Quite often, when discussing or reading discussions about manipulative marketing and other ways in which individuals cheat other people out of their hard-earned money (or time, or energy, or anything), I see people admiring skillful manipulators. Many will describe successful manipulators as “smart”, “brilliant strategists”, basically as people to follow and model. Some people are convinced that manipulation is “just a business strategy” and therefore justified.
I wish I could grab those people and shake them. I’m not so surprised at the blatant, open lies that manipulators are happy to present to their fellow humans. I’m much more surprised and frustrated seeing the praise and support such attitude often receives.
Some months ago I was reading a book about recognizing manipulative strategies. While the author was advising his readers how to be prepared and avoid being cheated and damaged, his admiration for “social engineering” (the sugar-coated term for manipulating others for personal profit) was screaming from every page. Between the lines, that book was much less about how to protect yourself, and much more about the thrill of deception.
I find manipulation despicable for several different reasons. While I cannot hope that my opinion would make any significant dent in global marketing strategies, I can at least vent my frustration in a socially acceptable and hopefully useful form here. I’ve already shared some of my thoughts about manipulation in this article, but now I have some more to write here:
1. Manipulation preys on what is good in people. Manipulators focus on people’s hopes, dreams, desire to be kind, or simply basic trust in others, and think of all kinds of ways to exploit these traits. (Of course, they also prey on people’s fears and greed, but this doesn’t diminish the truth of the previous statement.)
As a consequence, people become less and less friendly, less and less trusting, and more and more cynical and closed towards each other. I’ve read articles about experiments in which people were offered money in the streets, out of the blue, no strings attached, and most refused to take it. The authors of those experiments would write about how surprised they were with such a mistrustful attitude, and would lament “human nature”.
But can we really blame anybody for being suspicious, when we live surrounded by lies and deception, more and more elaborate each day and ignored by laws and governments? If that “free money” was just a scam, if people decided to trust and were cheated as a consequence, they would have probably been blamed as greedy or stupid. So it comes to “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”. People become cold to each other, and manipulators are to blame.
2. Manipulation is a form of violence. Centuries ago, it was common and quite normal for people who had big swords to hurt or kill anybody who was weaker. You didn’t need excuses to send people to war. You often didn’t need excuses to kill somebody just for looking at you in a wrong way. People who had swords and skill to use them, were proud of their physical power and considered themselves above others because they possessed such power.
Many people nowadays have the same attitude towards manipulation. Instead of physical power, they consider it a proof of mental, intellectual power over others. Feeling of power is very seductive. It can encourage us to make excuses for abusing other people. Just like physical bullies, “intellectual” bullies feel that their skill gives them right to hurt others.
In reality, it’s less about skill and more about willingness to act out of integrity, willingness to damage other people for one’s personal profit. Just like many physically strong people don’t become bullies just because they can, many intelligent people choose not to manipulate even if they could do it very well. For me, this is what proves mental strength, not being skilled in cheating others.
3. Manipulators blame their victims. It’s not just an excuse, it’s a whole strategy. I read about a court in America that declared certain lying marketers “not guilty” because “no sane person would believe such marketing” (or something like that, I’m quoting from memory). Unfortunately, I can’t find the link anymore, but even if that story was false, the reality shows that this exact approach is in use all the time, by individuals and organizations.
Many times I’ve heard or read people comment, “Well, if people are so stupid to fall for this, it’s their own fault!”
I want to make something clear here (I wish I didn’t have to, but it seems ignored most of the time). It’s not a crime to be stupid. It’s not a crime to be naive. Close to half of all people have below average intelligence, that’s pure math. It’s the matter of genes and upbringing, which nobody has the chance to choose for themselves. Some people are officially stupid. It’s not their fault. Some people are insane. It’s not their fault either. They didn’t choose their disabilities. The crime is in intentional, elaborate deception, not in mental (dis)ability.
Besides, many times it’s less about stupidity and more about lack of information, lack of experience and perhaps about basic trust in people. But of course, it’s easier to call people stupid because this is a better excuse. People who cheat and manipulate others will also cheat and manipulate themselves (for their own benefit, of course).
4. Manipulation dehumanizes people. Manipulators think themselves special, better than others. They treat other people like machines, trying to figure out how they work and how to exploit brain mechanisms. They reduce people to blobs of primitive instincts and treat them that way, often quite openly. They have to do it, in their own minds, to justify their own lack of integrity (except if they are psychopaths, but I refuse to believe that psychopathy is so common).
When people try to manipulate me, they basically declare that they see me as an inhuman object, there to be exploited and not worthy of a straight approach. When I see other people admiring deception and hoping to “jump that train” themselves, I can expect that there will soon be even more of that attitude going around. I cannot change it. But I reserve the right to be irritated.
Lately I almost feel like there is a sort of informal “cult” of deceptive marketing; so many young, ambitious people get almost religious in their enthusiasm for the benefits of such strategies. They choose to ignore all the consequences and their own inner warnings, just like cult members. Just like in cults, they feel themselves better, almost somehow “chosen” over others.
5. It bloody works. It works way better than I would like to admit. People like magic and big promises. Many people like to be sold hope, even if they suspect that they are being cheated. We all like to believe that magic is possible. Quite a few people continue paying for same products or services even when they obviously don’t help. They basically pay for hope, not for reality. This gives wings and motivation to anybody who values money more than integrity – and it’s so easy to find excuses to do so.
I wish I could say it isn’t so. I wish I could claim that the benefits of manipulation are temporary and long term consequences overshadow the advantages. But it would be like telling faery-tales. I could probably say that manipulative people are not likely to have successful intimate relationships. On the other hand, most such people don’t seem to care so much about relationships anyway – and, just like people with big swords centuries ago, they are often surrounded by flatterers.
I don’t see that things would change any time soon. I can only hope that this is a stage we have to go through to learn something from it. Perhaps in a few centuries, the society will grow up enough to start rejecting and punishing manipulative behavior, just as in modern times it (more or less) rejects and punishes physical violence. This is a tricky task, but if that happens, the world will become a happier place.