I might as well state the conclusion that I have drawn first before we examine some of these specific techniques in more detail below. All covert manipulation tactics are unethical and here is why: we may be tempted to employ covert persuasion techniques when it benefits us, but we don't like the thought that someone is secretly manipulating us without our knowledge. You should treat others how you would like to be treated.
What is Covert Manipulation?
Specific covert manipulation techniques include the use of propaganda, neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), pick-up artist techniques (PUA), obfuscation, subversive symbolism, etc. Covert manipulation tactics are a form of mind control, albeit more subtle than overt forms such as brainwashing. Note that I am addressing some of the well known and organized methods of covert manipulation, not the individual behaviors of your run of the mill sociopath or corporate criminal.
In practice, covert manipulation tactics can include all of the following: using nonverbal cues to get someone to like or to agree with you, guiding or directing conversations in such a way as to reveal only select information, encoding subliminal commands into speech or gestures, trying to build a (sometimes false) sense of trust or rapport in a target, making assumptions about a target’s worth, psychological motivations, wants, needs, or intelligence, not providing all the relevant facts and information, or even concealing the truth.
I began studying these tactics to ensure that it would be harder for anyone to use them against me. While some seem relatively benign, others seem manipulative at first glance. In fact, while I was studying these techniques, the desire to use persuasion techniques to my own advantage, especially in job interviews or adversarial situations was strong, until I stopped to consider whether it was ethical and honest to do so. Wisdom always asks, "Is is right?" Would I like it if this was done to me? Am I capable of using this knowledge without abuse or strictly for person gain and profit?
Even if we are comfortable with the idea of someone secretly manipulating us, that still doesn't make it right for them to do so. Covert manipulation tactics, even those which are not inherently harmful to others, are still an attempt to subvert someone’s free will without their knowledge, for personal gain or to suit an unstated agenda. Covert manipulation means having power over someone, and with that power comes the potential for use or abuse.
Propaganda can also include non verbal techniques. The use of patriotic music at sporting events and military parades is purposely used to bypass the logical faculty of the mind, because music appeals to the right brain and to the emotions. Patriotic music is a useful emotional tool to promote coherence or shared identity within a specific group or nation.
Like other covert manipulation tactics, propaganda is unethical because it is an attempt to circumvent the free will of the individual and the group by nefarious or subconscious means.
However, NLP doubles a powerful covert manipulation tool that can be used on others in the guise of persuasion techniques. NLP can include deliberate use of body language, such as mirroring (subtly imitating what the other person is doing, such a crossing your legs when they do) to get someone to like or agree with you, guiding or directing conversations to your benefit, anchoring (using specific words to direct others’ thought processes), hiding subconscious suggestions within sentences or gestures, and trying to build trust or rapport with a target in order to unduly influence them.
Here is a great video which illustrates how NLP techniques are used by mass media personalities in order to dominate, dismiss and silence political opponents. Try to suspend your views on the subject matter being discussed here to get the most out of watching the video. The subject matter and partisanism don't really matter. The point is to listen to the narrator's analysis of the various NLP tactics used here. While I don’t agree with every single conclusion the narrator draws, his analysis is mostly accurate. I saw this video years ago, and while researching this article, I saw that it was reposted on at least one website which teaches NLP and advanced persuasion techniques. I’m glad to see that they are thinking about how dangerous these techniques can be:
Understanding NLP is essential in adversarial situations so that you can defend yourself and react effectively if someone uses NLP on you. Some NLP proponents are not content to use traditional debate and rhetorical skills; they must rely on subterfuge in order to make their points.
Defenses against subversive NLP include assertively pointing out when someone is interrupting you, not allowing you to answer a question, changing the subject, or trying to deliberately misdirect the conversation. When you call someone out on their underhandedness, they no longer have the advantage.
Pick Up Artist Techniques
PUA techniques can include overt displays of confidence or self worth, getting someone to trust you through quickly building rapport, subtly putting someone down (negging) to demonstrate your own superior worth, touching someone (kinoing) in order to quickly escalate an encounter sexually, misdirecting to make a target think your goal is not sex when it is, and so forth. PUA can even include outright lying depending on the motives of the person using it.
A lot of the criticism of PUA comes from feminists who think that PUA is practiced by predatory men who objectify women. While some PUAs are certainly predatory, I would argue that gender issues are irrelevant to the ethical problems inherent with PUA. I realize that the majority of PUAs are men, but some are women. This isn’t about so called feminism or mens' rights. I argue that PUA can be equally unethical when used by both genders. Any belief system which advocates the dominance or superiority of one gender over the other is inherently unethical. Both genders balance and compliment one another. Egalitarianism is the natural result of neither gender trying to aggressively dominate its opposite.
The ethical problems with PUA begin with the failure of egalitarianism. Rather than approaching someone from a position of equality or human dignity, you approach them from a position of dominance and superficial judgment of their relative worth. You think only of what you can gain from them, or how you can use your superior knowledge of psychology to manipulate or influence them without tipping your hand. Even if you are not predatory in your use of PUA, the practice of the same includes hidden power over others, and for less ethical pick up artists, using that power someone at else's expense.
I realize that it can be hard to meet partners, and that there are a mass of superficial and social conventions which are supposed to govern the courting and mating processes. That does not change the fact that being straightforward and assertive about your desires is ethical and indicative of a person of character. Using dishonest and covert means to "game" others, or lull them into a false sense of security is not. The fact that PUA works is a sad commentary on the present intellectual and moral state of humanity.
Defending Against Covert Manipulation Tactics
The second line of defense against covert manipulation is to study all of the methods available in detail, with the aim of understanding and recognizing them if they are ever used on you, or if you see them used by the media. We should learn about everything, even things we don’t agree with. Some types of covert manipulation, like propaganda, are more or less one directional. You aren’t interacting with the source of the manipulation, but you can still recognize the forms that it takes.
I have discussed the importance of assertive communication and boundaries in previous posts. Assertive communication can help defend against NLP or PUA techniques when you feel someone is misdirecting a conversation, trying persuade you, invading your personal space, or steering you into something that you don’t want. It’s also a good idea to have strong personal boundaries which help to protect you from predators and manipulators.