When does influence become manipulation?
Spoiler alert, I dont have the answer but I have a view and some experience in this space. This is a key area that I feel we as a culture have fallen onto the wrong side of. Marketing is no longer about brand identity, it's about influencing people, a community or a country to act in a the way you want them to act. To buy your product, or like your post, or vote for your party...these desires and intents are in themselves not negative.
For me when influence is used to get someone to do something that is going to negatively affect them this is when influence reaches into manipulation. So for the purposes of this article manipulation is the negative use of influence.
Influence is important though, think what our lives would be like if we weren't influenced by our parents? For some that may be a good thing, but for the majority of us I believe we are who we are, the good and the bad, because of our parents. They are the most influential figures in our lives at a key time in our lives.
That last sentence captures 2 key aspects, we are influenced by those who we allow proximity and position in our lives and the timing of that influence is also key.
Understanding how, who and when you are likely going to be influenced is an interesting challenge and something I feel in this day and age of 24/7 marketing we need to understand in detail.
The military is a lever of influence for it's government, and as a result of that the British military at its very core conducts action through influence activity. Each young officer is taught about Cialdini's 6 principles of persuasion, I found this area of study at Sandhurst very interesting. These principles are powerful when applied and when you understand them you can see them throughout almost every aspect of advertising, marketing and parental persuasion. These principles are:
Consistency (and commitment)
Rather then expanding on these principles here (read Caldini's book for that), I want to challenge you to identify areas that you have been influenced by each principle? Here's some questions to help you:
Why did you buy the phone you have? Is it because your friends have the same model or make? or was it because you made an objective decision having considered all the facts?
Why are you wearing the clothes you are wearing? Is it because you like the clothes so decided to wear them? or is it because you saw someone else on Instagram wearing a similar outfit?
When you see a member of the opposite sex in a bar who you are attracted to, why may you feel the urge to ask them if you can buy them a drink? are we hard wired to use reciprocity as a
way of influencing someone?
When was the last time you saw a shop with a closing down sale 'Everything must go'? Or when did you last buy something on Black friday? did you need to buy that thing then or did the time limited offers draw you in? Which principle is being employed?
Why did you do what you boss asked you? because you 100% agreed or because your boss asked you to do it? If you boss showed up to work with a hangover would that make you more or less likely to think this behaviour was acceptable?
Why do you brush your teeth each night? is it because you made your own decision that it was good for you? or is it because your parents/carers consistently drilled it into you?
That's quite an eye opening exercise I think and may have helped you identify areas of your life that you made decisions based on something other then objective analysis.
To extend the exercise think of areas where you can use influence in your work or life to better achieve your goals and happiness.
How could you get that promotion?
How could you commercially position your business so that you can charge more for your product?
How could you get that item for a lower price?
How could you get your 3 year old to stop drawing on the walls?
How could you get that person to go for a drink with you?
This is an interesting exercise because almost immediately the ethics of influence will come into mind, are you using influence to manipulate or to achieve positive outcomes?
I think there are 4 areas that can help us differentiate positive influence from negative manipulation, these areas will be subjective and vary from person to person:
Intent - Is the outcome of this influence good for both parties? for the greater good? or in line with the businesses objectives? Just because it's bad for one of the parties involved doesn't make it manipulation, hard decisions need to be made at times.
Method - is the method of delivery of this influence honest and transparent or does it rely on deception? Are facts being used or are the facts being distorted? what role does fake news and confusing the narrative have in your influence campaign?
Subject area - The area of this influence can define to what ethical bar we are held, in politics the ethical bar should be very high but in reality it is very low. Is making disparaging comments and statements about an opponent a part of the subject or is it out of the field of play?
Instigator - is the instigator of this influence campaign clear and transparent and the bias obvious, or are they using a different vehicle for their influence? A good example here is some of the under hand tactics Cambridge Analytica used in Trinidad and Tobego and the need for Instagram influencers to explicitly call out when they are advertising something.
We are all manipulators to some degree, sorry to say it but we are all in our very nature capable of manipulation. I think it stems from natural selection and our days as cavemen and women.
I haven't got the answers for when influence becomes manipulation, I've attempted to outline some ways you may assess if something is manipulative but this is a highly subjective area. The next level of analysis here is what are the secondary influence effects of your behaviour, how could someone perceive your actions to be manipulation when in fact they are completely innocent?
As a parent I think this is a very interesting subject, don't underestimate the power of social proofing when used (intentionally or not) on your kids. Social proofing is basically how we learn, we see something someone else is doing and we decide based on that person's position and proximity in our life if we want to copy or ignore that activity.
I have previously written about being deliberate, I believe it is important in this space that we are deliberate, we need to understand what is influencing us and why? And how we can use influence deliberately to achieve the joy and success in life we desire.
So be deliberate, understand the methods and techniques being employed today to get you to part with your money, to get you to do something, or to get you to like someone. Eyes wide open....
A great Netflix documentary on this subject is The Great Hack, if you haven't watched it that's your homework...