Manipulation (psychology)

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Manipulation or emotional manipulation is the use of means to exploit, control, or otherwise influence others to one’s advantage.[1][2] In the extreme it is a stratagem of tricksters, swindlers, and impostors who disrespect moral principles, deceive and take advantage of others’ frailty and gullibility.[3] At the very least, manipulation is forced influence used to gain control, benefits, and/or privileges at the expense of the others.[2]

Manipulation differs from general influence and persuasion. Influence is generally perceived to be harmless as it respects the right of the influenced to accept or reject it, and is not unduly coercive.[4] Persuasion is the ability to move a person or persons to a desired action, usually within the context of a specific goal. Influence and persuasion are neither positive nor negative.[5]

Characteristics of manipulators[edit]

Studies of the predictors of emotional manipulation indicate that the mechanisms behind emotional manipulation differ as a function of gender:

"For males, higher levels of emotional intelligence, social information processing, indirect aggression, and self-serving cognitive distortions significantly predicted emotional manipulation".[6]

"For females, being younger, higher levels of emotional intelligence, indirect aggression, primary psychopathic traits, and lower levels of social awareness significantly predicted emotional manipulation. However for females, emotional intelligence acted as a suppressor".[6]

Characteristics of manipulation[edit]

Common means of manipulation can be categorized as:[7]

Manipulators typically exploit the following vulnerabilities:

Vulnerability Description
Naïveté or immaturity People who find it too hard to accept the idea that some people are cunning, devious and ruthless or are "in denial" if they are being taken advantage of.[8][9]
Over-agreeableness People who are too willing to give another the benefit of the doubt and see their side of things.[8]
Low self-esteem People who struggle with self-doubting, lacking in confidence and assertiveness, and who are likely to go on the defensive too easily.[8]
Over-intellectualization People who try too hard to understand and believe that others have some understandable reason to be manipulative.[8]
Emotional dependency People who have a submissive or dependent personality. The more emotionally dependent a person is, the more vulnerable they are to being exploited and manipulated.[8]
Greed People who are greedy and dishonest may be easily enticed to act in an immoral way.[9]

Motivations to manipulate[edit]

There are various possible motivations for being manipulative such as to advance purposes and personal gain,[7] to attain feelings of power and superiority in relationships with others,[10] to feel in control,[7] to boost self-esteem,[7] boredom, or growing tired of one's surroundings; seeing manipulation as a game,[7] and covert agendas, criminal or otherwise, including financial manipulation.[7]

Manipulation and mental illnesses[edit]

Individuals with the following mental health issues are often prone to be manipulative:

Borderline Personality Disorder is unique in the grouping as "borderline" manipulation is characterized as unintentional and dysfunctional manipulation.[12] Marsha M. Linehan has stated that people with borderline personality disorder often exhibit behaviors which are not truly manipulative, but are erroneously interpreted as such.[13] According to Linehan, these behaviors often appear as unthinking manifestations of intense pain, and are often not deliberate as to be considered truly manipulative. In the DSM-V, manipulation was removed as a defining characteristic of borderline personality disorder.[12]

Clinical assessment tools[edit]

Emotional manipulation scale[edit]

The emotional manipulation scale (EMS) was developed in 2007 through factor analysis, primarily to measure the capability of manipulative behavior and the Machiavellianism personality trait.[14] At the time of publication, emotional intelligence assessments did not specifically examine manipulative behavior or Machiavellianism and were instead predominantly focussed on Big Five personality trait assessment.

Managing the emotions of others scale[edit]

The Managing the emotions of others scale (MEOS) was developed in 2013 through factor analysis to measure the ability of changing emotions of others.[15] The factor analysis led to six categories: mood (or emotional state) enhancement, mood worsening, concealing emotions, capacity for inauthenticity, poor emotion skills, and using diversion to enhance mood. The enhancement, worsening and diversion categories have been used to identify the ability and willingness of manipulative behavior, both prosocial and antisocial.[16] The MEOS has also been used for assessing emotional intelligence, and has been compared to the HEXACO model of personality structure, for which the capacity for inauthenticity category in the MEOS was found to correspond to low honesty-humility scores on the HEXACO.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Manipulation". APA Dictionary of Psychology. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. n.d. Retrieved 10 October 2021.
  2. ^ a b Brennan, MD, Dan. "Signs of Emotional Manipulation". WebMD. Retrieved 23 November 2020.
  3. ^ Bereczkei, Tamás (2017). Machiavellianism The Psychology of Manipulation (First ed.). London: Taylor and Francis Group. ISBN 9781315106922.
  4. ^ Nichols, Shaun. "The Ethics of Manipulation". Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University. Retrieved 22 March 2020.
  5. ^ Duncan, Rodger Dean. "Influence Versus Manipulation: Understand The Difference". Forbes. Retrieved 21 December 2018.
  6. ^ a b Grieve, Rachel; Panebianco, Laura (13 September 2012). "Assessing the role of aggression, empathy, and self-serving cognitive distortions in trait emotional manipulation". Australian Journal of Psychology. doi:10.1111/j.1742-9536.2012.00059.x.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Braiker, Harriet B. (2004). Who's Pulling Your Strings ? How to Break The Cycle of Manipulation. ISBN 978-0-07-144672-3.
  8. ^ a b c d e Simon, George K (1996). In Sheep's Clothing: Understanding and Dealing with Manipulative People. ISBN 978-1-935166-30-6. (reference for the entire section)
  9. ^ a b Kantor, Martin (2006). The Psychopathology of Everyday Life: How Antisocial Personality Disorder Affects All of Us. ISBN 978-0-275-98798-5.
  10. ^ Giovacchini, Peter L. (1996). Treatment of Primitive Mental States. Master work series. Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson. p. 24. ISBN 9781568218083. Retrieved 24 July 2021. These are early ego states that are characterized by megalomanic feelings. Freud's (1914a) description of 'his majesty, the baby' well illustrates this situation of omnipotent manipulation.
  11. ^ a b c d e f American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing. pp. 5–25. ISBN 978-0-89042-555-8.
  12. ^ a b Aguirre, Blaise (2016). "Borderline Personality Disorder: From Stigma to Compassionate Care". Stigma and Prejudice. Current Clinical Psychiatry. Humana Press, Cham. pp. 133–143. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-27580-2_8. ISBN 9783319275789.
  13. ^ Staff writer(s). "On Manipulation with the Borderline Personality". ToddlerTime Network. Retrieved 28 December 2014.
  14. ^ Austin, Elizabeth J.; Farrelly, Daniel; Black, Carolyn; Moore, Helen (July 2007). "Emotional intelligence, Machiavellianism and emotional manipulation: Does EI have a dark side?". Personality and Individual Differences. 43 (1): 179–189. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2006.11.019. ISSN 0191-8869.
  15. ^ Austin, Elizabeth J.; O’Donnell, Michael M. (October 2013). "Development and preliminary validation of a scale to assess managing the emotions of others". Personality and Individual Differences. 55 (7): 834–839. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2013.07.005. ISSN 0191-8869.
  16. ^ Ngoc, Nguyen Nhu; Tuan, Nham Phong; Takahashi, Yoshi (October 2020). "A Meta-Analytic Investigation of the Relationship Between Emotional Intelligence and Emotional Manipulation". SAGE Open. 10 (4): 215824402097161. doi:10.1177/2158244020971615. ISSN 2158-2440.
  17. ^ Austin, Elizabeth J.; Vahle, Nils (May 2016). "Associations of the Managing the Emotions of Others Scale (MEOS) with HEXACO personality and with trait emotional intelligence at the factor and facet level". Personality and Individual Differences. 94: 348–353. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2016.01.047. ISSN 0191-8869.

Further reading[edit]


  • Barber, Brian K. Intrusive Parenting: How Psychological Control Affects Children and Adolescents (2001)
  • Bowman, Robert P.; Cooper, Kathy; Miles, Ron; & Carr, Tom. Innovative Strategies for Unlocking Difficult Children: Attention Seekers, Manipulative Students, Apathetic Students, Hostile Students (1998)
  • McMillan, Dina L. But He Says He Loves Me: How to Avoid Being Trapped in a Manipulative Relationship (2008)
  • Sasson, Janet Edgette. Stop Negotiating With Your Teen: Strategies for Parenting Your Angry, Manipulative, Moody, or Depressed Adolescent (2002)
  • Stern, Robin. The Gaslight Effect: How to Spot and Survive the Hidden Manipulation Others Use to Control Your Life (2007)
  • Swihart, Ernest W. Jr. & Cotter, Patrick. The Manipulative Child: How to Regain Control and Raise Resilient, Resourceful, and Independent Kids (1998)

Academic papers

  • Bursten, Ben. "The Manipulative Personality", Archives of General Psychiatry, Vol 26 No 4, 318–321 (1972)
  • Buss DM, Gomes M, Higgins DS, Lauterback K. "Tactics of Manipulation", Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 52 No 6 1219–1279 (1987)

External links