In psychology, manipulation is defined as subterfuge designed to influence or control another, usually in an underhanded manner which facilitates one's personal aims.[1] Methods used to distort the individual's perception of reality may include seduction, suggestion, persuasion and blackmail to induce submission.[2][3] Usage of the term varies depending on which behavior is specifically included, whether referring to the general population or used in clinical contexts.[4] Manipulation is generally considered a dishonest form of social influence as it is used at the expense of others.[5]

Manipulative tendencies may derive from cluster B personality disorders such as narcissistic, antisocial personality disorder, and borderline personality disorder (usually by feigning distress or using flattery, gaslighting,[6] emotional blackmail or love-bombing or seduction[6] to obtain affection or to avoid abandonment).[7] Manipulation is also correlated with higher levels of dark empathy,[8] emotional intelligence,[9][7] and is a chief component of the personality construct dubbed Machiavellianism.[10][7]


Manipulation differs from general influence and persuasion. Non-manipulative influence is generally perceived to be harmless and it is not seen as unduly coercive to the individual's right of acceptance or rejection of influence.[11] Persuasion is the ability to move others to a desired action, usually within the context of a specific goal. Persuasion often attempts to influence ones beliefs, religion, motivations, or behavior. Influence and persuasion are neither positive nor negative, unlike manipulation which is strictly negative.[12][13]

Elements of manipulation

While the motivations for manipulation are mostly self-serving, certain styles of social influence can be intended to be to the benefit of others.[9] Manipulation is using "skills to advance personal agendas or self-serving motives at the expense of others", and is usually considered antisocial behavior.[9] Pro-social behavior is a voluntary act intended to help or benefit another individual or group of individuals and is an important part of empathy.[14][15]

Different measures of manipulativeness focus on different aspects or expressions of manipulation, and tend to paint slightly different pictures of its predictors. Features such as low empathy, high narcissism, use of self-serving rationalisations, and an interpersonal style marked by high agency (dominance) and low communion (i.e. coldheartedness) are consistent across measures.[16][17][18]

Manipulative behaviors typically exploit the following vulnerabilities:

Vulnerability Description
Naïveté or immaturity People who find it too hard to accept the idea that some people are cunning, devious and ruthless or are "in denial" if they are being taken advantage of. They will acknowledge the fact of being manipulated only if it occurs too often.[19]
Over-conscientiousness People who are much harder on themselves than on others often are too willing to give another the benefit of the doubt and see their side of things while blaming themselves for hurting the manipulator.[19]
Low self-esteem People who struggle with self-doubting, lacking in confidence and assertiveness, or chronically unsure of their right to pursue their legitimate wants and needs. They are likely to go on the defensive too easily when challenged by an aggressive personality.[19]
Over-intellectualization People who believe that others only do hurtful things when there's some legitimate, understandable reason for manipulation. They might delude themselves into believing that uncovering and understanding all the reasons for the manipulator's behavior will be sufficient to make things different.[19]
Emotional dependency People who have a submissive or dependent personality. The more emotionally dependent a person is, the more vulnerable they are to being exploited and manipulated.[19]

Manipulation and mental illnesses

Individuals with the following mental health issues are often prone to manipulative behavior:

Deceitfulness and exceptional manipulative abilities are the most common traits among antisocial personality disorder and narcissistic personality disorder.[21] It is the major feature found in the dark triad personality traits, particularly Machiavellianism.[22][23]

Antisocial personality disorder features deceit and manipulation of others as an explicit criterion. This runs the gamut of deception, from lying and superficial displays of charisma to frequent use of aliases and disguises, and criminal fraudulence.[3] The Alternative Model of Personality Disorders (AMPD) in Section III of DSM-5 requires the presence of manipulative behaviour for a diagnosis of ASPD, with two symptoms (deceitfulness and manipulativeness) reflecting such tendencies out of the seven listed, with six being required for diagnosis (the others are impulsivity, irresponsibility, risk-taking, callousness and hostility).[3] The related syndrome of psychopathy also features pathological lying and manipulation for personal gain, as well as superficial charm, as cardinal features.[3]

Borderline personality disorder is unique in the grouping as "borderline" manipulation is characterized as unintentional and dysfunctional manipulation.[24] Marsha M. Linehan has stated that people with borderline personality disorder often exhibit behaviors which are not truly manipulative, but are erroneously interpreted as such.[25] According to Linehan, these behaviors often appear as unthinking manifestations of intense pain, and are often not deliberate as to be considered truly manipulative. In the DSM-V, manipulation was removed as a defining characteristic of borderline personality disorder.[24]

Conduct disorder is where behavioral and age appropriate actions are taken advantage of, primarily occurring in children and adolescents. Individuals with this are characterized as "lack of empathy, sense of guilt, and shallow emotion". These behaviors are shown in connection to manipulation by tying in narcissistic traits. Aggression and violence are two factors pursued by individuals with this disorder. In order for this disorder to be consistent and shown, the progression must be made for at least 12 months.[26]

Factitious disorder is a mental illness in which individuals purposely fake having symptoms of some condition, physically or psychologically. (Individuals who fake symptoms merely as a strategy for avoiding work obligations or legal trouble do not have factitious disorder.) Fabricating illnesses allows individuals to feel a thrill[27] and receive free aid in hospital admissions and treatment. Feelings of persistence, abuse in early childhood, and excessive thoughts were common for these individuals who connected to Borderline Personality Disorder.[clarification needed][28]

Histrionic personality disorder foresee individuals who seek scrutinizing behaviors, inappropriate alluring tactics, and irregular emotional patterns. Histrionic symptoms include "seeking reassurance, switching emotional, and feeling uncomfortable." Histrionic and Narcissistic Personality Disorders overlap because decisions are sporadic and unreliable. These individuals can experience these symptoms from failed attempts of depression like symptoms.[clarification needed][29]

Narcissistic personality disorder is characterized as feelings of superiority, exhibitionism, charming but also exploitive behaviors in the interpersonal domain, success, beauty, feelings of entitlement and a lack of empathy.[30] Those with this disorder often engage in assertive self enhancement and antagonistic self protection.[30] All of these factors can lead an individual with narcissistic personality disorder to manipulate others.

Under the ICD-11's dimensional model of personality pathology, deceitful, manipulative and exploitative behaviours are cardinal expressions of the lack of empathy domain of the Dissociality trait.[31]

Assessment tools

Further information: Psychological evaluation § Personality Assessment


The MACH-IV, conceptualized by Richard Christie and Florence Geis, is a popular and widely used psychological measure of manipulative and deceptive behavior.[32]

Emotional manipulation scale

The emotional manipulation scale is a ten-item questionnaire developed in 2006 through factor analysis, primarily to measure the capability of manipulative behavior and the Machiavellianism personality trait.[33] At the time of publication, emotional intelligence assessments did not specifically examine manipulative behavior or Machiavellianism and were instead predominantly focussed on Big Five personality trait assessment.[33]

Managing the emotions of others scale

The Managing the emotions of others scale (MEOS) was developed in 2013 through factor analysis to measure the ability to change emotions of others.[34] The survey questions measure six categories: mood (or emotional state) enhancement, mood worsening, concealing emotions, capacity for inauthenticity, poor emotion skills, and using diversion to enhance mood. The enhancement, worsening and diversion categories have been used to identify the ability and willingness of manipulative behavior.[9] The MEOS has also been used for assessing emotional intelligence, and has been compared to the HEXACO model of personality structure, for which the capacity for inauthenticity category in the MEOS was found to correspond to low honesty-humility scores on the HEXACO.[35]

In popular psychology

Harriet B. Braiker

Harriet B. Braiker identified the following ways that manipulators control their victims:[36]

According to Braiker, manipulators exploit the following vulnerabilities (buttons) that may exist in victims:[36]

Manipulators can have various possible motivations, including but not limited to:[36]

George K. Simon

According to psychology author George K. Simon, successful psychological manipulation primarily involves the manipulator:[19]

Techniques of manipulators may include:

Techniques Description
Lying (by commission) It is hard to tell if somebody is lying at the time they do it, although often the truth may be apparent later when it is too late. One way to minimize the chances of being lied to is to understand that some personality types (particularly psychopaths) are experts at lying and cheating, doing it frequently, and often in subtle ways.
Lying by omission This is a subtle form of lying by withholding a significant amount of the truth. This technique is also used in propaganda.
Denial Manipulator refuses to admit that they have done something wrong.
Rationalization An excuse made by the manipulator for inappropriate behavior. Rationalization is closely related to spin.
Minimization This is a type of denial coupled with rationalization. The manipulator asserts that their behavior is not as harmful or irresponsible as someone else was suggesting.
Selective inattention or selective attention Manipulator refuses to pay attention to anything that may distract from their agenda.
Diversion Manipulator not giving a straight answer to a straight question and instead being diversionary, steering the conversation onto another topic.
Evasion Similar to diversion but giving irrelevant, rambling, or vague responses
Covert intimidation Manipulator putting the victim onto the defensive by using veiled (subtle, indirect or implied) threats.
Guilt trip A special kind of intimidation tactic. A manipulator suggests to the conscientious victim that they do not care enough, are too selfish or have it too easy. This can result in the victim feeling bad, keeping them in a self-doubting, anxious and submissive position.
Shaming Manipulator uses sarcasm and put-downs to increase fear and self-doubt in the victim. Manipulators use this tactic to make others feel unworthy and therefore defer to them. Manipulators can make one feel ashamed for even daring to challenge them. It is an effective way to foster a sense of inadequacy in the victim.
Vilifying the victim This tactic is a powerful means of putting the victim on the defensive while simultaneously masking the aggressive intent of the manipulator, while the manipulator falsely accuses the victim as being an abuser in response when the victim stands up for or defends themselves or their position.
Playing the victim role Manipulator portrays themself as a victim of circumstance or of someone else's behavior in order to gain pity, sympathy or evoke compassion and thereby get something from another. Caring and conscientious people often cannot stand to see anyone suffering and the manipulator often finds it easy to play on sympathy to get cooperation.
Playing the servant role Cloaking a self-serving agenda in the guise of a service to a more noble cause.
Seduction Manipulator uses charm, praise, flattery or overtly supporting others in order to get them to lower their defenses and give their trust and loyalty to the manipulator. They will also offer help with the intent to gain trust and access to an unsuspecting victim they have charmed.
Projecting the blame (blaming others) Manipulating scapegoats in often subtle, hard-to-detect ways. Often, the manipulator will project their own thinking onto the victim, making the victim look like they have done something wrong. Manipulators will also claim that the victim is the one who is at fault for believing lies that they were conned into believing, as if the victim forced the manipulator to be deceitful. All blame, except for the part that is used by the manipulator to accept false guilt, is done in order to make the victim feel guilty about making healthy choices, correct thinking and good behaviors. It is frequently used as a means of psychological and emotional manipulation and control. Manipulators lie about lying, only to re-manipulate the original, less believable story into a "more acceptable" truth that the victim will believe. Projecting lies as being the truth is another common method of control and manipulation. Manipulators may falsely accuse the victim of "deserving to be treated that way". They often claim that the victim is crazy or abusive, especially when there is evidence against the manipulator.
Feigning innocence Manipulator tries to suggest that any harm done was unintentional or that they did not do something that they were accused of. Manipulator may put on a look of surprise or indignation. This tactic makes the victim question their own judgment and possibly their own sanity.
Feigning confusion Manipulator tries to play dumb by pretending they do not know what the victim is talking about or is confused about an important issue brought to their attention. The manipulator intentionally confuses the victim in order for the victim to doubt their own accuracy of perception, often pointing out key elements that the manipulator intentionally included in case there is room for doubt. Sometimes manipulators will have used cohorts in advance to help back up their story.
Brandishing anger Manipulator uses anger to brandish sufficient emotional intensity and rage to shock the victim into submission. The manipulator is not actually angry, they just put on an act. They just want what they want and get "angry" when denied. Controlled anger is often used as a manipulation tactic to avoid confrontation, avoid telling the truth or to further hide intent. There are often threats used by the manipulator of going to the police, or falsely reporting abuses that the manipulator intentionally contrived to scare or intimidate the victim into submission. Blackmail and other threats of exposure are other forms of controlled anger and manipulation, especially when the victim refuses initial requests or suggestions by the manipulator. Anger is also used as a defense so the manipulator can avoid telling truths at inconvenient times or circumstances. Anger is often used as a tool or defense to ward off inquiries or suspicion. The victim becomes more focused on the anger instead of the manipulation tactic.
Bandwagon effect Manipulator comforts the victim into submission by claiming (whether true or false) that many people already have done something, and the victim should as well. Such manipulation can be seen in peer pressure situations, often occurring in scenarios where the manipulator attempts to influence the victim into trying drugs or other substances.

Martin Kantor

Kantor advises in his 2006 book The Psychopathology of Everyday Life: How Antisocial Personality Disorder Affects All of Us that vulnerability to psychopathic manipulators involves being too:[39]

See also


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Further reading


Academic papers