The insidious thing about malicious manipulation is that, by design, it goes unnoticed.
Manipulation is an act of subterfuge, and a victim of manipulation does not see themselves as a victim. From the victim’s perspective, they aren’t being manipulated - they are being informed, or protected, or making a choice based on available evidence. A person who is being controlled through manipulation thinks they are in complete control of their own thoughts and actions, and this raises an unsettling question: how do we actually know if someone is manipulating us?
To address this, you really have to get into what makes manipulation what it is. Like mentioned above, it’s fundamentally an act of subterfuge. However, unlike conventional misinformation or the simple act of lying, a manipulator creates complex, self-sustaining structures that can resist or invalidate counterevidence. They effectively create lies that cannot be proven wrong, and to resist this you have to do something that seems extremely counterintuitive to resisting manipulation:
You have to make sure your beliefs have vulnerabilities.
Imagine, for example, that you completely suck at basketball For most of you, this probably will not take much imagination. Let’s say you start to theorize that wearing a sports jersey will improve your basketball abilities. Since, after all, the professional players wear them.
This isn’t a particularly harmful idea, because it has vulnerability. After donning a jersey, you’ll be able to see if you actually get any better at basketball. You even have a numerical metric (score) to judge yourself by. If your average score with a jersey is not discernibly higher than your score without a jersey, you will more or less know that you were wrong. The entire belief is firmly tied to reality, there is an easy way to judge it, and it can be weakened or destroyed if it does not reflect reality. It is extremely vulnerable.
But now, imagine you are a malicious manipulator who wants to sell as many jerseys as possible. And imagine you have no ethical boundaries for doing so.
You could make an outright false claim like “this jersey will make you better at basketball”, but - as mentioned above - that would be extremely vulnerable. Almost every person who uses the jersey would be able to tell that the claim was false. However, imagine you made a claim that was harder to directly address. Like, rather than saying the jersey will increase someone’s basketball ability, you say it will increase their torso agility.
Unlike basketball ability, there is no real way to measure “torso agility”. Agility itself is a pretty vaguely defined concept - the closest thing it’s ever gotten to an official definition was when some researchers said it was “rapid whole body movement with change of velocity or direction in response to a stimulus”, and reducing it to “torso agility” invalidates that.
While it’s pretty reasonable to say that increased torso agility helps someone play basketball (after all, more agility is better), it is very hard to dispute the claim that the jersey increases torso agility. If someone’s basketball ability does not improve after wearing it, you could easily just claim that they weren’t fully utilizing that new agility. Likewise, it would be very hard for them to show that their torso hasn’t gotten more agile - how would you even measure that?. By dealing with something that cannot be concretely analyzed, you have successfully created a stable manipulation entity separate from reality.
And that makes you a dick!
In a lot of ways, this actually parallels the mechanics of mental illness. Someone who suffers severe obsessive compulsive disorder, for example, is disjointed from reality. They might feel like something horrible will happen if they don’t pass through a door in just the right way, and counterevidence will just be dismissed as “I got lucky that time”. Someone with severe depression will feel worthless, and no amount of testimony or empirical analysis of their value will shake that belief - the testimony is just wrong. The beliefs are not vulnerable; they exist in a place where outside reality cannot touch them, and this leads to the “downward spirals” typical of many mental illnesses.
When it comes to conscious manipulation, you can see this same thing very clearly in religious cults. A cult leader may say that a proper amount of faith (and accompanying donations) will make something favorable happen. If someone makes those donations and something favorable doesn’t happen, then their faith wasn’t strong enough and they have to try even harder. It’s a downward spiral based around an idea that cannot be disproved. It’s a very well-designed manipulation construct in that it disjoints the victim from reality.
If you’ve seen that recent “#LikeAGirl” video sponsored by Always, there is a scene toward the end of it that completely hits the nail on the head when it comes to resisting manipulation. The woman in the blue dress is essentially giving the advice to be empirical. She is encouraging young girls to take the notion that being “like a girl” is a negative thing and hold it up against measurable results - to keep it vulnerable to counterevidence, rather than treating it as inherently true. While most people are probably just going to interpret the video as yet another toothless statement of ”our word use causes problems”, the lady in the blue dress actually delivers an incredibly important message about countering manipulation by remaining tied to reality. Determining beliefs based on what you experience rather than what you’re told.
And that is all it really comes down to: remaining tied to reality. It is very easy for us to latch onto harmful false beliefs, and they are often planted there by someone who wants to control us. Like an airborne sickness, it’s not something you can completely wipe out or isolate yourself from - all you can do is develop the antibodies to get over it quickly. To resist harmful manipulation you need to constantly question whether your ideas have vulnerabilities and, if one doesn’t, take a very serious look into where you got it.
Having beliefs that cannot possibly be shaken does not make you an admirable person, It just makes you a danger to yourself and others. Having an invulnerable belief is the biggest red flag that you are someone else’s pawn, and recognizing it is crucial. If you let someone cut your ties to reality, there is no telling what they’ll make you believe.