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Games Master Manipulators Play: DARVO

"Machinations, treachery follow us disquietly to our graves." –King Lear

Key points

  • DARVO is an aggressive reaction to being accused of something, whether true or untrue.
  • It's a tactic often used by high-conflict personalities.
  • The best defense against DARVO is indifference.

One summer day a few years ago, I was walking my dog in a park when two aggressive hounds off their leashes came charging toward us. Within seconds the vicious canines would have attacked me and my small dog. A short distance behind them I saw their owner, a 20-something woman, casually following them, leashes in hand.

I picked up a fallen limb and began waving it and shouting at the dogs. There was little else I could do. It was then that another snarl was heard in the park—that of the young woman.

“You drop that limb, you son of a b*tch! If you hit my dogs I’ll call the cops on you!” She finally took notice of the situation and grabbed her dogs by their collars, though they continued to lunge and bark.

"Hey, call off your dogs,” I told her. “There’s a leash law.”

“These dogs are trained to respond to my command,” she responded. “Your dog’s on a leash because you can’t control him! Learn to control your own damn dog and leave mine alone!”

Revelations on a Dog Day Afternoon

My brief encounter with this woman and her dogs contains more epiphanies than you might expect:

The first revelation: She manifested Machiavellian behavior, although this may seem counterintuitive at first. After all, scheming, deception, and manipulativeness are the hallmarks of Machiavellianism. This young woman was overtly hostile and aggressive. Such contentious behavior is much more blatant and direct than master manipulators usually prefer. A closer examination of what she said, however, reveals that she was trying to gaslight me.

Gaslighting is a classic manipulative tactic. Rather than apologizing and accepting responsibility for her dogs running loose, she tried to shame me for having my dog on a leash and for allegedly being unable to control him. Meanwhile, she never demonstrated her own purported command-and-control superpowers over her vicious dogs.

The second revelation: While Machiavellian personalities generally default to subtlety and cunning rather than open confrontation, they can and will fly into a rage and attack when put on the defensive. Overt aggression is typically the last refuge of these scoundrels. And while gaslighting usually consists of plausible lies and half-truths deployed in a restrained and persuasive manner, this woman’s behavior shows that this tactic can be used aggressively to overwhelm rather than to convince. She didn’t know whether I could control my dog off his leash, nor did she care. Her purpose was to suppress her guilt and put me on the defensive.

The third revelation: The dog owner’s overall reaction presents a classic example of DARVO—deny, attack, reverse victim and offender. The concept of DARVO was introduced in 1997 by psychologist Jennifer Freyd. She observed that some high-conflict personalities tend to respond to accusations, whether true or untrue, by denying any wrongdoing, attacking the credibility of their accuser, and reversing the roles of victim and offender.

Judging from her reaction, this dog owner felt that she was entitled to let her dogs run loose in the park. Neither the leash law nor public safety concerns served to restrain her negligence. My brandishing a limb and calling her attention to the leash law provoked her denial. She then went on the attack, threatening me with police and trying to gaslight me. Finally, she framed me as the irresponsible party for having my dog on a leash, thereby making her the innocent bystander and me the bad guy menacing her dogs with a limb.

I once read somewhere that “most psychologists encounter more pathology at a cocktail party than they see in daily practice.” That might be an overstatement, but as you see from the above revelations, conflict-prone individuals can manifest a pathological variety-pack of behaviors in one brief interaction.

DARVO is a reaction pattern that any reasonably observant person can recognize. The ideal way to deflect it is not to take the bait, not to defend oneself, and not to respond to the drama at all. Is it likely that the woman in my example would come around to my point of view if I had argued with her? DARVO dies from indifference.

“How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it.” ― Marcus Aurelius

© Dale Hartley. Connect with me on social media.

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