How to spot manipulators in your life

Psychological manipulation can be interpreted as the attempt to obtain influence over an individual with the means of “mental distortion and emotional exploitation”.

The consequent intent, therefore, would be to grasp power over the victim solely at their expense.

In this regard, it is important to differentiate between healthy social influence and psychological manipulation

Healthy social influence typically takes place between the majority of people, being part of the ‘constructive’ factor which allows for personal growth in any healthy interpersonal relationship. Whereas, psychological manipulation entails one-sided benefits for the manipulator who intentionally establishes an ‘imbalance of power’ in order to exploit the other individual in accordance with their agenda.

Here is a glimpse of the most common manipulative traits:

  • The ability to successfully sense the weaknesses of others.
  • The tendency to exploit the aforementioned weaknesses to their advantage.
  • Through those tactics, they convince the victim to give something of themselves in order to serve a self-centered interest.
  • Once the manipulator achieves success in their manipulation, they will not stop until the victim stops the exploitation as a whole.

Causes for chronic manipulation are of a deep-seated, complex nature. However, it inflicts a lot of damage to the person on the receiving end of the aggression.

That is precisely why a list of tips on how to spot manipulators and their tactics would be helpful in order for individuals to be better equipped in recognizing and handling situations of this sort.

Not every tip would be applicable to each individual circumstance, therefore, one could make use of those they see fit.  

Fear, obligation, and guilt

Manipulative behavior consists of three factors: fear, obligation, and guilt. This circumstance means that whenever you are manipulated you are psychologically made to do something you would not typically have the desire to do in the first place. Therefore, you might be inclined to feel scared and obligated to do it, thus guilty if you do not do it.

The manipulators come in two forms, either “the bully” or the victim”. The first one mainly utilizes aggression to make the victim fearful, thus prone to control and intimidation. In contrast, the second one primarily targets the feeling of guilt, whilst playing the victim even if they are the one at fault.

Individuals who are preyed upon by “the victim” type of manipulator generally have the desire to aid and support him/her in order to relieve their sense of guilt, as they feel responsible for the suffering of the aforementioned manipulator.


Gaslighting is a term used to describe a manipulation tactic which makes people question their own ability to think logically, their memory and themselves as a whole. A deceitful person would most often twist your words, dominate the conversation, or just might leave the feeling in you that you have in some way done them wrong, which you would not necessarily agree with.

To feel gaslighted is to have a sense of guilt and defensiveness as you would if you have failed to do or achieve something when, quite realistically, nothing of the sort has happened.

“Manipulators blame. They don’t take responsibility”, as per the qualified opinion of Sharie Stines, a California-based therapist who specializes in abuse and toxic relationships.

The ‘foot-in-the-door’ and ‘door-in-the-face’ techniques

More often than not, manipulators tend to make use of one of two strategies.

The first one is the so-called ‘foot-in-the-door’ tactic with the means of which the interaction may start with a reasonably small request, like“Do you have time?” which, therefore, would continue onto a bigger request such as “Could you lend me $20 for a ride back home?’ and so on.

“This is commonly used in street scams,”  Jay Olson, a doctoral researcher studying manipulation at McGill University, says.

However, the second one, which is called ‘the-door-in-the-face’ method, is quite the opposite. It consists of making a large request, which would naturally be rejected, in order to later propose a smaller one. This is done, for example, in contract work when the client could be potentially asked for a large sum up-front which would be turned down.

Consequently, a rather smaller amount would be put on the table which, more likely than not, would be accepted. This technique is very efficient, as the smaller sum will always be more appealing in contrast to the much larger one.

Expectations of reciprocation

“If a favor is not done for you just because, then it isn’t ‘for fun and for free. If there are strings attached, then manipulation is occurring.”  – Sharie Stines

This circumstance consists of a person being perceivably very helpful, however, each and every favor would come at a specific cost, as they would put great expectations on the receiver’s end. This means that if the manipulator’s expectation of what he deems adequate as a response, behavior or even reciprocated act in return is not met, the victim will be made to feel ungrateful.

As a matter of fact, the exploitation of norms and expectations of a corresponding act in return to a gesture is one of the most common forms of manipulation, as articulated by Jay Olson of McGill University.

In conclusion, the aforementioned four techniques of manipulation are highly important in terms of recognizing manipulation in a person’s social and/or private life. As mentioned above, not all of the mentioned ‘traits’ or ‘qualities’ may fit each and every individual’s private circumstance, however, it is of significance to utilize the knowledge which is relevant to you personally.

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