The Difference Between Persuasion and Manipulation

According to, persuasion is "the act of causing people to do or believe something." We persuade people everyday, and we can see that there’s clearly a self-interest in the effort. You need to get someone to change from the beliefs they held—beliefs that in some way served them—to a viewpoint that will serve your worldview.

Persuasion isn't evil. It's just one of the many ways that we interact with those around us.

Maybe you are coming at it from an altruistic mindset. You want to see the world become a better place.

Maybe you just want to make a profit. Making money is not evil or immoral in itself. But, the person you’re trying to persuade is looking to keep their money or maintain their own worldview. You have to convince them that they should part with their cash.

Manipulation is defined as action “to change by artful or unfair means so as to serve one's purpose.”

The self-interest is unmistakeable here. You want what you want—no matter what.

The very definition of the word "manipulation" reminds me of the book The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. The intention behind the book was to learn how to seize upon the weaknesses of your competitors—whether they are outside your company or not. It’s all about winning.

Here’s a quote to give you a feel for the book:

If the world is like a giant scheming court and we are trapped inside it, there is no use in trying to opt out of the game. That will only render you powerless, and powerlessness will make you miserable.

I understand that militarized forces need to be able to know how to take apart their enemies, but I don’t want to make such strategies part of my day to day routine.

Apparently, the difference is that persuasion can include the best interests of others, as well.

Learning the Decision-Making Process

I bring all this up to help frame the work of by Scott de Marchi and James T. Hamilton for their book You Are What You Choose: The Habits of Mind That Really Determine How We Make Decisions (affiliate link).

They specifically set out to test a way of identifying and predicting behavior patterns by having participants compete a rather extensive test.

The authors called the various aspects that the test measured as a person's TRAITS.

TRAITS stands for

  • Time - ready to reap a reward now vs in the future

  • Risk - willing to take chances or play it safe

  • Altruism - willing to help others or not

  • Information - always up to date on the news or out of touch

  • meToo - concerned with what others think or independent (yeah, they're stretching it with this letter)

  • Stickiness - loyal or more willing to change

By understanding these various aspects of the desired in audience, those in power (manufacturers, politicians, etc.) could start to understand people’s preferences on a number of matters.

One of the examples from the book showed how insurance companies would want folks with a lower risk tolerance. Conversely, thrill-seekers weren’t worth the likely claims that insurance would have to pay out.

While understanding how people are predisposed to make decisions, the real question becomes, "How can we trust those armed with this information to behave?"

If salespeople and customer support personnel were to begin applying these ideas on a case by case level, they could find ways to serve their community more effectively than ever. But, they could use that same information to manipulate their audience into decisions that are less advantageous for the consumer.

The manipulation would work for a while, until the dissatisfied voices got too loud to ignore.

The same goes for parenting. Do you want to give your kids instruction in a method that will draw upon their predispositions for the sake of helping them learn or for the purpose of getting your way?

The question is more cut and dry when posed this way, but I know that when I'm tired and I'm not ready for the effort of actually teaching my kids something... the "getting my way" option seems a lot more appealing.

What Will You Do with All That Power?

Even without reading the book, you understand how to persuade or manipulate those around you. How do you keep your intentions noble? When your intentions start to fade (as they do for all of us), what do you do to get back on track?

photo credit: Digital Sublime via photopincc