mackenzie: (Weather - Sunny)
[personal profile] mackenzie
I'll begin this with a note. The term "manipulation" has a really bad reputation. I was introduced to it as a neutral term for changing an object or a situation. I later found out that it has a strong pejorative connotation when used in a social context. When I talk about manipulation here, I am speaking of it in a positive light. Manipulation is a tool for creating as positive and/or productive a social interaction as possible for all parties involved.

When you look at a social interaction, there are generally three pieces at play: the input from one social actor, the black box1, and the output from another social actor. For simplicity's sake, I'm going to assume only two actors, but this applies in any social situation. When you give an input to an individual, it goes into the black box. The black box interprets the input, and gives an output. For example, I say "Let's get dinner together on Friday." The statement goes into your black box and you return "That would be lovely." This isn't complicated. This is a mechanistic way to describe common social interactions we have every day.

Now, I believe that social behavior is deterministic and predictable. The same input will always give the same output. Always. The issue is that social interactions are so complex, with so many variables, that it's difficult to impossible to replicate the input.

A social actor learns what's going on in the box via induction, which is a fancy way of saying that they know the other person really well because they've had lots of interactions. This requires that the social actor maintains a compelling mental model of the individuals they know. Most people have wireframe models of the people they know. They think "What would my friend say if I..." or "How might my boss react if I..." and make predictions from there. The extent to which these models are fleshed out is the extent to which the black box becomes white. Everyone does some amount of modeling and prediction, but I'm taking a moment here to recognize that this is not the dominant social worldview for all people the way it is for me.

The issue with the box terminology is that calling social behavior a black box implies that a social actor can't change what's in the box. In social interactions, this isn't generally true. People are complex enough that an individual is unlikely to reach a level of understanding of social function to get a white box, but a social actor likely has some level of understanding about the people with whom they interact. A social actor can work toward a translucent box, or maybe a box with a removable side panel that lets them access a tiny piece of its innards. In social interactions, when you understand what is going on inside the box, you can manipulate the box and what goes into it.

In elementary manipulation, you are playing with the input. Even with a black box, you can often predict the output. You just don't know how you got it. It's a guess, but one informed by past experiences. You change the way you ask the question, the statement, or your overall behavior. This is based on your knowledge of the person, the situation, the context, or some combination of the three. Most people perform this kind of manipulation without thinking of it as a manipulation. In this worldview, manipulation is akin to adaptability, tact, or general social prowess. Anytime you think something like "You know, I bet my friend is more likely to come out to dinner with me if I say how much I miss them and suggest their favorite restaurant," you're engaging in elementary manipulation. You're manipulating your own behavior in the hope of changing the output you're receiving from another social actor. It's to the benefit of both of you in this case; dinner out would be a great way to touch base with a friend.

In advanced manipulation, you are trying to modify the contents of the box, the process by which the output is determined. This requires at least some part of the box to be white. You need to intimately understand something about the inner workings of a person to manipulate in this way.You are trying to change the way your behaviors will be interpreted by another person without changing your own behavior. This isn't about misdirection or lying: that's elementary manipulation, where you're changing your own behavior. This is about changing the person's very technique of responding. The concept of framing is more or less completely based around the idea of modifying the box. You're changing the way someone is interpreting something. Sticking with the dinner example, I have a close friend I eat dinner with every few weeks. When we get dinner, he drives 40 miles to my house, picks me up, takes me to a restaurant he researched before he arrived, and won't let me pay for anything except drinks. Now, he doesn't do this all the time, but he's done it enough times to reframe what "dinner" means. I am more likely to clear space in my schedule to go out with him, regardless of whether he ends up paying or picking me up, because of the way in which dinner has been reframed. That's advanced manipulation. He may have changed his behavior initially, but it led to changing the content of the my black box. Now it's not his behavior, but the box that gets me to say yes when he asks if I'm free.

Both elementary and advanced manipulation are dangerous. As I noted above, the goal of manipulation is to create as positive and/or productive a social outcome as is possible. What constitutes a positive and/or productive outcome is subjective. When there is a mismatch between what two people feel is optimal, pejorative allegations of manipulation can occur. If I want to get dinner with you, but you really don't want to get dinner with me, my noting that I've missed you is going to feel like a cheap tugging at your heartstrings.

So, do I know that you don't want to go out to dinner with me?

This question is the crux of the difference between good manipulation and headgames. If I don't know you are avoiding dinner with me, my manipulation is intended to be a well-intentioned reminder of friendship and a sincere expression of a desire to spend time with you. If I do know you are avoiding dinner with me, my manipulation becomes a nasty psychological knife in the back designed to get you to do what I want. When most people think about manipulation, they jump to Machiavellian headgames like the latter.

Headgames are a form of manipulation. In a headgame, you are attempting to get a specific response from a person, often to their detriment or against their wishes, for your own benefit. The optimal social outcome for all social actors involved is rarely the one in which you trick someone into doing something they don't want to do.

1When I talk about black and white boxes, I'm using my QA-based understandings of these terms. In black box testing, the tester gives input into a system, and gets output. In a black box, you don't know the means by which the system arrives at an answer, and you cannot change the internal workings of the system. In white box testing, the tester sees the process by which the input is interpreted and has the ability to modify that process. They see program calls, parsing, and whatever else is in the program in addition to the output. In a white box, you not only get the output, you also get to see how the output was determined.
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