“Anything is better than lies and deceit!”
— Leo Tolstoy
How could anyone fall for that? How could I have been so foolish? Why do they believe such lies? How could we have been conned like that?
There are emotionally manipulative people of varying degrees all around us. When we are young we like to think that we are immune to the psychological pressures that confuse, manipulate and condition other people. We are not so gullible, are we? But part of truly maturing as an individual involves understanding how you too are led by the environment, influenced by others, and driven by the needs you have as a human being.
Human beings can be manipulated precisely because we share innate psychological characteristics that render us ALL susceptible, to a point. Although, like any other weakness, some people are naturally more prone to succumb, while others have higher levels of immunity to the external pressures that can make us do things we would normally never think of doing.
But assuming that we are already “immune” is naive and the surest path to being a victim of manipulation. Let me give you a powerful example:
Emotionally Manipulated to Death
The day is November 18, 1978, and you’re in Guyana. There you stand in the middle of Jonestown, a loyal member of Jim Jones’ cult known as “The People’s Temple”. He commands you to drink a cup of poisonous, cyanide-laced Kool-Aid and take your own life.
What do you do?
Well of course you don’t do it, right? Who is Jim Jones, or anyone for that matter, to tell you to end it all? You are not a robot that can be ordered to kill yourself against your own will! But an astounding 907 people simply followed his orders and died that fateful day. And many of these people poisoned their children before they took their own lives. People who wanted to live and wanted their children and spouses to live.
Why did these people do this? Why did men and women, many college educated, allow themselves to be abused and brainwashed by this man? Why did they agree to sell their homes and give all their possessions and money to “The People’s Temple” – an obvious cult?
Were these people of abnormally low intelligence? Were they clinically insane? Or was Jim Jones a highly skilled manipulator of human emotions? Did he know exactly how to push a human being’s “buttons,” and string them along even to the extent that they would poison their own children before ending their own lives?
Either way, that was just “Jonestown”, right? It was an isolated event.
Wrong! “Jonestown” has happened numerous times throughout history – and it will happen again. I bet you can think of other examples where people were willingly driven to their own demise. It may not be “Jonestown” – it may go by a different name, but we see the same exact psychological mechanisms of manipulation in play. Understanding these mechanisms can help immunize you not just to the grosser psychological manipulations of a wicked cult leader, but also to the more subtle psychological conditioning that we all encounter as part of everyday life.
We All Have Basic Human Needs
Jim Jones was a master of deceiving people by appearing to give them what they needed. And this is the crucial point to grasp. We all have innate human needs. If your fundamental psychological needs as a human being are not being adequately met, then, unless you understand precisely what’s happening and respond appropriately, you will be motivated to latch on to any source that appears to satisfy these needs.
Some of your basic human needs include:
- The security of a safe environment in which to grow.
- A sense of autonomy and control of your life.
- A sense of self-worth earned through creative problem solving and the achievement of personal goals.
- Being part of a broader, likeminded community.
- A sense of status within social groupings (which includes feeling important or respected in some way).
- Being emotionally connected to certain people (family, friends, etc.).
- Meaning and purpose arising from being able to make a difference.
Again, if any of these basic needs are not sufficiently met in your life, you will feel inexplicably attracted to anyone or anything that promises to supply what is lacking. The awareness that this is happening can save you an incredible amount of trouble.
Many of Jim Jones’ devotees were drawn from a pool of disgruntled people who were not leading satisfying lives or meeting their basic needs in healthy ways. People facing uncertain times or uncertain futures, people with low self-esteem and negative self-images, and so forth. Jones held out the promise of certainty, social acceptance, community, self-respect, purpose and feelings of security inside his “temple.” And there must have been some really deep seeded beliefs instilled in these people, because eventually they followed Jones, like some new-age Pied Piper, into oblivion.
Universal Applicability and Susceptibility
It’s rather easy to see that if your needs are not being adequately met in a healthy way, and someone or something comes along that promises to supply all of your needs in one convenient package, then that can seem pretty irresistible.
If you disagree, think about this: On a more conventional level, consider how many people feeling neglected in a marriage have a careless affair with someone because it was “so nice to be listened to, flattered, romanced, etc.” The very same unconscious propulsion towards an affair like that might drive others into the arms of a cult (or even to buy a timeshare or a new wonder drug!)
Rational Justifications for Irrational Behavior
We all need some level of quality attention and strive to meet that need in various ways, but our thirst for it can blind us to the sleazy aspects of the person (or entity) that’s tempting us. Our emotional drive is so powerful that it will enlist the help of the conscious mind to invent compelling, logical arguments to support what we feel compelled to do. Jim Jones’ devotees too would certainly have developed a belief system around the cult, and they wholeheartedly believed that they had rational arguments for sticking with it.
It’s easy to say afterwards, “How could I have been so foolish?” But extreme incidents like the Jonestown massacre demonstrate just how mind-numbingly powerful the drive to meet our basic human needs is. They can completely overwhelm clear thinking – just as a person dying of thirst in a desert might desperately put an ice-cold bottle of poison to their lips, if it were offered to them.
Weapons of Influence and Manipulation
Famous social psychologist Robert Cialdini conducted a study of how and why people comply (or buy) in business situations, and identified a set of principles which he called the “weapons of influence.” Although he was looking at business related events and interactions, his principles apply equally well to unsuitable, manipulative relationships of any kind. And if you look closely, it’s not hard to see the link between Cialdini’s principles and the basic needs I outlined above.
Cialdini’s weapons of influence:
- Reciprocation – “But they’ve done so much for me!” When you feel indebted to someone, then the law of reciprocation is influencing you. Jim Jones constantly reminded his devotees of all he and “The People’s Temple” had done for them – how he had “saved them” and how they “owe” themselves to the “temple.” If someone constantly reminds you how much they are doing or have done for you, they are being manipulative. It runs all the way from free samples in product marketing/advertising to someone doing an unrequested favor for you just so they can ask you for a favor in return – the aim is to make you feel obligated to reciprocate. (Read Influence: Psychology of Persuasion.)
- Commitment and consistency – If people publicly commit verbally or in writing to an idea or goal, they are more likely to honor that commitment. We like to appear consistent and dependable to both ourselves and others (think of the disapproval heaped upon politicians who change their minds). To suddenly stop following orders or abandon once-deeply-held beliefs can simply feel impossible to many, even in the face of mounting evidence that disproves the belief.
- Social proof – People will do things they see other people doing. Period. “A thousand other people can’t be wrong, right?” or “If everyone else is doing it then it must be OK.” This kind of thinking is how people get swayed into being “fashion victims” as well as “cult victims.” And it’s complicated too, because this is not just thoughtless blindness on our part. Hundreds of years ago, for human beings to survive in a world of predators, we had to form tight-knit social groups and look to others for behavioral cues. This is still useful up to a point, but the manipulators of the world can easily use this to their advantage.
- Authority – People will tend to obey authority figures, even if they are asked to perform unjust acts. Authority figures come in many different flavors and facades (and Jim Jones was certainly naturally authoritative).
- Likability – People are more easily persuaded and manipulated by other people whom they like. But likable people might not do very likable things and that’s the problem. Cialdini demonstrated that people tend to buy from people they like, or buy things people they like buy. We also tend to like attractive people. It’s no coincidence that cult leaders tend to be charismatic, likeable and attractive. (Read How to Win Friends and Influence People.)
- Scarcity – If something seems scarce, demand for it will increase. “Limited time offer” or “while supplies last” or “only for the first 100 buyers” are all ways that the scarcity principle is used in marketing. In manipulative relationships it may be used like this: “You will never meet anyone else like me!” It’s subtle, but the implication is that I am rare, and therefore more valuable to you. Jim Jones phrased it like this: “‘The People’s Temple’ is the only place you can be saved” – all cults will have a similar manipulative slogan.
4 Smart Ways to Protect Yourself
To protect yourself from the more excessive and evil manipulations of organizations and individuals, you need to:
- Be aware that extreme “promise of gain” and “threat of loss” are basic universal tools for manipulating belief and behavior.
- Understand that if your basic emotional and physical needs are not adequately met, you become more vulnerable to being manipulated by anyone willing to exploit this gap. Just understanding this can help immunize you against becoming a victim.
- Observe how Cialdini’s “weapons of influence” operate in everyday life (often in benign ways) and how they are indirectly linked to basic human needs.
- Stay calm. Breathe. A calm mind can perceive the world much more clearly and objectively.
Most people and organizations are not actually out to exploit and manipulate others in an evil way, but as the unfortunate followers of Jim Jones discovered back in 1978, when they do, horrifying things can happen.
So… I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Live by choice, not by chance. Make changes, not excuses. Be motivated, not manipulated. Work to excel, not compete. Choose to listen to your inner voice, not the jumbled opinions of everyone else.
And if you feel like you’re struggling with a manipulative relationship situation of any kind, know that you are not alone. Many of us are right there with you, working things out for ourselves. Stand strong! Stay inspired! This is precisely why Angel and I wrote our book, “1,000 Little Things Happy Successful People Do Differently”. It’s filled with short, concise tips on how to do just that.
The bottom line is that there are manipulative people in this world that will try to mess with your mind, but you can defend yourself. It’s about arming yourself with awareness.
The floor is yours…
In what way have people tried to manipulate you?
When and how did you realize this? What did you do about it?
Please leave a comment below and share your thoughts and insights.
Photo by: Rebecca Finch