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12 Tactics of Manipulation in Relationships

Jan 27, 2015


Psychologist David M. Buss identified 12 tactics of "manipulation" that partners use in close relationships, published in a 1992 paper for the Journal of Personality.

It should be prefaced here that the term "manipulation" has strong negative connotations (exploit, control, deceive, etc.) when used in ordinary conversation. In this type of psychology research, the term "manipulation" should be read as “influence.”

At first, Buss identified 6 tactics of manipulation in 1987, discovered in the context of dating. This was later expanded to 12 in 1992 by examining relationships between friends, family, and married couples.

Those familiar with Robert Cialdini’s 6 Principles of Influence will notice some similarities in the list below. At a very broad level, the main difference is that Cialdini’s research examined the major principles employed by salespeople and marketers, whereas this research categorises the major techniques applied to close personal relationships. While this type of research has the most direct application to areas like parenting, family, and marriage counselling, it can also be applied to business partnerships, teams, manager-staff relationships, and leadership training.

The 12 tactics:

  1. Charm: Compliment him so he'll do it.
  2. Reason: Explain why you want him to do it.
  3. Silent Treatment: Ignore him until he agrees to do it.
  4. Pleasure Induction: Show him how much fun it is.
  5. Social Comparison: Tell him that everyone is doing it.
  6. Monetary Reward: Offer him money so he will do it.
  7. Coercion: Criticise or yell at him for not doing it.
  8. Responsibility Invocation: Get him to make a commitment to do it.
  9. Regression: Whine until he does it.
  10. Reciprocity-Reward: Tell him you'll do him a favour if he'll do it.
  11. Debasement: Act submissive so he'll do it.
  12. Hardball: Lie, threaten or hit him so that he will do it.

Buss found that different personalities were more prone to favour certain manipulation techniques over others, which he analysed using the Big 5 Personality Traits. The following extract from Theories of Personality summarises a couple of these links:

"Buss found that men high in Extraversion (those who were very active, energetic, talkative, wordy) used coercion tactics to get their own way during an argument; that is, such men made demands and criticised and yelled at their wives to get them to comply. Wives did not use such tactics.

Buss reported further that both spouses high on Agreeableness (those who are cooperative, helpful, friendly, respectful, and considerate) or on Openness to Experience (those who are creative, imaginative, and intelligent) used two kinds of tactics: pleasure induction and reason. In other words these spouses tried to convince their partners that they would have fun if they engaged in the contested behaviour. For example, a husband might try to convince his wife to take a ride on his motorcycle by telling her that she would enjoy herself immensely. A wife might try to convince her husband to take dance lessons by telling him how much fun he would have.

Buss also found that spouses high in Neuroticism (those who are fearful, anxious, touchy, and unstable) used the tactics of regression and hardball. Regression tactics — sulking, pouting, and whining — were used primarily by wives. Hardball, which was used primarily by husbands, involved hitting the spouse or threatening to leave if she did not comply."

— Theories of Personality (10th Ed., 2012), Richard Ryckman, p 459 

Which tactics do you use as a leader? What about as a significant other? Do you overuse some, while underusing others?

More information about this research can be found by reading the original 1992 paper: “Manipulation in Close Relationships: Five Personality Factors in Interactional Context” by David M. Buss.

Topics: Emotional Intelligence- Psychology

Theo Winter

Theo Winter

Client Services Manager, Writer & Researcher. Theo is one of the youngest professionals in the world to earn an accreditation in TTI Success Insight's suite of psychometric assessments. For more than a decade, he worked with hundreds of HR, L&D and OD professionals and consultants to improve engagement, performance and emotional intelligence of leaders and their teams. He authored the book "40 Must-Know Business Models for People Leaders."


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