We Are Being Manipulated

Photo by William Daigneault on Unsplash

Everybody is trying to get you to act a certain way. Every person. Every thing. All the time.

It happens in conversation when someone attempts to persuade you. Someone is always trying to persuade you. Even your friends.

It happens with advertising. Ads fill every billboard, magazine, or social media feed. By some accounts, we see as many as 10,000 ads a day.

10,000 ads a day. How many people do we see a day? Ten? Forty? A hundred?

Then there is the very food we eat, much of which is processed for a hyper-stimulating experience that makes us want more.

Next, consider the compliance of the road network. There are rules, signs, and traffic lights telling you what to do, manipulating your behavior in the name of safety.

Finally, even this article is manipulating you. By opening with a litany of examples, I’m trying to pull you into an ever-broadening state of confused awareness (if you disliked the title) or strident agreement (if you liked the title).

It’s like the comedian’s setup for a joke.

Next comes the punchline, right?

Not yet. Because the first rule of great manipulation is to never let them see it coming. So I’ll hold on the punchline for now. I’ll even go one further and have no subtitles in this article so you can’t easily scroll ahead.

Now let’s consider the word that occupies the article’s title. What does it mean to manipulate? Google says the following:

Manipulate: control or influence (a person or situation) cleverly, unfairly, or unscrupulously.

But hold that thought. Notice that last line before the definition. Highlighted in bold. Did Google really “say” that was the definition? Does Google “say” anything? Using the term “say” humanizes the software to the form of a friendly reference librarian. The word has a tremendous, though subtle, effect.

So, too, does the word manipulate. You find the adjectives “unfairly” and “unscrupulously” in the definition. This is what people think of when they hear that word. This is why the article’s title is the most clickbaity thing I’ve ever written. It triggers an immediate sense of alarm because we, as humans, hate unfairness. We dislike unscrupulous behavior. So we’re more likely to click.

What if I had instead used a more bland title? Consider the following: We Are Being Shaped.

Or better yet: We Are Being Guided.

Guided is the same as manipulated in terms of control and influence. The only real distinction is that guided seems to imply a more wholesome intent and a willingness from the audience. I have been guided on a tour. I willingly paid for the service and it was lovely. I wasn’t manipulated until the end when I had to exit through the gift shop.

With that in mind, a friend that tries to persuade you to go to the gym isn’t manipulating you; they’re trying to help.

The same is true for the street signs and traffic lights. Those are there to safely guide you to your destination. Along with everyone else.

The junk food? Well, what do we expect a food producer to do? Produce something disgusting? Something bland? It’s a competitive market and even KIND bars have to promise something indulgent with their otherwise-wholesome snacks. They are battling over the same taste buds that a candy bar seeks to please.

Look at our ribbons of chocolate! We’re delicious! We promise! And we might be healthy, too.

So are we being manipulated? Yes. Absolutely. Every single day. All the time. Such is life. Remove the processed food, the advertisements, the gym, and the road network and we’d still be manipulated. Go back to stone knives and bearskins. Even then, someone would try to get you to do or think something.

It gets me to a fantastic line in this week’s book, Frank Luntz’s Words That Work. In the introduction, he speaks to the Hollywood writer Aaron Sorkin and asks a question:

I asked [him] to explain the difference between language that convinces and language that manipulates. His answer stunned me:
“There’s no difference. It’s only when manipulation is obvious, then it’s bad manipulation.”

Make no mistake: a topic like this feels greasy. It’s like a recipe book for how to “spin” what we say. We don’t like “spin”. We don’t like dishonesty or misdirection.

Yet, we practice a high degree of self-sabotage by failing to understand the distinction between our intent and our impact. That failure leads us to use words that have a negative effect on others. Great leaders, including presidents, make this mistake all the time.

No one can be perfect in this. However, Luntz’s book illuminates how we can get better. To some, this knowledge may seem like a recipe to go manipulate the masses. But if we remain steadfast in our purest intent, harnessing the best of our character in the work, we can use this knowledge to further guide us to progress.

Funny. That last line is something a politician would say. And if certain conditions were met, that line could be welcomed by millions. That’s what Frank Luntz shares in his book. It’s worth considering. More to come.