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How to Stop Letting People Push You Around

New research on battling interpersonal extortion.

Key points

  • When one person sets up another to depend on them for some type of reward, it can be called interpersonal extortion.
  • Research shows that 40 percent of people potentially engage in this type of manipulative strategy.
  • Standing up for oneself when being exploited is difficult when it comes at an emotional or financial cost.

Extortion sounds like a term reserved for criminal behavior, but in daily life, it can also occur when people take advantage of others. Rather than having money literally extracted from you by someone who demands you pay up or face negative consequences, interpersonal extortion can occur when one person sets you up to depend on them for some type of reward.

Perhaps you have a friend who seems to “hold the aces” in your relationship, meaning that they set the terms of your interactions. You call or text them, expecting a response, and about 60 percent of the time, you receive one right away. In the other 40 percent of cases, you’re forced to wait. A message from them asks if you’d like to get together for lunch during the upcoming weekend. You reply right away but as the potential date nears, get no response. Eventually, at the last minute, your friend proposes a time and place to meet. In part, you feel relieved that this is happening after all, but you also feel a bit annoyed that you were left dangling and unable to make any other plans.

According to a new paper by Manfred Milinski (2022) of Max Planck’s Institute for Evolutionary Biology, this isn’t all that unusual of a situation. Indeed, Milinski asserts, there’s something wrong with the conclusions of psychological experiments in game theory claiming that most people behave cooperatively. In his words, all you have to do is read “daily newscasts reporting widespread uncooperative human behavior.” The problem is that “the strategy describing reality has been missing” (p. 196).

Extortion as an Interpersonal Strategy

In the psychology lab, or the psychology-behavioral economics lab, researchers study interpersonal strategies of cooperation vs. competition by using a simulated monetary game known as “Prisoner’s Dilemma.” As an experimental method, the Prisoner’s Dilemma can be constructed such that an actual player (Person X) believes they are paired with another participant (Person Y) when, in reality, one of them (depending on the experiment) is playing against a computerized partner.

The basic framework, and why it’s called the Prisoner’s Dilemma, is that the maximum payoff occurs when both X and Y cooperate by agreeing to receive equal amounts. However, at any point along the way, Person X could decide to “defect” and take a larger payout, making less than the maximum but still more than Person Y. In turn, Person Y could also choose to cooperate (take equal payoff) or defect (take more).

The extortionate strategy, or what game researchers call “Zero-Determinant (ZD)," is one in which Person X, who controls the distribution of rewards, consistently sets a higher payoff for themselves than the payoff they set for Person Y. This places Person Y in the position of being taken advantage of because should Person Y choose to defect as well (take a higher payoff than X), they could stand to lose more than if they just cooperated.

From Extortion to Generosity to Power Plays

Because the extortionist is essentially “cooperating” (by continuing to provide some payoffs to Person Y), the Max Planck researcher maintains that this strategy is basically a prosocial one, albeit a "voracious one." However, in case Person X gets too greedy, Person Y can seek retribution from time to time in the form of their own defection (taking the larger payoff), even though this will cost Person Y more than simply continuing to cooperate. Person X, being brought down a notch or two, may now react with generosity by resuming higher payoffs for Person Y.

In actual situations involving similar power dynamics, such as in the workplace, individuals may find themselves in competition for the same limited rewards (i.e. salary). As Milinski notes, “If some individuals have more influence than others, individuals in a superior strategic position may be able to help themselves to a higher share of the group payoff, although they know that this comes at the expense of their cooperating peers” (p. 199). It’s also possible for an employee to “defect” by sabotaging the group effort as a way to get back at an exploitative supervisor. In that case, the supervisor can simply decide to fire the noncooperative employee and find a replacement by hiring someone new.

Translating these situations into a new version of the extortionist game, Milinski set up an experimental simulation in which players could be pitted against each other as in these real-life situations in the workplace. Indeed, it’s not only in the workplace that such manipulative strategies exist. People constantly dole out unequal attention to others, from their own children to their good friends. The question is whether they’ll do so regardless of what they stand to lose in terms of affection and positive regard.

As it turned out, when given the chance to play favorites, a substantial percentage of people will choose this strategy. In the words of the Max Planck researcher, “about 40 percent of the people in the real world might be potential extortioners disguised as nice folks” (p. 201).

How to Pull Out From Under

Knowing that the person who tries to exact your cooperation by making you pay if you defect has a 4 out of 10 chance of seeming to be doing this to your benefit can help you decide when it’s time to bail from this relationship. If it’s a boss, the situation can be complicated if you know you’re replaceable, which can lead employees to continue to work in less than optimal conditions for years at a time. The remedy when your livelihood depends on it involves a high degree of risk, but it may be worth it in terms of your mental health. Indeed, in a job market in which employers are having trouble filling their posts, this could be an ideal time to explore this option.

In your relationships, such as with that friend who leaves you hanging while you await their confirmation of a response or request, there is a different set of choices. Letting your friend know that you are ready to “defect” by refusing to go along with this treatment could help recalibrate the power imbalance back in your favor. This defection could take the form of not accepting excuses anymore or making plans independently of this person when they refuse to confirm a date. In the ZD situation, extortionist players learned from the defections of their counterparts to become more fair and generous.

To sum up, turning from imbalance to balance when someone continues to exploit you may be difficult at first, especially if it comes at an emotional or financial cost. However, being able to set your own terms will ultimately be the better strategy to help you maintain your mental health and fulfillment.

Facebook image: Motortion Films/Shutterstock

LinkedIn image: GaudiLab/Shutterstock

References

Milinski, M. (2022). Extortion—A voracious prosocial strategy. Current Opinion in Psychology, 44, 196–201. https://doi-org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2021.08.033

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