Whether you’re a business owner, a salesperson, or a customer, it’s important to understand the difference between manipulation vs persuasion.
As a customer, being mindful of manipulative tactics can help you notice when someone is trying to sway your purchasing decisions in their best interest without considering your interests.
Think of a car salesman trying to convince you that a two-seater Porsche is your best option when you’ve expressed that you have a family and have been looking for a seven-seater.
As a business, understanding the difference between persuasion and manipulation can help you avoid unhappy customers and orient your sales strategy so that the customer knows they are being looked after.
So, what is manipulation, what is persuasion, and what is the difference between the two?
What is the difference between manipulation and persuasion?
Persuasion and manipulation are other methods of influencing another person, but they are not the same method. One is associated with service to the greater good, while the other is associated with personal gain and advantage-taking. Before we further explore the differences between persuasion and manipulation, let’s develop a clearer understanding of both.
Both persuasion and manipulation share similarities in that they involve one party influencing another party’s decision. However, manipulation is associated with negative outcomes, while persuasion is generally positive.
To manipulate someone is to influence their decision-making process by leading them to believe something untrue. It is often done to the benefit of the manipulator and at the cost of the person being manipulated.
A classic example of manipulation can be seen in the stereotypical car sale. The car salesman, determined to earn a hefty commission, tries to convince a potential buyer that he or she should buy the latest two-seater sports car.
However, their circumstances, such as having a large family, call for a wiser option, such as a safer seven-seater Land Rover.
Another example of manipulation is when a company promotes a product with false advertisements. For example, a skincare company might manipulate customers into buying an acne cream by claiming that it will make the user acne-free when in reality, the use of the product does not guarantee that your skin will clear up.
In this context, the company has played on the customer’s emotions and key characteristics of manipulation. They know that many people are self-conscious about blemished skin, so they promise that their product will help and encourage people to purchase it.
They may create advertisements showing models with glowing skin and imply that they achieved their look through the use of the product.
An excellent example of psychological manipulation can be seen in Shakespeare’s tragedy Othello. The villain, Iago, manipulates the protagonist, Othello, into believing that his wife, Desdemona, has been unfaithful.
Iago skillfully manipulates Othello into believing this false reality by understanding the protagonist’s doubts, fears, and insecurities and then playing on them as a means of influencing his reality and decisions.
As seen in Othello, manipulation involves influencing a person’s point of view by playing with their mental and emotional reality.
While manipulation is typically associated with negative outcomes for the person being manipulated and is generally considered morally wrong, persuasion usually has the opposite association. It is often linked to positive outcomes for the person being persuaded and may be a way to encourage greater moral behavior.
Examples of morally positive persuasion tactics are often seen in public and environmental health campaigns. For example, encouragement to recycle, quit smoking, or buy more free-range products than those produced through factory farming are all examples of morally positive tactics and approaches to influence people’s decisions and behavior.
Richard M. Perloff, author of The Dynamics of Persuasion: Communication and Attitudes in the 21st Century, defines persuasion as ‘a symbolic process in which communicators try to convince other people to change their attitudes or behaviors regarding an issue through the transmission of a message in an atmosphere of free choice.’
Manipulation vs persuasion: Similarities and differences
Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference between manipulation and persuasion. There are distinct similarities, which, to the untrained mind, can blur the line between the two.
- Both are methods of influencing another person’s behavior or decision-making
- The act of both requires an understanding of behavioral psychology, charisma, and assertiveness
- Both involve one person following another person’s logic
- Manipulation is typically associated with negative outcomes, while persuasion is typically associated with positive outcomes
- Persuasion involves the best interests of the person being persuaded, manipulation severe the best interests of the manipulator
- The intention behind persuasion is typically noble – the intention behind manipulation is not
- Persuasion can build trust, and manipulation can break trust
How to avoid being manipulated
As human beings, we’re liable to make some mistakes. Often those mistakes involve not seeing the bigger picture and being convinced that things are not untrue, whether the convincer is another person or our own inner voice.
Sometimes we feel that an injustice has been done to us, and our inner voice tells us that we deserve exact revenge. For example, if you’re of an insecure or paranoid disposition, you might believe that an unanswered call or a text to which there has been no reply means something more than it does.
You might believe that the person you want to contact does not want to talk to you anymore or that they’re ignoring you. As such, you ‘play the game’ and decide to ignore their calls and texts in the future. In this care, your inner voice has manipulated you into ‘winning’ the situation.
In a more social context, you might consider yourself a wise person and believe that you’re above the sleazy, manipulative tactics of a commission-hungry salesman. Your belief in your wisdom and ability to see through the people might be your hubris, as you succumb to manipulative tactics purely out of over-confidence in your own ability to avoid being manipulated.
To avoid being manipulated, it helps to understand the difference between persuasion and manipulation. It can sometimes be hard to tell the difference given the similarities between the two, but since persuasion is generally associated with more positive outcomes, it helps to know the difference, not to tolerate one and consider the other for the greater good.
Learn to tell the difference between manipulation and persuasion
Consider the potential outcomes
One of the major differences between manipulation and persuasion is the outcome. When you’ve been persuaded, you’ve likely been influenced to act in a way that serves the greater good and yields a positive personal outcome.
For example, a friend might persuade you to quit smoking, the outcome of which is improved overall health and reduced risk of illness and disease.
When you’ve been manipulated, you’ve been influenced to act in a way that serves the manipulator but fails to serve your best interests.
For example, a friend who wants to go out for drinks might guilt trip you into joining them by bringing up a time they did you a favor, even though you’re tired, you’re trying to cut down on drinking, and you’ve got work in the morning.
The outcome of the manipulation example above is that you’re even more tired, you feel disappointed in yourself, and you’ve jeopardized your ability to perform well at work the following day. As such, one of the easiest and most effective ways to tell the difference between manipulation and persuasion is to consider the potential outcome.
Considering the outcome is an essential mental technique to help you discern manipulation from persuasion. However, manipulators can be crafty in their approach and may convince you that the outcome of the decision they want you to make will be positive. As such, in addition to mindful consideration of outcome, it also helps to listen to your gut.
Next time you’re faced with a situation in which you’re unsure if you’re being persuaded or manipulated, consider how you feel. Do you feel that you have been shown the benefits and values of a decision and experience a newfound understanding or perspective on the subject? Or do you feel that the decision you’re about to make is based on guilt, shame, anxiety, or fear?
Learn to tune into your body when it comes to making decisions involving other people’s influence? Do you feel pressured? Does your chest feel tight? Does it feel like you’re being coerced or pushed to make an urgent decision? Or do you feel open, respected, and that you’ve been shown a better way of doing things?
It can be hard to spot manipulation when it’s happening. It’s often only after it’s happened and when it might be too late that we realize we’ve been unfairly coerced into doing something that did not align with our best interests or personal values.
To protect your values, well-being, finances, and even your mental health, always remember to take a moment to step back before you make an important decision. Try to avoid making quick decisions out of pressure from another person, and never forget to get a second opinion.
We’re human, so we’re fallible. Don’t be afraid to ask others whom you trust about your decisions and what they think is best, and learn to tune into your authentic wants and needs and make your decisions accordingly.