The human mind is a fascinating tool. Even if artificial intelligence continues to develop at the current rate it will take a long time for it to acquire the broad range of capabilities of human intelligence, such as solving new problems, synthesizing unrelated experiences, and self-nurturing its own curiosity and learnability. And while AI may be able to outperform humans on specific intellectual tasks, there’s little chance it can emulate the wide range of emotional capabilities that makes human intelligence human.
Yet this is also one of the biggest flaws of the human mind. As the famous self-help guru Dale Carnegie once noted, “When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotion, creatures bristling with prejudice and motivated by pride and vanity.”
Nowhere is our proneness to be guided by emotion rather than reason more problematic than when we follow our intuition and make quick gut decisions with ambivalent or insufficient information. Alas, this is our default mode of making decisions. As Nobel Prize laureate Daniel Kahneman noted, “We’re generally overconfident in our opinions and our impressions and judgments.”
This is why you are much more likely to persuade people to change their mind if you appeal to their emotions and connect with them on an intuitive level than if you don’t. For instance, it takes just a few minutes to decide whether someone is charismatic, and a few seconds (or words) to decide whether you want to hire someone during a job interview. Along the same lines, a recent study deploying eye-tracking technology found that a typical recruiter will just need 7.4 seconds to evaluate candidates’ résumés.
There are two key implications here. One is that you are probably more biased than you think. How can you address this? The only way is by developing actual expertise, making your intuition more data-driven, and pausing to make slow, deliberate, and rational decisions as often as you can. The other is that you are probably more susceptible to emotional manipulation than you think. In fact, it’s precisely when you are most confident about trusting your instincts that you are less likely to be right.
Fortunately, psychological research provides a few data-driven lessons to distinguish between healthy persuasion and sheer psychological manipulation. Here are five concrete findings to consider:
Substance and content rather than style and tactics
A legitimate attempt to get someone to change their mind should be obvious. It should be seen through the use of real facts, evidence, and solid logical argumentation, rather than just appealing to someone’s fear or passion. Yet as the world becomes more complex, it’s harder to determine whether information is indeed true, especially as we are more impatient than ever.
Ask yourself these questions before deciding to trust someone:
- Are they truly an expert?
- Why are they motivated to persuade you?
- Do they have vested interests?
- If you take away their communication style and literally write their arguments and facts on a piece of paper, would that stand up to robust scrutiny?
Note that just pausing and taking time to judge the actual arguments will automatically shift you from a more emotional to a more rational decision process.
Charisma is blinding
Although charisma is not inherently toxic, it is a natural amplifier of people’s persuasive powers. A competent and ethical person will achieve far greater things if they are charismatic, but in the absence of competence or ethics, people will be much more lethal and toxic when they are charismatic than when they are not.
Luckily, it is easy to spot whether we are blinded by someone’s charisma. If you experience a sense of warmth, attractiveness, and likability from someone and you don’t know them well, you can assume that charisma is responsible for this positive reaction. This makes you more vulnerable to manipulation, so you should watch out.
People can be rational or irrational in their arguments, irrespective of how they look, but research shows that in interpersonal relations, people deemed physically attractive are significantly more persuasive, even when there’s no logic or substance to their arguments. This accounts for the pervasive attractiveness bias in jobs and careers.
Personality is a consistent sign
One of the best ways to spot a consistent manipulator is by paying attention to their personality. People who habitually engage in toxic manipulation tactics are more likely to be overconfident, risk-prone, Machiavellian, socially skilled, impulsive, unscrupulous, narcissistic, and antisocial. As I illustrate in my latest book, on average, these traits are more likely to appear in men than women.
Long-term cooperation rules
Ultimately, people will have little incentive to take advantage of you if they are truly motivated in establishing long-term cooperation, founded on benevolent reciprocity and trust. It’s not always easy to work out whether this is indeed someone’s intention. But until someone lets you down, you can assume that a moderate degree of trust can be warranted. As the famous proverb goes, “Fool me once, shame on thee; fool me twice, shame on me.”
Whether you decide to trust or not, you should try to reframe your perception of someone’s reputation as soon as you are presented with conflicting evidence on what you initially thought.
In short, there’s no way to be absolutely sure whether you should trust that someone is trying to engage in healthy persuasion or mischievously trying to manipulate you. But at least you can be sure of that, which is why it is worth questioning your instincts and scrutinizing the evidence to at least reduce the probability that you are wrong.