It’s Evil Week at Lifehacker, which means we’re looking into less-than-seemly methods for getting shit done. We like to think we’re shedding light on these tactics as a way to help you do the opposite, but if you are, in fact, evil, you might find this week unironically helpful. That’s up to you.
Scaring The Hell Out Of You: The Fear-Then-Relief Procedure
What it is: Arguably the most evil manipulative technique is what psychologists call the “fear-then-relief technique.” The technique preys on a person’s emotions. Here, the manipulator causes someone a great deal of stress or anxiety and then abruptly relieves that stress. After this sudden mood swing, the person is disarmed, less likely to make mindful or rational decisions, and more likely to respond positively to various requests.
Examples: The book The Science of Social Influence details a few experiments that showed this in action. In one, shoppers in a mall were scared by a stranger touching their shoulder from behind. When they turned around, the shoppers found that their assailant was a (supposed) blind man who just wanted to ask the time. After that deflection and relief, someone else – the fake blind man’s confederate – asked the targets if they would buy and sign postcards for a political charitable cause. Those who had met the blind man and experienced the fear-then-relief rollercoaster were more likely to do so than the control group which wasn’t manipulated.
This fear-then-relief manipulation technique is most popularly portrayed in the classic bad cop/good cop routine: one person scares the hell out of you, another saves you, and then you’re more willing to talk. You see this in everyday life, too — from the fear tactics of insurance agents to bad managers who suggest your job is on the line, backtrack, and then ask you to work overtime.
Making You Feel Guilty: Social Exchange
What it is: One strategy con artists and unethical marketers use is simply called “social exchange.” The book The Dynamics of Persuasion describes it as:
an interpersonal persuasion strategy in which Person A provides Person B with a tangible or psychological reward; in exchange, when Person A approaches B with a request for compliance, B feels pressure to comply.
Exchanging favours and doing things for others is a basic part of human society, but this can be manipulated by aggressive people.
Examples: A co-worker could remind you about that time they bailed you out big time in the past, then use that as leverage every time he/she needs something. Or someone who loaned you money or knows a secret of yours could continually blackmail you into doing what they want (a subject we’ve covered extensively).
Priming You With A Small Request: The Foot-In-The-Door Technique
What it is: This manipulation technique is evil because it’s so tricky, subtle, and simple. With the foot-in-the-door method, someone asks you to do a very small and easy request and then follows up with the real request.
Examples: NPR gives an example of a panhandler who asks you for the time, then asks you to spare a buck. By getting you to say yes to one request, you’re more likely to say yes to a second one.
Avoiding These Manipulations
Just knowing about manipulative techniques can help you avoid falling victim to them. For the fear-then-relief technique, for example, be on the lookout whenever you feel a surge in negative and then positive emotions. You’re more vulnerable at that time to do things mindlessly and at the suggestion of others.
Watch out for statements that follow this general formula: [Something terrible] could have happened to you, but it [didn’t/won’t]. [Now do this]. These aren’t the only ways someone could trick you into saying yes, of course, but they are some of the more common — just keep an eye out, stay on your toes, and you should be able to spot when someone’s trying to pull a fast one.