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Crucial Influence

The Four Ways You’re Being Manipulated (and How to Stop It)

The following article was first published on May 5, 2015.

You and I are shockingly easy to manipulate. Decades of social science experiments show that we can be induced to donate or steal, stand for justice or proliferate racism, vote or stay home, torture or pity.

It’s time we stopped reading social science for fascinating facts about humans in general, and started using it to navigate our own lives. It’s time we acknowledge how little control we have over our own behavior—and start taking control of the things that control us. Only then will we be the real agents of our own behavior. Only then will we be able to live up to the morals, goals, and aspirations we most cherish.

A great place to start taking control of the things that control you is to become an Influence Spotter. As you move about in public, engage with media and interact with others, pick one influence tactic at a time and spend a week learning to spot examples of it. Our research shows that you are least subject to manipulation when you are most conscious of its attempt. For example, if you know someone is raising her voice in order to intimidate you, you may feel a bit less intimidated.

Here are four great “spotting” exercises to begin with. They come to us from Stanford Psychologist Albert Bandura. In Bandura’s latest book, Moral Disengagement: How People Do Harm and Live With Themselves, he describes four common ways people like you and me are manipulated into supporting and doing despicable things. To help bring them to life—see if you can spot them in our most recent Behavioral Science Guys experiment.

1. Minimizing the behavior. This is often accomplished by using sanitizing euphemisms to describe what we’re doing that sanitize it. There’s a reason CIA officials insist on referring to waterboarding as “enhanced interrogation” rather than “torture.” In our experiment, we test whether having a confederate urge teens to “sweeten their score” causes more to compromise their morals than if we call it “lying.”

2. Minimizing consequences. In our experiment, the confederate helps subjects minimize the consequences of their choices with advantageous comparisons—for example, “It’s not like we’re killing someone here!” For years, tobacco companies attempted to salve consciences by refuting connections between smoking and cancer. The murkier they made the connection, the less repugnant their product appeared. We sometimes minimize consequences in our own minds when we make choices inconsistent with our values—for example, “One ice cream cone won’t cause a heart attack!”

3. Dehumanize victims. Last year, the world was in an uproar about the apparent North-Korean-backed cyber-attack on Sony Studios. The alleged goal was to stop the release of “The Interview”—a comedy depicting an assassination of Kim Jong Un. Absent from all of this moral outrage is appropriate disgust at a comedic representation of the assassination of a sitting head-of-state. Why no outcry? Because we see Kim Jong Un as a ruthless buffoon. He is a caricature not a human—so we give ourselves permission to act toward him in ways we would not toward say, President Obama. Imagine our reaction if another country produced a television sitcom celebrating the kidnap and torture of our sitting head of state. Manipulating the representation of victims is one of the most common tactics practiced on you.

Sometimes it’s used in reverse. For example, a study showed that voters are 90 percent more likely to favor protecting a species called the furry-nosed otter than the same creature if called the sharp-clawed otter. Change Sheep-eating Eagle to American Eagle and we are 75 percent more likely to take it under our wing. In our experiment, some teen subjects were told they were competing against a team called “The Rats” while others were told it was simply “Team B.” On hearing their name, one boy wryly commented, “That’s an unfortunate name.” Notice also that as we debate the use of various coercive methods in the US, we refer to those whom we practice them on as “enemy combatants.” An unfortunate name if you want people to consider your humanity.

4. Finally, the granddaddy of all manipulations: moral justification. We are in peril of disconnecting from our conscience when we begin to justify our means with noble-sounding ends. In our experiment, some subjects were offered the chance to donate their winnings to a children’s charity (we did, in fact, make the donation). They were told that the fictitious other team was keeping their winnings for themselves. As subject kids cheated, it was common to hear, “It’s for the children!” Dr. Bandura pointed out a painful hypocrisy in our own experiment: “You are justifying lying to kids in order to pursue knowledge—how do you feel about that?”

When we loaded our subjects (if you just noted that “subject” is a dehumanizing word you’re already influence spotting!) with all four manipulation tactics they made more than three times as many dishonest choices. Think about it! These aren’t bad kids—these are normal kids being subjected to powerful influence tactics. Their choices were far less about them than about the things controlling them. Which is why you and I need to learn to take control of the things that control us.

Now, let me hasten to add that I am not taking a position here on decisions like the manufacture of cigarettes, the use of water boarding, or deception in social science experiments. I have my own feelings on those topics and I suspect you do as well. What I am suggesting is that as you and I sort out our opinions, there are things we and others do that cloud and confuse the moral calculation. If you want to stay connected to your conscience, the best course is to learn to spot these manipulations—both self-imposed and external—and reframe the choice in an honest way.

“I am breaking my commitment to myself by ordering a Mucho Grande Mocha Latte. Do I want to do that?”

At times, the answer may be yes. But at least it will then be a thoughtful yes.

Join me in creating a better and more conscious world by becoming an Influence Spotter.

Good Luck,

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18 thoughts on “The Four Ways You’re Being Manipulated (and How to Stop It)”

  1. Bill white

    This was a great article and one that gets overlooked too often. When overlooked it leads to mental confusion and frustration casue one is always trying to “put their finger” on the problem, but not taking the time to recognize it. Peace

  2. Brynn Huneke

    Thanks for this article (and video). I would be interested in seeing you build on this experiment to identify ways a morally engaged person can influence others around them to also become morally engaged.

    I like that the morally engaged kids held their ground and reported accurate numbers; however, I also think there is something wrong when they sit silent while their peers are reporting false numbers. In my opinion, to be truly morally engaged, you fight for the rights of those around you too and stand up to injustice. Would be interested to hear your thoughts.

    1. slccom

      The morally engaged kids who report that others are giving false numbers are going to be jumped on as the ones committing the wrong. “Don’t be a tattle-tale” will be the mildest thing they hear. It usually only takes once and then they will never do that again!

  3. shiela

    Good article. An example of ‘moral justification’ – the Baltimore mother who beat up her kid and was hailed as a national hero because she prevented him from participating in the riots. Isn’t that normally called child abuse?

  4. Nancy Radford

    Alas, we all excuse our own behaviour by these tactics, and so often we blind ourselves to our own faults while demonising others. Thank you for yet another brilliant article.

  5. Tony

    You’ve given me a lot to think about. It’s uncomfortable to think that one can be manipulated so easily, but I think that’s what’s happening. Wow.

  6. Quin

    Great article and video. I am also very interested in learning more! Also: When does Dr. Bandura’s book come out?

    1. Chris Cardone

      Dr. Bandura’s book will release on Dec 23rd, 2015.

      From Worth Publishers.

  7. anonymous

    how would you apply this to the way the emperor Constantine and his ‘holy’ (check it out-she is sainted by her own decree) mother Helena took over Jerusalem by building Holy Roman shrines over the very cross of Jesus not to mention they rebuilt their failing “kingdom” under the guise of Christianity less than 500 years after Jesus rose from the grave – thus we have been manipulated since the garden of Eden and the fact that we still fall for it today is no surprise–there is only ONE WAY to the truth – and yet the entire world is still being ruled and fooled by the holy roman empire…..
    i wish it were only teenagers who need a behavior change

  8. Chris

    We have all the control over our own behavior, I completely disagree with what’s stated here. This is a root issue with society. Stuff happens, deal with it, respond well, control your attitude, behavior, responses. Consciously smile. Treat others like you want to be treated. If you do the right things, the issues that you are talking about sort of start to disappear.

  9. Walt Campbell

    Another winning segment. Keep ’em coming! These are fantastic programs — well conceived, well written, well delivered. Thank you!

  10. Renee Cibulka

    These manipulation tactics are clearly being used on us every day in the political arena. The ironic part is that they are often being used in the name of morality! Thanks for a great article.


    You just perfectly, albeit inadvertently, described our current corrupt big government.

  12. Thomas

    Also applies to advertising. If you can “spot” that they’re manipulating you, you are no longer susceptible to the appeal.

    By age seven, my son could (sometimes grudgingly) answer the question, “Why do you think ABC toy company just came out with a new version of the same toy you bought a year ago?”

    “Because they think kids like me will spend our money on it.”

  13. Kent Brockman

    Wait, I think you are manipulating me right now with this article?!

  14. Ruth Finkelstein

    I must already be doing a lot of this. This would explain why I can only listen to the political rallies for a limited period. My BS barometer just goes off the charts. I flunked watching commercials and evaluating them in college. I couldn’t remember what the products were.

  15. Michelle

    This is valuable information that we and future generations need more than ever. I wish this was taught in our schools from an early age. I believe we all have good intentions but we have to be properly equipped to act on those good intentions otherwise we succumb to human nature which ain’t always pretty…

  16. Joe

    Great article, Joseph!

    I’ve been combating this for some time in the workplace, but didn’t realize it for what it was. Thanks for putting a face on it for me.

    Kind regards

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