Only Fools Manipulate

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Answering a reader-submitted question, Scott Berkun considers what people really mean when they ask, "How do you make people think?" Berkun correctly notes that (a) it is impossible to make someone think, and (b) that such a question really means something like, "How can I get other people to think the way I do?"

I largely agree with Berkun's conclusions, but the following passage inspired some further thoughts:

This means patience and commitment is the only way to encourage people to think and think well. Thinking is a choice. The other person has to find a genuine interest in the question being asked to choose to think. If you manipulate them into thinking something, they'll be just as easily manipulated out of it. Thinking is a social process: we are better at thinking the more time we spend with other people who think well. If you want to help someone think, you have to offer a better community for safely asking questions and searching for answers than the one they have.
I'm not so sure that someone who allows himself to be manipulated into expressing agreement will necessarily be easy to manipulate out of doing so, although that is possible. The real problem is that, assuming the position you advocate is true (i.e., reachable by evidence and logic), the other person has, by not reaching that conclusion in his own mind, not really understood it and cannot be said to agree with it in any meaningful sense. If you care about the truth, force and manipulation get you nowhere. (Note that when manipulation "works", both parties often share the blame. As a corollary, it behoves everyone to guard against manipulation and resist the temptation to attempt it.)

Ideas, guiding actions, have consequences. If someone actively seeks others parroting what he says, it is plain that he does not value being surrounded by others who think for themselves. It is always worth considering why that would be the case, and acting accordingly.

-- CAV

PS: On re-reading this, I have to note further that I don't regard thinking as fundamentally a social process. (As Ayn Rand once noted, a man on a desert island needs rational thought more than ever.) I do agree that thinking can be aided or hindered by social factors, such as those Berkun mentions.


Today: (1) Added PS. (2) Revised PS and paragraph after excerpt.
2-20-15: Corrected typo in title.


Anonymous said...

It's a fair criticism. I should have said it's often a social process, or most likely to lead to progress if it's social.

> "when manipulation "works", both parties
> often share the blame"

True, but I see the argument that the manipulator knows they're doing something unethical, where as the manipulated might be ignorant. Both are responsible but one is the initiator.

The book True Believers by Hoffer is an excellent, albeit disturbing, examination of mass movements and the belief systems they depend on. I don't agree with everything Hoffer concludes, I'm not sure it's possible for any reader to do that, but it's impossible to read that book and not want to have a conversation about it.

-Scott @berkun

Gus Van Horn said...


Thanks for stopping by.

I agree with your mention of ignorance as a possibly exculpating factor in manipulation. I was thinking along the same lines, with fraud being my particular example. (Of course, some people choose to ignore "too good to be true" as a red flag calling for more investigation, or at least checking with more than one source.)

There is no question that men can gain mutual benefit from exchanging knowledge and from free-ranging debate. I think of it as division of intellectual labor.

I have heard of the book, and may own it. It's one I'll eventually get around to reading. I have seen references to it a few times on your blog, so I am sure it will be thought-provoking at a minimum. Thanks for mentioning it again.