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Issue #63, 1/9/2007

Detecting Manipulators

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

Good and evil are not merely theoretical concepts. They are systemic patterns of brain activity. Evil is a brain that is at war with itself as is tries to cover up a self-inflicted lie. Good is a brain in harmony with itself because it has nothing to hide. Only the good brain is capable of joy, empathy and true humor. The evil brain is locked in isolation and perpetual torment as it frantically tries to tie off all the loose ends of its public and private deception.

As described in essay #38, Evil Explained, evil is the condition of lying to yourself. There is some fundamental inconsistency within you that you are trying desperately to defend. For example, you may be doing drugs while at the same time telling yourself that you don't have a drug problem. The problem isn't in you, you claim, but in the employer who fired you, the spouse who left you, the relatives who refuse to give you money or the caseworker who took away your kids. You may acknowledge that you have done drugs, but you claim it is something that you have under control and that hasn't hurt you. "I am not an addict," you say.

This kind of inner inconsistency breeds outward aggression. Attacking those people who seem to be putting you down becomes a necessary substitute for any self-blame. To preserve your fragile self-esteem, you project all responsibility outward onto whatever convenient target is available. When your case is weak and the blame doesn't really fit the person or entity you are pinning it on, then you beef up your position with anger and possibly violence. This active aggression is necessary to propel the reproach away from you and onto the other person.

Anger is an expression of frustration. It is what people resort to when all other pathways have been blocked. It is rarely a productive emotion in the outside world, but internally it serves the immediate purpose of deflecting responsibility away from oneself. The resulting aggression is a form of self-medication, like taking an aspirin. While you are beating up someone else, you aren't hurting inside.

Aggression comes in two different flavors: overt and manipulative. Overt aggression is obvious: It is yelling, complaining, punching, shooting, etc. Manipulative aggression is more subtle. It is the quiet exploitation of others to achieve ones aggressive goals. For example, instead of punching your ex-wife, you can arrange to get her fired from her job by making false complaints against her. In the warped world of emotional logic, both actions divert blame away from you and onto her.

The trouble with manipulative aggression, for us on the outside, is that it is hard to detect. The aggressor always has a logical sounding explanation for what he does, and weak-minded people are easily persuaded by his sales pitch. A manipulative wife, for example, can make false domestic violence claims against her husband when he seems to be withdrawing from her, and the police often fall for it. The complaints may sound real and may be loosely based on real incidents, but the inner purpose is to cause the other party damage, not to seek protection.

Manipulators are a serious problem in divorce court. Accompanied by a good lawyer, they can often control the proceedings and make the other party seem like the aggressor when in fact they were. They seek custody of the kids and every marital assets possible, but they don't really care about the kids or the assets; they just want to inflict as much damage as possible on the other party. This outward aggression is necessary to relieve them of their own inner blame for the failure of the relationship.

Many manipulators do well in the structured environment of a court hearing, which is usually easier to control than real life. They often come across as reasonable and responsible in their testimony. It is only outside of court that their facade breaks down. After they have custody of the kids and are no longer being watched, their show of caring may be discontinued.

It is important to all of us to have an early-warning detection system for this kind of evil. How do we distinguish a smooth and clever manipulator from someone who is genuine? How should judges detect them, and what sort of questions should attorneys ask them on cross-examination?

A lie detector would be helpful. Ideally, you would want to hook the person up, start asking them questions and see when they squirm. As mentioned in Evil Explained, the person's evasive reactions to the test itself may be more important than the read-out from the machine. Although most of his testimony may be based loosely on the truth, there are parts that he knows are lies, and he will resist having those questions asked.

Unfortunately, a lie detector is not admissible in court and is not usually available in everyday life, so you have to come up with your own ad-hoc lie-detection system based on the tools and information available. If you are a lawyer, your aim is to ask the question that boxes the witness into a corner and forces him to reveal himself.

To start, the manipulator is not usually someone of joy, humor or comfortable reciprocal relations with others. They rarely smile or laugh, at least convincingly, because their defenses are too tightly wound to allow any such spontaneous expression. Of course, the other party in any court proceeding is probably also not smiling or laughing very much, but you may be able to engage them. If they are capable in some way of stepping outside of themselves, understanding the feelings of others and appreciating the absurdity of their situation, then they are probably not a manipulator.

Even without a lie detector, you can still ask the same questions that you would if they were connected to one. If a party's position is basically a lie, then the more questions you ask, the more inconsistencies you will find. If you home in on these inconsistencies and continue to ask about them, then the witness is eventually going to make mistakes and show you more of what they are really made of.

Some of the best fictional manipulators were those found on the TV series Columbo. Each week, some celebrity would commit the seemingly perfect crime, covering all his tracks and adjusting his behavior for all the factors that he could think of at the time. Ol' Columbo, however, would home in on some minor inconsistency and use it to pry out the truth.

"One more thing, sir..." he would say.

If we get seduced by a manipulator and end up doing his will, it is usually because we failed to ask the obvious questions and follow up on the inconsistencies that we knew were there. Perhaps the other person got angry or created some other smokescreen, and we backed off. Or maybe we projected onto them what we wanted to believe, so they didn't have to answer any questions at all.

Even the most talented actor can't control everything. For every lie, there is going to be factual loose ends and emotional "leakage"—places where a person's real intent intrudes into his act. A theatrical role, no matter how well acted, has only one or two dimensions, while someone's real personality is multidimensional and can't be hidden for long.

Typically, Columbo would set up some little charade or experiment, and the other guy would fall for it. Every lie generates a lot of resulting effects, and the initial scheme can never take them all into account. The typical ruse involved Columbo pointing out some inconsistency to the killer. The killer would then try to correct it, but by doing so he revealed his true intent and his knowledge of the crime, and an arrest could then be made.

The actual detection, however, took place well before this, when Colombo picked up on some minor inconsistency early in the case. There was nothing magical about Columbo's methods. It was all about being polite but also being a little irritating and not letting the other guy control the interrogation. Columbo knew that you can trip up any manipulator by being dogged and following up on every inconsistency with a question.

“Just one more thing....”


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