5 ways to spot a manipulative individual, according to psychology

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Back when I was 21, I had a very close friend. Let’s call her Chantelle.

She was all that I aspired to be: beautiful, confident, and charismatic. We met at a college party, and from the very start, I was captivated by her (to say the least).

This was a woman who seemed to know everyone—and I mean everyone—and was full of hilarious, exciting stories that had me hanging onto her every word. I wanted nothing more than to be a part of her world. 

But it would take me years to unravel the truth: she was manipulating me.

In the beginning, her manipulations were super subtle—an undermining comment here, a nudge in the direction of her choosing there. 

But as time went on, I saw that Chantelle deeply knew how to play on my insecurities and desires, slowly molding me into someone who would blindly support everything she did.

Years on, I look back at that period with a mixture of gratitude and sadness. Breaking free from the friendship was rough, but I’d love to help you learn from my experience.

If you’re looking for ways to spot a manipulative person (and with some powerful psychology to back it up)… you’ve come to the right place!

Here are five signs they’re pulling your strings, beginning with a big one: the silent treatment.

1) They purposely ignore you (aka they’re masters of the silent treatment)

A University of Michigan study that empirically explored the tactics of manipulation in close relationships—among partners, friends, and parents—found that the silent treatment is a tell-tale sign of a manipulator.

The research found that silence was commonly used by men to influence spouses and potential intimate partners, with respondents reporting they often deployed the tactic labeled: “don’t respond to her until she does it.”

Hmm. Does that remind you of any one you know?

These types of people love the silent treatment because they know how it messes with your head.

Going dark on comms can leave you guessing, forever fretting if you did something wrong—and if so, what exactly it is you did wrong.

This kind of treatment makes you spiral into self-doubt. Suddenly, you’re apologizing just to make the painful silence go away.

It helps to remind yourself that when that particular someone goes silent, it’s not about your actions: it’s all about control.

2) They profusely compliment you and reassure you

A groundbreaking study which looked into the tactics of emotional manipulation used in Australian workplaces found that manipulative people tended to offer “reassurance and compliments to influence people’s behavior.”

One reason why someone might be excessively praising you in the workplace is because it creates a pattern of dependency—the more they praise you, the more you depend upon their approval.

It’s super important to pay attention to timing, too. These compliments typically pour in when there’s a whole lot of tension at work. 

In this way, it’s a kind of manipulative tactic of diversion, so that this coworker is able to better steer your focus from the real issues at play.

Also, when you’re swimming in compliments, you might even find yourself overlooking their problematic actions at work. In other words, they’ve become gifted at keeping you on their side.

If you’re wondering whether there’s a particular kind of colleague who is more likely to pull at your emotional strings in this way, there might be. 

The study also found that males scored “significantly higher” than females in various areas of emotional manipulation in the workplace. 

Researchers explored how in male-dominated environments, emotional manipulation can sometimes be considered an “instinctive” and “adaptive” behavior.

This was found to be particularly true in corporate environments where “stereotypical male behaviors” such as “assertiveness” and “independence” are deemed as desirable traits.

If a particular person comes to mind in the workplace when you think of this, you might be interested to know that the study also concluded that managers were “more likely to manipulate others maliciously” than other employees.

3) They work to undermine your confidence 

If you’re a woman and you’ve been friends with another woman, you’ll know that sometimes it ain’t no walk in the park.

A joint study between the University of Central Lancashire and the University of Edinburgh investigated emotional manipulation in female friendships.

“Women tend to use relational aggression as a manipulation strategy and, overall, women’s manipulation is reported to require more subtle methods,” said researchers.

One particular kind of “strategy” used in emotional manipulation falls under the category of a “worsening strategy”, which can involve “undermining another person’s confidence” and “using criticism.”

If you’ve had a BFF undermine your confidence, it might look a little something like this: maybe when you share a major work win with this person, instead of a high-five, you receive a almost-disguised eye-roll or a totally dismissive comment.

Maybe it sort of feels like this person isn’t at all interested in seeing you shine. 

Nope, they’d prefer to dim your light so they can sparkle a little brighter. 

It’s ultra manipulative as they’re aiming to keep you in a perpetual state of self-doubt, making you more dependent on their gratification.

Interestingly, researchers also concluded that manipulation was often “seen as a socially acceptable way for women to relate to each other and to build relationships.”

Of course, this isn’t to say that this behavior is something you need to accept in your social life. 

Instead, it’s incredibly important to remember that usually, people are doing this because deep down they’re battling their own fears and insecurities.

By making you doubt your accomplishments, they feel a twisted level of superiority over you.

4) They sulk to get their own way

This same study on female friendship explores a secondary strategy of emotional manipulation, and that falls under the category of an “inauthentic strategy”, which can include “sulking to get [their] own way.”

Sulking can be a very subtle tool of manipulation

These friends (or so-called friends) might resort to sulking and playing the victim in order to get what they want without outright asking for it.

When they play the victim, it triggers your empathy, making you feel guilty or hurt. And voila, you find yourself giving in to their wishes just to avoid all the usual chaos and drama.

5) They appear to be afraid of losing you, or not getting what they need from you

A study in The Phenomenology of Social Impairments journal associated emotional manipulation as often being a symptom of a personality disorder, in which some people might use “manipulative strategies to ensure that their needs are met.”

“Manipulative behaviors that provoke attention from and often conflict with relevant others can be seen as attempts to overcome feelings of disconnection,” researchers said.

This is one I can speak to personally! I used to have this one friend, who when they sensed I was slipping away or getting close to finding different friends, got super emotional and in turn, made me feel really, really guilty.

Of course, these emotions would pretty much magically disappear once I rushed to their side.

They had this habit of creating problems in order to guarantee that I was fully engaged and invested in them. And let me tell you—it led to a whole lot of emotional burnout for me!

As the study asserted, these manipulative people will often roll out the waterworks and tactics of this kind because of their deep-seated fear of abandonment.

Beneath the dramatic performances is the anxiety that if they don’t keep you hooked, you might leave them.

It’s not that they’re inherently bad people, as such. It’s more that they might be incredibly scared of being alone.

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Tina Fey

I'm Tina Fey, the founder of the blog Love Connection. I've extremely passionate about sharing relationship advice. I've studied psychology and have my Masters in marital, family, and relationship counseling. I hope with all my heart to help you improve your relationships, and I hope that even if one thing I write helps you, it means more to me than just about anything else in the world. Check out my blog Love Connection, and if you want to get in touch with me, hit me up on Twitter

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