Are humans manipulative by nature

Why manipulation is way better than reputation

We want to decide freely, guided by reason and a clear mind. Manipulation therefore has a bad reputation: it appeals to feelings and obscures the senses. But sometimes, says Alexander Fischer, it seduces us into a better life

While rummaging through my grandfather's estate, I saw an advertising booklet from 1960. It says: "Sugar works magic". It makes you “strong, active, drives away fatigue and strengthens your nerves”. Sugar increases "the joie de vivre", is "refreshing, not filling", in short: Sugar is "nature's purest giver of strength".

I was amused by the vehemence with which sugar is touted here as an energy-inducing feel-good substance.

We know how advertising works: it catches us beyond rational thought; it is successful when we are in the shop and only one feeling entices us to buy - without us knowing exactly where from and why. A goal was manipulated into our actions that we might not have had before. And we didn't really notice this manipulation either.

How does this work? Certainly not in the same way as the sugar acquisition - too deliberately, too obviously, the attempt is being made here to get us to focus more on sugar. It looks like a caricature and thus offers the opportunity to see the mechanism of manipulation through a magnifying glass, as it were: Here, in connection with terms such as joie de vivre, lightness and closeness to nature, an attempt is made to present something as a feel-good product. The purchase decision as an option for action is specifically linked to pleasant sensations and thus appears more attractive, which in turn makes it more likely - we are manipulated.

When we think about manipulation, the emotional level is interesting: We are reminded suggestively how dull we often are while we work, how tasty sugar melts on the tongue and that we are dealing with an indispensable organic product.

We can literally feel these qualities. So our thinking is pushed over into feeling, and the cool, calculating, controlling rationality no longer prevails.

When we describe in more detail how we are manipulatively influenced, the hairs on the back of the neck of many stand up.

Manipulation confronts us with a kind of loss of control in that it unfolds its effect away from the radar of rationality.

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But does that mean it has to be immoral? Not necessarily.

For millennia, the light of reason shone as the sun, which lights the way for us towards freedom and dignity. Large parts of society and our individual lives have been streamlined through. Our emotions, on the other hand, were pushed into the shadows, as if they made us unfree, quasi animal.

To operate purposefully with the other's level of sensation turned into something bad - not only are most moral philosophers sure of this, it also echoes in our everyday thinking.

And yet it is precisely those strings in us that are struck in a diverse and planned manner. We feel something all the time: We react emotionally to sounds, feel a sense of well-being with touch and smells, enjoy beautiful sights and like it when people make it easy for us.

Manipulation is therefore not just a form of influence used by business or politics. It also takes place in interpersonal relationships, where individual strengths and weaknesses, inclinations and experiences can be used for them. Whether manipulation is then illegitimate or legitimate, precisely because we are limitedly rational beings, cannot be answered with a clear yes or no. Rather, the ethical diagnosis is: It depends.

Of course, the manipulation with which Iago pours oil into the fire of Othello's jealousy until he proceeds to murder his wife Desdemona is reprehensible. Why is it so clear? Because William Shakespeare portrays the title character of his “Othello” as powerless, unfree and self-lost acting in the thick fog, as a mere plaything of Jagos, whose purposes are selfish and have terrible consequences.

If, however, we nudge overly shy lovers to help each other when we are wooing a loved one, not in a way that we want to convince him or her of our amiability with rational arguments, but rather by singing off the rational radar with angel tongues - that is the same ? Are we powerless here, unfree, self-lost?

So if something is “suggested” to us, if we remain free to choose, if the purposes of the manipulation are not harmful but even positive and our psychological ecology remains in balance: is rational control always preferable?

Not necessarily: manipulation, if kept within the limits of these standards, even contributes to a good life. It makes a lot of things easier for us by showing unconscious paths, simplifying decision-making (just think about your gut feeling!) And modulating the stressful everyday mood, for example when calming music is bobbing around us.

Certainly - our limited rationality makes us vulnerable. Manipulation can be used in a reprehensible manner, just like Iago or those who seduce us into buying something we don't need.

But this is not a necessity and - judiciously - a bad, perhaps even highly emotional reason to disqualify the manipulation from the outset. Because it is doubtful that a totally rationalized world, as the Vulcans in “Star Trek” try to establish out of fear of uncivilized feelings, would really be a better one.

Alexander Fischer works as a research assistant at the Chair for Practical Philosophy at the University of Basel. His book “Manipulation. On the theory and ethics of a form of influence ”was published by Suhrkamp in 2017.