The Art of Psychological Self-Defence

The Art of Psychological Self-Defence

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How to protect yourself from mendacious manipulation

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"Protect yourself against those who would manipulate you." courtesy of Shutterstock

You, I, and everyone will be manipulated. At least to some degree. Life, including other people and organisations, moulds, shapes, and conditions us.

And if we don't understand how this happens, we're more vulnerable to being manipulated by malevolent forces - anything from the predatory narcissist to a parasitic cult or other form of of toxic groupthink.

In this piece I want to talk about some of the ways that can happen.

The hidden persuaders that lead our emotions

There are 'hidden persuaders' all around us in life. When we are young we like to think that we are different: somehow immune to the psychological pressures that bend, manipulate, and condition other people. We are not like that, are we?

But part of real growing up is starting to see how you yourself are led by the environment, influenced by other people, and driven by your personal needs.

People are manipulable precisely because we share innate human characteristics that render us all susceptible, to a point. Of course, some people are naturally more prone to succumb and some have higher levels of natural immunity to the 'infection' that is psychological pressure - and that can make us do things we would normally never think of doing.

But assuming that we are already 'immune' is the surest way of catching the 'disease'. Consider this scenario.

Would you feed your children poison?

It's 1978, in Guyana, and you are a loyal member of Jim Jones' cult, 'The Peoples Temple'. There you stand, in the middle of 'Jonestown', as Jones commands you to drink poisoned Kool-Aid - but only after first ensuring your children have drunk it and died. What do you do?

Well, of course you don't do it. Who is he to tell you to end it all? You are not an automaton to be ordered about!

But an astounding 900 people simply followed his instructions. People who wanted to live and wanted their children, wives, and husbands to live.

Why did they do it? Why, too, did men and women allow themselves to be sexually abused by this man? Why did they agree to sell their homes and give all their money to his 'Peoples Temple'? Were they of unusually low intelligence? Were they completely crazy?

No. Some of them were highly skilled and intelligent.

Or was Jim Jones a highly skilled manipulator of human emotionality? Did he instinctively know how to push the human 'buttons' and so string people along even to the extent that they would poison their own children?

This is an extreme example, obviously, but the way Jim Jones used psychology to grab and maintain such immense power is something we can all fall victim to, albeit in much less dramatic ways.

Let's take a look at how this happens - and personally I think these are points we should all be taught at school.

'Jonestown' has happened many times - and will happen again. It may go by a different name, but we will see the same psychological mechanisms at play.

Understanding these mechanisms can help make us immune not just to the grosser psychological manipulations of a cult leader but also to the subtler counterproductive psychological conditioning that we all take as part and parcel of everyday life. I personally believe this is something that should be taught at school. The more we can understand these forces, the more control we can exert over them, and the more truly free we can become.

Let's start by taking a closer look at Mr Jim Jones.

Anatomy of a master manipulator

Jim Jones was a master of appearing to give people what they needed. And this is the crucial point to grasp. Sure, he was passionate, and his utter self-belief, psychopathic fearlessness, and unwavering certainty were intoxicating for many. But it wasn't just these personal qualities that ultimately led hundreds to their doom.

In order for someone to manipulate, they must target elements within a person that are vulnerable to manipulation.

Beware the person that gives you what you want

"If you see me as your friend, I'll be your friend. If you see me as your father, I'll be your father, for those of you that don't have a father... If you see me as your savior, I'll be your savior. If you see me as your God, I'll be your God."

- Jim Jones

If someone comes along and seems to good to be true... well, they just might be. If they suddenly seem to, or promise to, fulfil so much in you that had previously been lacking, you may feel overwhelmingly drawn towards them. That is the time to be cautious.

So what are the needs that Jim Jones seemed to (and perhaps did for a while) fulfil in his followers to instil such loyalty and fear of being cast out from his 'temple'?

Our primal human needs can fulfil or destroy us

We all have primal emotional needs, as well as physical ones, which make us uniquely human. Each and every one of us has these needs, to varying degrees depending on our distinct personalities.

If your innate and fundamental psychological needs as a human being are not met adequately in your life, then you will suffer. Many people, even many therapists, don't seem to be aware of these needs or properly take them into account within themselves and other people in their lives.

But Jim Jones did.

Trying to meet your emotional needs is instinctive and unconscious. Unless you understand what is happening and respond appropriately, you will latch on to any source that appears to satisfy these needs.

What that means is that if someone seems to meet your emotional needs, and especially if they start to convince you that only they can meet your needs, they will gain emotional power over you.

Your needs include:

  • the security of a safe environment in which to develop
  • giving and receiving attention
  • a sense of autonomy and control
  • emotional connection to others
  • a sense of being part of a wider community or something larger than yourself
  • friendship, fun, love, and intimacy
  • a sense of status within social groupings (which includes feeling important in some way)
  • a sense of competence and achievement
  • meaning and purpose arising from creative and intellectual challenges.

If any of these needs are not adequately met, you will feel strangely attracted to anything that promises to supply what is lacking. But simply knowing that this is happening can save you no end of trouble.

It's too easy and simplistic to dismiss the rise of the Nazis as 'evil'. Certainly the effects were evil. But the causes consisted in the universal needs that seemed to be met in the populace during Hitler's initial rise (along with other influences I'll mention in a moment).

To blithely dismiss people who are sucked in by these ideologies as 'stupid' or 'wicked' is to misunderstand how human need works in the world.

We are all susceptible

Many of Jones' adherents were poor, disaffected people who were not leading satisfying lives or meeting their primal, basic needs in healthy ways. They were people facing uncertain futures. People with negative self-images. People with no sense of purpose or meaning and little sense of community or status.

Jim Jones offered the overwhelming promise of certainty, company, (divine) purpose, community, self-respect, and feelings of security 'inside' the cult. And there must have been some really great times, because eventually they followed Jones, like some modern-day Pied Piper, into oblivion.

But there are more everyday examples of the same pattern working.

It's easy to see that if our needs are not being met adequately in healthy ways, then something that comes along and seems to promise to meet these needs in one neat 'package' can feel pretty irresistible.

On a more mundane level, consider how many people feeling neglected in a marriage have an affair with someone just because it was "so nice" to be listened to, flattered, paid attention to, and so forth. The very same unconscious propulsion towards an affair like that might drive others into the arms of a cult (or to spend money uncontrollably).

The drive to meet our needs is immense.

If you ever find yourself asking questions like "How could anyone fall for that old line? How could I have been so stupid? Why do they believe such nonsense? How could we have been conned like that?" remember the primal human needs.

When you wonder what someone sees in the person you can't believe they're with, try to see what needs that person may seem to be meeting for them, even if it's simply the need for challenge and excitement.

The clearer we can be about how we can be led by our needs, the more honest we can be with ourselves - and the less we will have to do the following.

You can find a 'rational' argument for anything

We all need quality attention and strive to meet that need somehow, but our thirst for it can blind us to the potentially unsavoury aspects of the person (or thing) that is offering us this attention. There is a dark side to all our human needs.

The emotional drive is so powerful that it will enlist the help of the conscious mind to construct compelling, seemingly logical arguments to support what you feel compelled to do.

Jones' followers, too, would certainly have developed a belief system around the cult, and constructed what they believed were rational arguments for sticking with it. Few would have been clear minded or honest enough in the moment to understand how Jones had used their emotional needs against them.

It's easy to say afterwards, "How could I have been so stupid?" But extreme incidents like the Jonestown massacre demonstrate just how overridingly powerful the drive to meet our needs is. It can completely overwhelm clear thinking - just as a person dying of thirst in a desert might put a bottle of bleach to their lips if it was offered to them, because when you are that desperate then any liquid might seem as though it could save you.

But it's not just through learning about cults that we can see how we can all be influenced like this.

What makes you die to buy?

Robert Cialdini studied how and why people comply (or buy) in business and identified a set of principles which he termed the 'weapons of influence'.1 He was looking at business interactions, but his principles apply equally well to cults and manipulative relationships of any kind. And if you look closely, it's not hard to see the link between his principles and the basic needs outlined above.

So what hidden influencers did Cialdini spot?

Cialdini's six 'weapons of influence'

Reciprocation

"But they've done so much for me!"

When you feel beholden to someone, the 'law of reciprocation' is operating upon you. Jim Jones constantly reminded his converts of all he and the 'church' had done for them, how he had 'saved them'. How could they begrudge doing anything for the church?

If someone constantly reminds you how much they are doing or have done for you, then they are being manipulative. It runs all the way from free samples in advertising to someone doing you an unrequested favour - the aim is to make you feel beholden.

Commitment and consistency

"I said it, so I must think it!"

If people publicly commit, verbally or in writing, to an idea or goal, they are more likely to honour that commitment. We like to appear consistent to ourselves and to others (think of the opprobrium heaped upon politicians who 'make a U-turn'!).

Of course, to be able to change your mind shows flexibility and maturity, but if you have invested large amounts of time, money, or both in something or someone then it can feel harder to change course.

Jim Jones' followers had invested their money, property, and beliefs into his cult. It may have been too hard to bear to admit they had been fooled.

To suddenly stop following orders or abandon dearly held beliefs can simply feel impossible for many people - even in the face of mounting counterevidence. This is where cognitive dissonance may rear its self-deceptive head.

Social proof

"A million people can't be wrong."

For many of us, the fact that other people are doing or buying something is reason enough to do it ourselves.

People will naturally do things that they see other people are doing. If 'everybody' is doing it then it is somehow sanctioned. This is how people get drawn into being 'fashion victims' as well as cult victims.

This is not just blind stupidity on our part. For our ancestors to survive in a world of predators, they had to form cohesive groups and look to others for behavioural cues. Even today, this is still useful up to a point, but - as with all persuaders - it can be used against us. It can even cause harm to other people, as with the bystander effect, whereby we don't act simply because others don't act.

Notice how these hidden persuaders can and do work, perhaps even more so, within the online world of social media.

Authority

"Do as they say because they're the boss!"

People will tend to obey authority figures even if they are asked to perform objectionable acts. Authority figures come in many different guises. Jim Jones was certainly naturally authoritative. But often all it takes is for someone to be wearing a uniform, or appealing to some other higher authority, for us to become blindly obedient. When we react to authority (even if we are anti-authority), our buttons are being pushed.

Social proof can also create a sense of authority around a figure, product, or organisation. If many other people seem to need to be obedient to some source of influence, then we might assume there are good reasons to obey them (which, of course, there might be).

But it's not just authority figures that are in a prime position to manipulate.

Liking

"But they seemed so nice!"

People are more easily persuaded by people they like. And we tend to like physically attractive people, and deem them to be naturally more intelligent and moral. This is the so-called 'halo effect'. Cialdini also demonstrated that people are more likely to buy from people they like.

But likeable people might not do very likeable things, and that's the problem. It's no coincidence that cult leaders and salespeople tend to be charismatic and attractive.

Scarcity

"For a limited time only!"

Have you ever noticed that if you don't do it now then it may be too late?!

If something seems scarce, then demand for it increases. "Limited offer", "While stocks last", "Sale ends Friday" - all these marketing strategies use the the scarcity principle.

In manipulative relationships, it may be used thus: "You'll never meet anyone who loves you as much as I do!" The implication is that I am rare, and so more valuable to you. Jim Jones formulated it as "The Peoples Temple is the only place you can be saved", and all cults have a similar line.

So what's your takeaway from this?

Keep it simple

To protect yourself from manipulation, by organizations and individuals, you need to:

  • Be aware that 'promise of gain' and 'threat of loss' are basic universal tools for manipulating belief and behaviour.
     
  • Understand that if your basic, primal emotional and physical needs are not adequately met, you become more vulnerable to anyone willing to exploit this gap. Just understanding this can help inoculate you against falling victim to cults and other manipulations.
     
  • Observe how Cialdini's 'weapons of influence' operate in everyday life (often in benign ways) and how they are linked to the universal needs.
     
  • Finally, stay calm. A calm mind can perceive the world much more clearly and objectively.

Most people and organizations are not actually out to exploit or manipulate others, but, as the unfortunate followers of Jim Jones back in 1978 discovered, when they do, horrible things can happen.

I really hope you have found this useful and will think about it and use it to understand yourself and other people, and do what is right by them and you.

I've written a whole series on how each of the primal emotional needs can be used against people. Read 'The Dark Side of Your Emotional Needs here.

Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses. You can read more about me here.