Is it human nature to be manipulative?
Binging on TV shows like Squid Game and Love Island might leave you thinking humans are naturally duplicitous, but actually a little bit of social nous is a core part of human interaction.
Emotional manipulation has been referred to as the dark side of emotional intelligence by psychological scientist Prof Elizabeth Austin at the University of Edinburgh.
But what does that mean? Austin and her colleagues created the Emotional Manipulation Scale in 2007. According to the scale, people who are high on emotional manipulation say yes to behaving in ways that have obvious negative consequences such as ‘I know how to embarrass someone to stop them behaving in a particular way’, and ‘I know how to play two people off against each other’.
Less obviously negative behaviours can also result in a high score, including agreeing with statements like ‘I can pay someone compliments to get in their good books’, and ‘I am good at reassuring people so that they’re more likely to go along with what I say’. The researchers also found that the higher people scored on the Emotional Manipulation Scale the higher they scored on Machiavellianism, a trait that includes being callous, morally indifferent and manipulative.
Framing manipulation as an inherently bad thing that is only done by bad people is, however, incorrect. There are many reasons why people want to massage a social situation so that it works out well for themselves that don’t result in negative consequences for others. Self-interest can align with the interest of others and can lead to prosocial behaviour. For example, sometimes I do things to make other people feel good because I know it will make me feel good. It’s win-win.
This complexity is also what Austin and colleagues showcased when in 2013 they pivoted from their original scale and created the Managing the Emotions of Others Scale.
Moving from the term ‘manipulation’ to ‘managing’ encourages a different way of talking about this type of behaviour. The most recent short version of the Managing the Emotions of Others Scale was published in 2018 by Austin and colleagues. It breaks down the diversity of ways in which people try to emotionally manage people into five types. The first two are generally prosocial, the third and fourth are non-prosocial, and the fifth is considered neutral.
- Enhancing: strategically offering help, reassurance, or showing understanding to improve someone’s mood.
- Diverting: being positive or using humour to improve someone’s mood.
- Worsening: using criticism or negative comments, undermining confidence, or being angry to gain something.
- Being inauthentic: flattering someone, sulking or guilt-tripping to get what you want.
- Concealing: hiding how you really feel, particularly hiding negative emotions.
Using this concept of manipulation shows us that trying to influence how people around us feel is a core part of human interaction. Some of us are probably manipulating others on a daily basis.
Are some of us are better at manipulation than others? In 2020, Nguyen Ngoc and colleagues published a summary of research involving a total of 5,687 participants. They found that people higher on emotional intelligence scored higher on emotional manipulation.
This means that being able to read the room and spot what people need is an advantage for manipulation. The question is what people do with this advantage. Being good at emotional manipulation “can be used to either help or harm people, depending on the manipulator’s motivation,” they wrote.
By accepting that we are all manipulative, we can better identify when we are manipulating people and therefore keep our motivations in check.
- This article first appeared in issue 371 of BBC Science Focus Magazine – find out how to subscribe here
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Dr Julia Shaw is a research associate at University College London and the co-host of the Bad People podcast on BBC Sounds. She is an expert on criminal psychology, and the author of two international bestsellers, Making Evil: The Science Behind Humanity’s Dark Side and The Memory Illusion: Remembering, Forgetting, and the Science of False Memory.