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This section was my workspace for philosophy essays between July 2006 and April 2008. I call this "Prehistoric Kilroy" because it gave me practice for more disciplined essays in Kilroy Cafe. Also see my philophical blog and Twitter feed.

Issue #23, 10/7/2006

The Manipulator

By Glenn Campbell
Family Court Philosopher

Manipulation is an attempt to control other people by "unfair" means.

Example: "If you leave me, I'll kill myself."

We have all dealt with it, and at a certain stage of our development, we probably practiced it. Manipulation plays off the feelings and weaknesses of the listener to advance the personal agenda of the speaker.

Advertizing is manipulative, big time. Tune in to any 30-second TV spot and you'll find light and sound being used to twist your emotions in favor of the product.

You may also see manipulation in many people who are seeking something from the court system, be it an advantageous divorce or avoiding prison. It is especially prevalent among sex offenders, juvenile or adult.

A few days ago in Courtroom 18, I witnessed a sentencing hearing for a 14-year-old boy who had been convicted of molesting a 4-year-old girl. The crime had demonstrated some forethought and deceit, not to mention a disregard for the victim. At issue now was whether he should be placed on intensely supervised probation or sent to a youth camp. The probation officer who had interviewed the boy described him as "manipulative," and the boy himself proved it a few minutes later.

When the time came for his apology, he turned to the parents of the victim and bawled. He was terribly sorry for what he had done. He regretted it all. He pleaded for forgiveness. "Please don't send me away." It was a very convincing performance, except for one thing: There were no tears in his eyes. They were dry. I have seen dozens of these apologies, and the real ones have tears and signs of obvious physical distress. This one was an act.

Then the father of the victim got up to speak. He read from pieces of notebook paper that he held in his shaking hands. His voice quivered. His presentation had no polish and was perhaps a bit overdramatic, but it was real. When he sat down, he was still shaking and his wife took his hand.

The judge sentenced the boy to the youth camp. I watched the boy's face as the sentence was pronounced, and that's when the real tears flowed. His eyes were wet as he was lead from the courtroom.

I am all for the compassionate handling of juvenile offenders — They should be "treated," not "punished". — but this was one case where punishment (or at least the appearance of it) seemed entirely appropriate.

The manipulator is able to grasp that other people have feelings, but not that those feelings are worth anything. This defendant apologized only to try to secure his freedom, not because he recognized that he had hurt someone and wanted to somehow atone. He was not really speaking to the parents; he was consciously trying to sell himself to the judge.

It was a good performance, and many people would have believed it. The manipulator, however, cannot sustain the show over time. As soon as he thinks that the camera is turned off, he will go back to his self-serving ways.

Most suicide threats are manipulative. It is not so much that the person wants to die, but they are desperately trying to gain sympathy and attention from others—by obviously unfair means. If they really want to die, they will jump off a building; if they want attention, they will slit their wrists and tell others that they have done so.

Manipulators are either sociopaths, borderlines or teenagers. The teenagers might grow out of it, and the borderlines will change their story in a few minutes, but the adult sociopath will always be toxic and potentially dangerous.

For whatever social or biological reason, the sociopath never gained the skill of empathy — that is, putting himself in another's shoes and experiencing those feelings as though they were his own. The feelings of others are merely barriers to whatever it is he wants.

Since the sociopath is such a good actor, how do you tell feigned emotion from real?

The only true tests are time and observation. An act can only be maintained for so long and under limited circumstances. The most telling information is revealed when the actor believes that no one is watching. If you observe him when he doesn't think you are (or, heaven forbid, after you have already married him), then you might see something more revealing.

The more time you have to observe the ingenuous subject, the more likely his act will collapse. The genuine subject, however, only gets more authentic with time.

There is also a limit to how many emotional cues can be controlled consciously. The defendant in the case above was able to reproduce the sound and appearance of a real apology, but not the tears. He also turned the performance on and off pretty cleanly. However, these were things that I might not have noticed if the probation officer hadn't already said, "manipulative."

Manipulation is a manifestation of evil. Once you detect it, the best thing you can do is try to get away from it and perhaps tie it off so it causes as little damage as possible. Manipulators, apart from young ones, are not usually amenable to treatment. They will never recognize your feelings as significant but will only use them against you.

Language is not a particularly useful form of communication, because they are speaking a different one than you are. Only boundaries will curb their behavior. If they abuse someone, then they need to be punished. It is the only way they will learn.

They are who the law was made for.

Reader Comments

“helped me see clearly what I had in my heart about my spouse.” — 3/15/07 (rating=5)

“Great, except when they represent themselves (pro se) in court--the court bends over to "protect the record" and they turn the proceeding into their own private circus.” — 6/30/07

“Insightful, A bit of sanity amid dealing with a manipulator” —Anon Mom 1/22/08 (rating=4)

“My one problem is how the word "he" is used.. I am a man single dad and I know alot of what has been noted to be true. Although in my case My ex did this she has gone to the extent to claim a sexual assualt against me and when I was arrested, a week later during our childrens exchange she stuck out her tongue and smiled at me and when no one is around she acts anyway she wants..The important word here is SHE....Still going through this and hurting immensely..” — 6/26/08 (rating=2)

“My mother in law fits the bill.” —Daughter in law 12/17/08 (rating=4)

“xboyfriend was abuser. Now I have no doubts.” —Once targeted 1/23/10 (rating=5)

“I was in a relationship with a sociopath for eight years, and this is exactly how he operated.” — 2/21/10 (rating=3)

“Now I know how to combat manipulation from guys. So I guess it's true that many teenagers are Machiavellians!!” —Laura 6/6/10 (rating=5)

“I believe it's who the law originally was for but now works for rather against. We are not safe in our current justice system.” —Dene' Brown 9/13/10 (rating=2)

“so true of manipulators whether male or female” —Debbie 5/11/11 (rating=5)

Ratings so far: 5 5 3 3 5 4 5 3 2 2 4 4 4 3 5 3 5 2 4 5 (Average=3.8)

Family Court Philosopher:
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Page Started: 10/7/06 Keywords: narcissism personality disorder borderline personality disorder sociopathic personality disorder