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Why Do People Manipulate?

Understanding what drives negative manipulation is the first step to stopping it

Key points

  • There are times when manipulation can be used to motivate others positively to achieve a goal or adopt healthy behavior.
  • But manipulation can turn hostile and harm relationships when it's used to coerce others.
  • Deep-rooted behaviors drive negative manipulation, and understanding the motivation behind it can help put a stop to it.

Manipulation, although typically viewed in a negative light, is not always a bad skill—there are times when manipulation is simply influencing others to achieve a goal or to work towards what is good for them. However, when someone uses this skill to coerce others, as opposed to persuading them, it becomes unhealthy and even dangerous in certain situations. What drives people to manipulate others?

Manipulation can be a good thing.

Manipulation exists everywhere in our society. It is present in every advertisement, rampant in social media, and a natural part of our interactions with the environment. We manipulate natural goods to use them to our own benefit, scientists manipulate biological processes to develop lifesaving methods, and social manipulation can actually produce positive interactions with others at times (think using common interests as a way to get to know someone new or pointing out a friend’s positive traits to build up their self-confidence).

The potential benefits of using manipulation as a form of persuasion can be endless. It can help open up others’ opinions, it can serve as a way to problem-solve common issues, and it can influence people to compromise when they cannot see eye to eye. Parents often use positive manipulation to influence behavioral outcomes in their children. Employers and those in positions of authority utilize similar tactics to incite change and motivate others toward their desired end results.

Recognizing when manipulation becomes hostile

However, there is a more sinister side to manipulation that can also turn relationships into power struggles and encourage abusive environments. When manipulation turns into coercion, it becomes an approach designed to subtly force others into thoughts, choices, and actions against their will. In order to understand why some people use manipulation maliciously, it is helpful to recognize some of the signs that it may be occurring in your relationships:

  • Your overriding emotions when interacting with that person are negative. You’re tormented by fear—fear of what they will say, fear of how they will act, and fear of what they will do in order to get what they want from you. Guilt becomes a normal feeling, and you notice it cropping up anytime you dare to express your opinion or choose a course of action different from what they desire. Since the end result of negative manipulation is coercing you into doing something you don’t want to do, your emotions could also include feelings of obligation or a sense that for whatever reason, you are beholden to that person and, in turn, need to do (or think) according to their inclinations.
  • You question your own reality. Better known as “gaslighting,” this can occur when you suddenly find yourself questioning the way you remember an interaction, being told the reality of what you witnessed is not true, or even just being led to feel something was your fault when you’re not sure it really was. Psychological manipulators are masters at lying, making excuses, and changing facts in a situation to get you to question what really happened.
  • You are blamed for everything. In unhealthy, manipulative relationships, one person typically refuses to take responsibility for any of their hurtful behaviors—or for any negative outcomes in the relationship. This can also take the form of blaming others for their own emotions rather than owning those feelings and exploring their origin. If you find yourself in a pattern where one person is constantly forced to apologize in order to “keep the peace,” it’s a strong signal that something is off.
  • Every disagreement becomes an ultimatum or a generalization. “You’re always this way,” “you never listen to me,” “if you don’t do what I want, I’ll leave”—these are common tactics of negative manipulators, designed to produce feelings of guilt and fear in order to gain a desired outcome. Rather than viewing each situation uniquely, manipulators will often generalize them to confuse others and keep the focus ambiguous, making it more challenging to pin down the behaviors that are occurring under the surface.
  • You are degraded and minimized. You can do nothing right, and your every move is viewed under a microscope. These individuals spend a lot of time verbally belittling you, pointing out your flaws, and making sure their opinion is heard loudly and clearly over the ideas of others.

What’s behind manipulation?

But what drives people to negatively manipulate others? On the surface, it’s an obvious attempt to get what they want—but psychologically, we know behaviors are motivated by deeper factors. The overriding element in chronic psychological manipulation is always an issue of power and control.

Manipulators are driven by a need for power and control over every situation. In some cases, this can arise from past trauma, in an attempt to predict what is coming their way and make themselves feel safer in the moment. In more devious circumstances, it is a method of controlling others for outcomes like personal leverage, a need to feel better than everyone else, a bid for attention, or a desire to have an advantage.

Manipulators who crave power and advantage over others will often resort to scheming to attain what they want. They use emotions to domineer others and for attention-seeking purposes, particularly when they feel situations are outside of their sphere of influence. In fact, many chronic manipulators will avoid situations they don’t feel they have control over because they prefer predictable outcomes that line up with their own wants.

Chronic manipulators may have started using these tactics as survival methods, a form of self-preservation, or even in response to feelings of personal inadequacy. However, when these actions spiral to the point of disrupting otherwise healthy relationships, they become damaging.

These are the situations that create unhealthy and dangerous interpersonal environments—and over time, these behaviors can become pathological. Understanding what drives manipulators to treat others in such unhealthy ways is vital to recognizing it and taking the necessary steps to stop it. Only when you understand a behavior can you truly intervene to try to meet that need in a healthier way.