We all like to think we’re in control of our perceptions and decisions. The idea that we’ve been manipulated into buying something—be it a purse or political rhetoric—is distasteful.
Yet it happens constantly. Because we’re human. In fact, the very things that make us human—empathy, emotion, and exhaustion to name a few—give those who are unscrupulous, desperate, or egotistical an edge when it comes to distorting our thoughts and judgments.
And in certain ways the problem is getting worse. Information overload is one reason we've grown more vulnerable to manipulation. Research suggests that we receive five times more information now than we did 30 years ago. So pitches that seem to simplify the world resonate more today than they did when we had more mental bandwidth.
Another has to do with anxiety. In an era when mysterious dangers seem to be lurking around every corner—from terrorism to data hacks—it's probably no surprise that anxiety indices and even Google searches including the world “anxiety” are all on the rise. There are more reasons to be anxious nowadays thanks to all the influx of information—and when we're riddled with anxiety, we're more prone to psychological manipulation.
The three types of manipulative pitches that are particularly potent in this context are listed below. The good news is that if you know what’s coming at you, you have more power over the manipulators. Enguarde!
Messages in Black and White
There are few absolutes in life. In advertising and politics, however, the world is often presented as yes or no, black or white, good or bad, for or against.
Our minds are most comfortable with the simplicity of what’s called dichotomous thinking, in which it’s easy to pick one brand or political party over another because the choice is presented as uncomplicated and clear. You know the messages—buy this brand and your troubles will disappear, a vote for some politician will spell certain doom for the country, and so on. By distorting the complexities of a situation into an either/or equation, the choice feels simpler and easier. Labeling, overgeneralizing, and meaningless platitudes are common techniques to achieve this type of distortion.
We fall for it because easy, clear choices reduce the anxiety of not knowing, of a world that's shades of gray rather than black and white. Anxiety worsens when we struggle with complicated decisions, so we secretly crave the simplicity of easy dichotomies.
Playing to Our Emotions
Great marketers are great storytellers. They create narratives around products that we can grasp quickly at a simple, emotional level. A slippery few use stories that stretch or aren’t remotely representative of their product’s benefits in order to mislead and manipulate.
Politicians do the same thing when they single out one family or person to manipulate us into using emotional, rather than logical, reasoning. The suggestion is that the anecdote is representative of the world. By playing to our emotions in this way, a master manipulator can trick us into believing that our feelings represent a larger truth, without a rational or factual foundation.
Another way marketers and politicians use emotionalization is by stroking our egos. We have a primal and fundamental need to feel significant in this world, and yet we increasingly feel invisible and unimportant. Just like Kickstarter campaigns, political campaigns can now be brought down to what feels like a very individual level and elevate our sense of influence and power. The truth is that some marketers and politicians genuinely do hope to empower you. Others just want to get elected, or convince you to buy their paper towels. The emphasis on you, then, is all about manipulation. Remind yourself that the sales pitch is not really about you. It’s about them.
When we’re in a hurry, or are distracted or anxious (and we are all of the above much more often these days), we’re especially susceptible to subconscious cues. By that I mean the bits of information that circumvent the thinking parts of our brain and simply cause us to feel a particular way. These hidden messages are like mental shortcuts; and yes, they can serve as tools for manipulation.
Think about the musical score to a movie. You may not even consciously register that notes are being played, but you are likely to feel more clearly what the director is hoping you’ll feel. Music is an obvious tool compared to some of the sneaky subconscious cues that marketers and politicians put in our paths. For example, did you know that if the same person says something three times in a meeting, it can have the effect of group consensus? Repetition is powerful! Labels and hyperbole can seem like accepted truths if they’re repeated enough times, hence the reasons that politicians work hard to "stay on message," and that advertisers show the same commercials again and again.
Associations and symbolism are even more powerful because we increasingly rely on visual images alone to develop perceptions about products and politicians. So visual cues like the posturing, colors, logos, and overall appearances that you associate with people and products pack a big punch and influence our emotions and thoughts.
Whether it’s a flattering pickup line, a photoshopped Facebook photo, a white lie that bolsters a damaged ego, or the cliched parental guilt trip, everyone is guilty of occasionally trying to manipulate others. But we should hold those who hope to influence the public to a higher standard. When that standard is not met, the solution is to arm oneself with insights about how the game is played, so that you're not easily manipulated into absentmindedly giving up your dollars, or your vote, for no good reason.
Kit Yarrow, Ph.D., is a consumer psychologist who is obsessed with all things related to how, when, and why we shop and buy. She conducts research through her professorship at Golden Gate University and shares her findings in speeches, consulting work, and her books, Decoding the New Consumer Mind and Gen BuY.