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The Intriguing Upside of Manipulation

Lying and manipulation can actually be an ethical way to help others.

Earlier this year I published a post called “A New Take on Manipulation.” In it I considered whether it might be legitimate to use manipulative tactics if they were performed for another person’s welfare—specifically, in instances where one’s straightforward, well-intended offers of help had already been refused. Having over 25 years ago published a book on paradoxical therapeutic strategies (roughly akin to reverse, or negative, psychology), I thought it important to distinguish between what I might call “benign trickery” from its opposite (i.e., maneuvers that were self-interested, exploitive, or duplicitous). To me, if the manipulator’s motives were essentially benevolent, then the actual execution of such scheming didn’t really effect its fundamental morality.

Very recently, I felt obliged to take note of an elaborate comment I received on this post. For of all the comments (1350 and counting) I’ve gotten on my now over 200 posts for Psychology Today, I saw this one as perhaps the most originative—not to say, most cunning and pragmatic. So, to do something I’ve never done till now, I’ve decided to quote it pretty much in full (with some minor editing, as well as some bracketed comments of my own). I trust you’ll agree that this person’s detailed descriptions constitute a most worthwhile contribution to the subject:

Manipulation for good reasons

Submitted by Master manipulator on December 5, 2013.

I frequently manipulate [or lie to] people, but for what I believe are genuinely good reasons and not for personal gain. I’ll list some examples below:

[1] My partner suffered from a serious long-term cough but refused to go to the doctor to seek treatment. . . . I was deeply concerned that he had a chest infection or a problem with his lungs. He would not respond to any straightforward approaches I made to encourage him to seek medical advice. So I feigned an illness myself. I pretended that I had discovered a lump. [Note here that the writer’s so-called “manipulation” is not her first line of attack: it’s employed only when more direct approaches have proved ineffective.] My partner was deeply concerned and insisted that I see a doctor. I refused to see a doctor about my "lump" until he saw a doctor about his cough. This manipulative action forced him to see the doctor, and he was treated for a chest infection and a degenerative lung condition, which is now being treated with medication. If the condition had gone untreated he would have suffered serious health complications [italics added in order to stress that not to have attempted something—well—devious, would have led to major negative consequences to her partner].

So I lied to my partner, made him worry about me needlessly, and “bullied” him into doing something against his wishes. Classic manipulations, but I did so for good reasons, his health and his own benefit. The only gain for me was peace of mind over my partner’s health.

[2] My mum had a horrible friend who regularly belittled her, called her names, destroyed her confidence, took advantage of her emotionally and financially, etc.—which was easy to do because my mum is very easy going, kind, trusting, etc. The friendship frequently left my mum in tears, deeply upset and depressed. My mum agreed that the relationship was not healthy but thought that morally she should forgive her friend . . . with the false hope that this friend might change. When my mum was prescribed medication for depression due to the pain and upset of this friendship, I decided I had to act to protect her.

My mum would forgive almost anything but has personal lines that cannot be crossed. Her friend knew this, so pushed right up to that point. One of my mum’s unforgivable actions is racism. So I lied to my mum and told her that her friend said horrible racist things to me. I knew my mum would believe me over her friend. The friend obviously denied it and called me a liar. That was strike 2 [in this case, it was actually “strike 3”] because my mum will not tolerate anyone saying anything bad about her kids. My mum subsequently terminated the friendship. As a result she is much happier, regained her confidence, and is off the anti-depressant medication. [Again, the author’s lying can hardly be judged as anything other than principled, virtuous, and ethical. Undeniably, it was lying—but the motive behind the manipulation hardly warrants being viewed as unjustified or self-interested.]

I lied to my mum, which is a terrible thing to do [not inherently—i.e., it’s “terrible” only if one is thinking in childlike absolutes. And, in reality, such strict categorizing can lead to vicious behaviors quite as easily as to virtuous ones. I myself have always believed that at times it’s necessary—and altogether ethical—to put a higher priority on a particular person’s needs than on any abstract principle]. I lied about another person to their detriment, again a terrible thing to do. I used my understanding of my mum’s emotions and personal morals to manipulate her into terminating her friendship. But I did these things in the genuine belief that I was acting to protect my mum and that it was in her best interest. About a year later I told my mum what I had done, and she agreed that I had done the right thing and it worked out for the best [though the author surely didn't need anyone else to “exonerate” her for her behavior].

[3] I work with a group of young adults. A new person—let’s call him Tim—joined the group. Tim has difficulty with social interactions and is a bit geeky, so the rest of the group effectively shunned him, declaring him “uncool” and “a bit stupid”. . . . Now I could have used my position of authority to insist that the group include Tim, but this would have had limited effect as they would be doing so because they had to, as opposed to because they wanted to, and Tim would have picked up on this. So I allocated Tim key tasks which I knew he would excel at and removed tasks I knew he wouldn't perform well. This was to prove he was not "a bit stupid" but could contribute well to the group. I socialized with Tim and helped Tim socialize with other people the group thought were "cool" to influence their opinion that Tim is cool, too, and has the backing of those in authority. The group then included Tim because they wanted to, not realizing that I was manipulating them in the background. [Again, the author’s motives are unquestionably praiseworthy—and ultimately this is key in morally evaluating them.]

I feel this manipulation is justified, as it was done in the best interest of Tim and the group.

So am I a manipulative monster? Or in these instances is the manipulation for good and therefore acceptable?

And my response to this writer?

Submitted by Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. on December 6, 2013

From the tone of your comment, I think you know quite well that you're not at all a "manipulative monster"—but rather someone who has figured out how to act strategically on another's behalf when this is what the situation calls for.

I think your comment is not only provocative but so valuable, so incisive, so illuminating, that I'd like to reproduce it in a forthcoming post—as a follow-up to my original post on manipulation. . . .

Thanks SO much for taking the time to write such an articulate, well-"contrived" comment (though you hardly needed to include [so many] self-disparaging remarks!).

Unfortunately, because I didn’t have this individual’s e-mail address, and she apparently did not check the box that would have had my reply forwarded directly to her, it’s unlikely that she’ll know that her comment has—gratefully—been re-published for a much broader audience. But hopefully, all who read this post will be indebted to, and learn something valuable from, her wily, ingenious stratagems.

NOTE: If you learned something useful from this post, I hope you’ll consider sharing it with others.

Additionally, if you’d like to check out some of my other posts for PT, please click here.

© 2013 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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