesty is being used as a tool for deceit.
16. Playing Dumb/Fake Surprise
If you call a manipulator out on a manipulation technique or contradict his fake expectations, be prepared for him to act as if he has no clue what you’re talking about. It’s difficult to argue with someone who has no counter-argument other than “Huh? I don’t understand. Where is this coming from?” Playing dumb might be part of a larger plan to make you feel crazy so you trust his perceptions over your own. If that’s the case, it’s a form of gaslighting.
The manipulator might also pretend to be surprised. Acting surprised that you’re questioning his fake expectation puts more pressure on you to go along with it. Acting surprised that you’re calling him out on being manipulative can be another form of the guilt trip (“I am shocked you’d accuse me of this. I’ve been nothing but nice to you!”), yet another manipulation technique.
Misquoting is when the manipulator pretends to have misunderstood what you said at some other point in time. It usually creates an awkward situation. It goes hand-in-hand with fake expectations, changing the subject, and playing dumb. Say your boyfriend stated that you’d attend an event that you never agreed to attend, then changed the subject before you corrected him. Later, when you bring up that you aren’t going to the event, he might fake surprise at this and reference the conversation in which he mentioned you attending, attributing his words to you. “But you said you were going to come with me! We just discussed it on Saturday.”
A manipulator might misquote you in front of other people so the pressure to go along with what was said is even greater. That puts you in a situation where not only do you have to disagree with him in order to get out of doing what he wants, you also have to correct other people and potentially disappoint them.
18. Bait and Switch
Everyone’s heard of this one. A manipulator gets you to agree to one thing that is desirable or at least neutral, then uses that to manipulate you into doing some undesirable thing you wouldn’t have agreed to had you known what it was upfront. A friend might invite you to dinner but ask you to drive, for example, then once you get on the road suddenly “remember” she has several stops and errands to make. The “bait” was the dinner, and the “switch” was you playing chauffeur for the evening.
If you confront a manipulator about a bait and switch, she will probably either play dumb and pretend it was an accident (“I totally forgot I had to do these things until after we got in the car,” or “How was I supposed to know traffic would be so bad and running errands would take that long?”) or else misquote and act as if this was part of the plan the entire time (“I told you we would stop a few places and go out to eat. If you had a problem with it, why didn’t you speak up sooner?”).
19. Over Asking
This is called the “door in face” technique. The manipulator makes a ridiculous request he knows you will say “no” to, then follows it up with something more reasonable, knowing you’re now more likely to say “yes.” For example, a friend might confess to having financial trouble and ask to borrow $5,000. When you balk, he’ll apologize, then ask for $50 so he can at least keep his phone turned on. You’ll concede–$50 is affordable. In reality, he only wanted $50 all along.
This technique can be used for much more than money. A controlling boyfriend might have a jealous freak-out and demand his girlfriend never wear skirts or dresses again. When she responds that he’s being absurd, he might apologize and admit to irrational jealousy. As they make-up and the emotional roller coaster winds down, he might casually mention that getting rid of the one really short, tight skirt she has would help him keep insecurities like this at bay. She thinks she’s making a reasonable concession and being sensitive to his feelings by tossing the skirt, when really, his plan was for her to get rid of that one skirt from the beginning.
20. False Equivalence
False equivalence is when the manipulator uses a logical fallacy to imply that if you do (or don’t do) one specific thing, that it means something else, usually that you have a generally undesirable trait. The purpose is for you to conform to what the manipulator wants because you believe this false logical equivalence and don’t want to have the trait in question. The false equivalence is often mentioned casually, as fact, without any anger or malice. If it is questioned, the manipulator might employ the fake normal technique by making it seem that everyone believes in this false equivalence.
- “You’re going to be out of town for my birthday party? Oh, I guess I thought you were my best friend.” (False equivalence: If you don’t attend my party, you aren’t my best friend.)
- “Is that your third cookie today? I thought you cared about your health.” (False equivalence: If you eat this cookie, you don’t care about your health.)
- “You’re going home with him? A week after going home with that other guy? I didn’t realize that you were one of those women.” (False equivalence: If you go home with this guy, you’re a slut.)
No one likes to be humiliated or be the butt of a joke and manipulators know it. The manipulator will mock or joke about whatever you’re doing that he wants you to stop, or whatever you’re not doing that he’d like you to do. For example, the jealous boyfriend might make a “joke” about your skirt being so short that from a distance he thought you were a prostitute. The clingy friend might “kid” that if you won’t go out with her to a party tonight, you’re becoming “old.” If you stop wearing the short skirt or attend the party you didn’t want to attend, you were manipulated.
Jokes are often used by manipulators because it gives a built-in defense–“I was just kidding.” It puts you in a position where you cannot call out his manipulations without being made out to be uptight, boring, unfunny, or someone who just doesn’t “get it.” It gives the manipulator free reign to insult you without having to take any blame. This is especially difficult when the manipulator is genuinely funny and makes jokes in front of other people who laugh, not realizing that the jokes are part of a large manipulation attempt.
A master manipulator will know how to punish you for not complying with his manipulations without making it look like a clear-cut “punishment.” Maybe a boyfriend disappears or gives you the silent treatment after you bring up a discussion he didn’t want to have, ensuring you spend days feeling unloved and anxious at the prospect of being dumped. If you question this, he just says he “needed time to think” about all that you brought up. In reality, he punished you, sending the message not to talk about that topic again.
Maybe a friend or boyfriend with an anger problem will cause a scene in public in response to you doing or saying something they dislike, knowing that you’ll be embarrassed by the negative attention and will drop the conversation or behavior. If you censor your words or actions around someone in order to avoid an unwanted response–whether that is anger or the cold shoulder–that person is manipulating you.
23. Insinuated Ultimatums
Insinuated ultimatums hint at a possible punishment to come. These are more subtle than the outright coercion or blackmail of, “If you don’t do X, I’m going to Z,” but they operate on the same premise–you do what the manipulator wants in order to avoid a consequence the manipulator hints at and that you fear.
It took me quite a while to realize it, but I used this manipulation technique in past romantic relationships. “I don’t think I want to be with a smoker for the rest of my life,” I said, as he smoked a cigarette in front of me. And, “I don’t know if this relationship is going to work out,” I said after he displayed anger in a way I didn’t like. I didn’t realize this was manipulation at the time because the words I said were true. I didn’t want to date a smoker forever. I didn’t know if the relationship would work out if he kept getting angry like that. My intent was manipulation, however. I wasn’t sharing those true words in the spirit of open communication; I was sharing them in an attempt to control aspects of his behavior.
Insinuated ultimatums are used a lot in co-dependent relationships, I think, where one person walks on eggshells so as not to prompt the other person to start drinking or doing drugs again, or to become suicidal, or to once again resort to whatever unhealthy behavior they struggle with and happen to conveniently turn to or bring up when their partner does something they dislike. Perhaps the “sick” person purposely uses their issues to manipulate, or perhaps they don’t even know they’re doing it, but the unsaid message is, “Comply with my requests or I’ll go off the deep end again.”
24. Name Calling
Name calling is false equivalence to an extreme. It’s nasty. It’s no-holds-barred, I-want-to-make-you-cry manipulation. Name calling will backfire with most people who have healthy self-esteem unless the frog-in-pot method has been used to acclimate them to bad treatment. Most manipulators will only pull this out once you’re very close with them and in a relationship that is difficult to sever. Name calling is done to shock you, hurt you, and ultimately, get you to do what they want.
- “You aren’t coming to my party? I always knew you were a bitch. Everyone knows it.”
- “You’re eating another cookie? God, what a fat pig.”
- “You’re going home with that guy? I can’t believe I’m friends with such a whore.”
25. Fake Apology
Manipulators pull out the fake apology when they’ve gone too far and pushed you to the edge. They’ve acted too nasty or mean, or else you’ve caught on to their manipulations. They fear you’re about do something rash, like get serious revenge or cut them from your life forever. They say, “I’m sorry.” They say, “It’ll never happen again.” They say, “I can change.”
It’s all lies. If the manipulator was really sorry, he would’ve come to you and apologized on his own, before he realized you were going to do whatever it is he’s now trying to stop. The apology is just another manipulation, usually used to keep you engaged or to avoid other unpleasant consequences of being caught manipulating. Remember, manipulators don’t use words to express their thoughts and feelings like most people do. Manipulators use words as tools to get what they want. I’ve found most manipulators don’t like apologizing–it’s their least favorite tool–but they will do it when it appears to be one of the only options left. Of course, once they’re no longer at risk for dire consequences, they’ll be up to their old tricks and it’ll become clear they never felt sorry at all.
26. The Beg and Plead
This is another last resort manipulation tool. When nothing else works, the person might break down and say, “Please. Please help me. Just this once. Give me a chance. I’ll do anything. What can I do to prove myself to you? What do you want me to do? I’ll do it.”
The beg and plead could be combined with fake apologies and false promises and lots of crocodile tears. If you don’t know the person well, it might work because of how intensely awkward it feels, or because it becomes a pity party. If you’re close with the person, it works because it tricks you into thinking the manipulator has finally reached a breaking point and is owning up to his manipulative ways. You might view this as progress and a sign of maturation and changes to come. Most likely, he is just desperate and this is the only option that will allow him to continue manipulating you.
Wow, this was an intense exercise that brought back many memories of dealing with manipulation. Although I am frustrated and saddened by manipulators, now that it’s fairly easy for me to spot their before I do feel a bit of joy in outwitting them and shutting down their attempts.
I’m curious, as you read this list, did any people in your life come to mind? Were there any manipulation techniques you recognized as something you’ve used before, whether intentionally or unconsciously? Are there any manipulation techniques you know of that I missed here?