Persuasion and manipulation are two very closely related concepts, and sometimes the line between the two seems to blur. By reviewing the definitions of the words, we can understand when we are crossing that line into manipulation.
According to Merriam-Webster.com, 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 unmistakable here. You want what you want—no matter what.
If there’s any benefit to the person being manipulated, that’s only a byproduct of the main intent of the manipulator.
Author / podcaster Jonathan Fields says that the difference between persuasion and manipulation comes down to three things:
- The intent behind your desire to persuade that person
- The truthfulness and transparency of the process, and
- The net benefit or impact on that person
Robin Dreeke, head of behavioral analysis for the FBI, agrees on the importance of the intent of the person attempting the persuasion / manipulation. He says that influence causes people to feel better from having met you, while manipulation causes buyer’s remorse the second the conversation is over.
Is Our Vulnerability Increasing?
We should always be conscious of whether we are being persuasive or manipulative, but these concepts are especially important in today’s environment when trust is dangerously low.
Consumer psychologist Kit Yarrow points out that we are vulnerable to manipulation for a number of reasons. Some of those reasons have to do with how effective some people have become at the practice of manipulating, but there are factors that have to do more with the audience, as well.
Information overload is becoming a major issue as we take in many more messages on a daily basis, so oversimplification is increasingly appealing. Think about politics over the past several years. Think about how our news-gathering has shifted to social media instead of the bastions of news from years gone by. We catch slogans, memes, and simplified takes on complex issues.
See how manipulation can enter into the picture?
Yarrow goes on to specify that anxiety, caused in part by those increased messages, also makes us more eager to grasp at promised solutions, even if they are not what will be most helpful.
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.
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 Is the Role of Marketers?
As a marketer and someone who seeks to ethically influence others, I must consider, “what is my role in this process of persuasion?” After all, marketers and salespeople are some of the ones most criticized for taking advantage of people with various tricks.
I really like the way that Dr. Peter Meyers approached marketing’s role. He broke it down into 5 scenarios:
- Simple Alignment: Simply facilitating what the customer already wants
- Simple Choice: Choosing the color of the product that the customer has identified as the solution
- Competitive Choice: Presenting more than one seller / brand for the customer
- Unknown Desire: Creating a new desire in the customer (think iPhones)
- Altered Decision: Changing the customer’s mind on the thing he or she was going to buy
The first few scenarios here are pretty easy in regards to evaluating motivation behind the seller. It’s a straightforward delivery of what the customer wanted. Scenarios 3 through 5 get trickier.
Looking back at the TRAITS listed above, it’s easy to see how a marketer could manipulate a buyer in each of those scenarios (#3, #4, #5). Consider the marketer / salesperson putting a false time constraint on an offer just to get customers to “Buy Now!” Or, think about someone inflating the numbers of subscribers or customers to make you feel like you’re missing out on a product or service.
It still comes back to intent here.
Are we creating buyer’s remorse?
Are we pressuring customers when there is no need?
Or, are we looking out for the customer? One could argue that a marketer or salesperson could help a customer find the right product for them by appealing to the various TRAITS in order to help the customer clarify their needs.
Persuasion Provides Open-Handed Choices
Behavioral analyst Robin Dreeke advises marketers to do everything possible to help make the customer’s situation better. It’s all about offering choice.
Human beings do not like being told what to do, and they want to be offered choices – and you’re just going to offer them some choices about how they want to proceed.Robin dreeke in psychology Today
As Don Miller points out in his Storybrand materials, it’s helpful to be clear with consequences of not embracing the recommendation that the marketer / salesperson is making, as long as it’s not too heavy-handed. Laying out the situation that a person may continue to be frustrated by facing a particular problem that your product can solve is much different from making the person feel as if they are a complete fool if they choose not to buy your product.
Offering a choice still means that the audience may not choose what we hope they will, but that is how it goes when offering the best for the other person. You offer to help, but you never force your solution.
Who Does It Well?
Which companies and/or presenters persuade well? I’d love to hear about your heroes in this space.
This post was originally published in 2014. It has been expanded and updated.