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Nov 1, 2019

How to avoid being manipulated

If you speak with someone and suddenly start feeling anger, resentment, or irritation against another person or a group, a red flag should always pop up. Your mind just have been hacked, and you are being manipulated. The person you’re talking to wants to use you for their purposes, to fight their fight with your help. In a regular, harmless gossip session, you feel just mildly amused. When you’re being manipulated, you feel a stronger emotion and want to act. Our emotion makes the actual difference.

The mechanics of manipulation are very old. The manipulator links your solidarity instinct with the justice instinct. We all are naturally inclined to emphasize with our interlocutor. That is how social cohesion works. At the same time, human have a deeply ingrained sense of fairness that has been found in animals as well. A manipulator uses two perfectly good instincts to recruit you into something that is good for her or him, but not necessarily for you. Then you find yourself fighting a pointless fight, or being embroiled in something you have no stake in. Once you join a pointless fight, it is difficult to retrieve, since you have already invested your reputation and capital in it. This why the initial hack is so important to notice.

A common pitch is like this: “They (administrators | other departments | junior faculty | senior faculty | T&P committee) are so incompetent | selfish | wrong | untrustworthy | greedy. They just did this (fill in with almost any action).” To manipulate others, you need to hit on a point they are already anxious about. With junior faculty, tenure and promotion always works well. With all faculty, allege violation of shared governance, because there are so many myths about shared governance in the first place. With administrators, exploit the anxiety about their performance. With women, touch on gender bias. With white men, there are too many anxieties to list. All of this could be done with an e-mail, just forward some private conversation, and add a few words to create some toxic context.

Smart people are manipulated just as easily as simpletons. In fact, people with better social instincts can become an easier prey, because their solidarity and fairness are well developed. This is why the Academia is so prone to group conflicts with very little substance. Such conflicts can last decades, and they damage souls of many otherwise wonderful people.

To avoid being manipulated is a discipline, a set of simple rules that many wise people discover on their own. However, some never do. It is not anything particularly new. The Buddhists probably figured it out the best, hence their stance against attachment, or clinging. The Stoics had similar ideas, and so did other religious traditions. A manipulator has invisible tentacles that attach themselves to your emotional veins and insert their fine poison. Imagine brushing off those tentacles, not allowing them to attach to your skin. That is what the Buddha meant.

The inoculation against being manipulated is simple. Ask yourself – why is s/he saying this to me? (This is an amazingly effective simple trick). What would the absent person or group say in response? What is their perspective? Can you be them for the sake of a conversation? Literally walk over to that other person(s) in question and ask for their perspective. Reflect on your own emotions – why am I feeling angry? Do I really care, or this is the manipulator’s agenda? Is the cause for our joined anger really a big deal? Is there too much drama? Are my emotions being hijacked? Don’t be too fast to empathize or express agreement. Do not commit to a possible manipulation stack; take time to think about it.

What about the manipulators? Why do they do it? Some people cannot live without some intrigue going on in their lives. It probably has to do with some unresolved middle school issues, where they had to have a victory over randomly appointed enemies, and collect an ever-greater army of supporters to do that. If you learn a few tricks, you can entertain yourself endlessly by stirring up conflict, outsmarting your enemies, and fooling the naïve to do your bidding. For others, it is an inept attempt to grab more power or at least influence. It never works, because those who fell victim of manipulation will eventually catch up to it, feel silly, and never trust the manipulator again. Manipulators are compulsive; it is a sort of addiction to steering up conflict. They cannot help it, and even more – their intentions are not all that bad. It is just a bad habit, and they are rarely happy because of that.

I have never seen a manipulator who is really good at it, although literature suggests they do exist. Or else, they are so good that I am being manipulated, but am not aware of it.

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