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3 Reasons People Become Manipulative

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Psychological manipulation can be defined as the utilization of undue power (social, relational, familial, sexual, financial, professional, etc.) for the purpose of benefiting the manipulator at the expense of their victims.

Willful psychological manipulation is different than healthy social influence, in which there’s a generally equitable exchange between individuals. In a psychologically manipulative relationship, one person exploits another for selfish and unscrupulous gain.

Categories of manipulativeness include negative manipulation (persistent criticism, shaming, social exclusion, social pressure, hostile threats); positive manipulation (fake friendliness, insincere flattery, appeal to vanity, false promises); deception and intrigue (lying, cheating, stealing, unethical shortcuts, excuse making, blaming, dodging responsibility); strategic helplessness (playing weak, playing martyr, guilt-baiting); and hostility and abuse (bullying, temper tantrum, intimidation, physical/mental/emotional abuse).

Why do manipulators manipulate? Chronic manipulation is often used as a survival mechanism to cope with a challenging or competitive environment, especially when one lacks relative power and control. Pathological manipulation may also be the result of family, social, societal, or professional conditioning.

With this in mind, consider the following three possible causes, with references from my books How to Successfully Handle Manipulative People and A Practical Guide for Manipulators to Change Towards the Higher Self.

A. Family history. Was the individual in question influenced by certain manipulative family members in his or her life? In the family dynamic, was there struggle for economic or social survival? Was there competition for power, control, love and affection, relational standing and acceptance, status and privilege, monetary and material resources, or other types of real or perceived “advantage"? Were there power struggles, either between family members or against “outsiders," for greater leverage, influence, profit, or reward?

B. Did the individual experience any social weaknesses and/or disadvantages during her or his formative years? Did she experience “exclusion” in any way (socially, economically, culturally, professionally), and wanted to become part of the accepted norm?

C. Were there any social, professional, or societal norms which encouraged cunning, scheming, bargaining, haggling, exploiting human weaknesses, devising Machiavellian ruthlessness, or other forms of indirect influence and power? For example, some professions lend themselves much more to persuading people than others. Some societies normalize competitive bargaining in business and social interactions while others do not. Certain affiliated groups have a stated purpose of convincing others to see things from their vantage point. If an individual was strongly exposed to any of these influences, he or she may have internalized certain manipulative tactics into behavioral norms.

Chronic manipulation often (but not always) emerges from a highly competitive environment, in which various parties (family members, classmates, coworkers, social groups, societal affiliations, economic interests) jockey for power, influence, resources, and advantage, and where one feels a lack of direct and abundant power/control over a situation. The manipulator, feeling a sense of deprivation, insufficiency, and disadvantage, or conversely craving for more power, influence, and advantage, resorts to cunning and underhandedness in order to attain what he or she desires. Over time, this type of behavior can become chronic and habitual, with inevitable destructive consequences.

In conclusion, manipulation, often starting out as a survival or competitive instinct for self-preservation, becomes a pathological act of exploitation and, in the worst cases, abuse.

The strong alternatives to manipulativeness are self-awareness, authenticity, integrity, constructive problem-solving capability, and positive communication and relational skills. For more information on this topic, as well as how to successfully deal with manipulators, see references below.

© 2019 by Preston C. Ni. All rights reserved worldwide. Copyright violation may subject the violator to legal prosecution.


Ni, Preston. How to Successfully Handle Manipulative People. PNCC. (2014)

Ni, Preston. A Practical Guide for Manipulators to Change Towards the Higher Self. PNCC. (2017)

Ni, Preston. How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People — 2nd Edition. PNCC. (2006)

Bursten, Ben. The Manipulative Personality. Archives of General Psychiatry, Vol 26 No 4. (1972)

Buss DM, Gomes M, Higgins DS, Lauterback K. Tactics of Manipulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 52 No 6. (1987)

Johnson, Stephen. “Character Styles”. W. W. Norton & Company. (1994)

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