Manipulation and the fine art of persuasion…

Right. I’ve been meaning to put some thoughts into writing for a few weeks. Doing so now was prompted by a possibly throw away line in the Q&A at the Moore College School of Theology as collated by my friend Kutz. I wasn’t there. But this line resonates with a position I’ve been trying to articulate lately (the line is from Peter Bolt):

“Manipulation can be positive. If you’re doing it to align people to the word of God then it’s a good thing.”

Manipulation and persuasion are essentially seeking to do the same thing – move a person from point a to point b. So what’s the difference? I’ve settled on this distinction…

Persuasion is the transparent act where two parties enter a dialogue with one hoping to move the other from point a to point b.

Manipulation is less transparent and involves one party trying to shift another party from point a to point b, probably without their knowledge.

I’ve settled on this because in my experience if you catch somebody trying to shift your position when they haven’t told you that’s what they’re doing you feel annoyed and accuse them of “manipulating” you, where manipulating is a pejorative. There are heaps of ways to manipulate, and most of them fall outside the classical tools of persuasion – pathos (emotions), logos (facts and words), and ethos (how you act/live). Tools of manipulation tend to involve tugging really hard on one of those threads, where persuasion is a more subtle movement, kind of like a puppeteer with a marionette.

I reckon manipulation is fine. I know we hate it. But it’s a great art, until you get caught. Like pickpocketing, not Oliver Twist style, but like the TV guy who takes your watch while you’re talking to you and then gives it to you later. Manipulation, honest manipulation, probably involves pointing out what you’ve achieved to the person after the fact, so they recognise they’ve moved from point a to point b, but during the process your mark should be a bit like the proverbial frog in a gradually heating pot of water…

This all came up, for me, when I was told I needed to engage a little more with the emotions when I preach (because I’m a pretty rational/stoic type of thinker). So the summaries of the Moore College Lectures on Kutz’s blog have been interesting. I react against this suggestion, not because I think tugging on the emotions is “manipulation” as though that’s a bad thing, but because I think I’m more likely to get caught out if I’m doing something that isn’t within my normal character. I’m all for subtle chord changes, a little bit of emotive muzak in a movie, and all the other little “manipulative” tools – I’m also for putting a bit of emotion into a sermon, like a tear jerking illustration, I’m just against doing it in a way that means I’m likely to get caught.

Persuasion is pretty safe ground, but doing both is potentially more effective, I’m just not sure what that looks like. Most people in the pews are there hoping to be persuaded (or taught), so there’s implied consent there for being “manipulated,” providing your end point is something you’ve implicitly agreed to (essentially the ends identified by Peter Bolt in his quote). It’s a little murkier when it comes to PR and marketing, but manipulation is where the fun is. It’s making ads that are more than just a boring presentation of a product, it’s also harder to do thanks to the Gruen Transfer and market awareness about the tools advertisers employ. Anyway. Those are my thoughts. What are yours?


Arthur says:

I pretty much see preaching as persuasion. (Anything else — anything that doesn’t move beyond explanation — is a lecture.) It’s that whole thing about changing people in their seats (Tim Keller following Jonathan Edwards).

Does it matter whether it’s transparent or not?

So I’m just trying to work out what you’re getting at here…

What’s your concern about not getting caught — and yet pointing it out to people? Manipulation is OK, but it must be transparent, which just makes it… persuasion?

Nathan says:

“What’s your concern about not getting caught — and yet pointing it out to people? Manipulation is OK, but it must be transparent, which just makes it… persuasion?”

No, I wouldn’t say manipulation has to be transparent. I’d say it has to be authentic. I think manipulation is ok if you don’t get caught doing it. So, a subtle key change in a song might trigger a particular emotional response, and that might be appropriate and natural – it’s when you realise that the song is pretty weak and the key change is causing you to have an unnatural response that I think the manipulation is problematic.

Nathan says:

I guess that was my point, and I didn’t quite get there. Manipulation isn’t a bad thing, in and of itself… but you need to avoid using manipulation as a substitute for persuasion (ie when your argument is weak).

Arthur says:

OK, so manipulation’s fine as long as we’re not faking it. (This is fascinating!)

But what makes “authentic?”

Coz I figure that part of preaching — and part of doing church — is being able to “emote” even when we don’t feel like it.

It might be a bit fake to preach in an emotive way if you’re not “feeling it” yourself, but isn’t that all part of edifying others?

I mean, God is glorious (etc), so I’m going to say it like I mean it — even if I don’t mean it at that particular moment in time.

Is it OK to fake it till you make it? Because God uses us even when we’re “not in the mood”…

I may be going off topic here — but back to the thing about being authentic!

Nathan says:

I guess what I’m thinking in preaching, in particular, is that there may be occasions where using a particularly emotive illustration, say about a friend dying of cancer if their last words are particularly poignant – but there are cases where you might need to shoehorn that illustration in to a particular context where it doesn’t fit just because you’re, basically, trying to manipulate your audience to feel a particular way – the result of the illustration is the same in both cases, people are moved, feel emotional, and will be more likely to move between points a and b – but in one case the illustration might be authentic and natural, in the other it’s artificial and forced… both are, in my opinion, examples of manipulation – but I’m comfortable with using a particularly emotive illustration if I feel it’s appropriate, and would have to think carefully about whether it’s worth running the risk of losing credibility and being caught out if it doesn’t quite work… does that make sense?

There’s a difference, I think, between being personally emotionally engaged in preaching, and the emotional responses you’re trying to evoke from the congregation. I’m with you on the need to “emote” from the pulpit, I guess what I’m thinking about is how calculating it’s ok to be in terms of getting the congregation to emote from the pews. You can do it by singing the same line from a song about 20 times, or you can get it by playing a bit of music behind a prayer – but when people do that to me I see through it a little bit and am less likely to find the speaker convincing… some people genuinely think music and prayer are like honey and bees – so when they do it and it seems natural rather than calculated I’m ok with that. Well. Sort of. That’s what I’m thinking, let me know if you think I’ve addressed the authenticity thing.

Arthur says:

Just talking this around some more…

So inauthentic manipulation/persuasion is when it’s ineffective — when the illustration (etc) is inappropriate to actually draw the intended emotional response from the listeners.

So, to take the dying-friend’s-last-words illustration, people might feel moved by the story, but unless this emotion is actually integrated with the message / “word on target”, then it’s missed the mark.

Or maybe people aren’t moved by the illustration, in which case it’s also failed.

Prompting emotions is necessary, but this is pointless unless they’re responding to the right thing.

How does that sound?

Re. the listeners’ emotions, I reckon emoting from the pulpit and being calculated about drawing responses are both necessary aspects of preaching-as-persuasion. Preaching is all about evoking emotions (the right emotions in the right way, of course…).

(I also like the way that socio-rhetorical criticism draws this out in the NT: the discourses are plainly and painstakingly calculated in their persuasion/manipulation. BW3 particularly likes to use Philemon as an example: as Paul speaks, you can pretty much hear the violins whimpering in the background…)

I think what we’re talking about here is an art rather than a science. The 5th chorus-repeat may be appropriate, while the 6th is inauthentic — but there’s no exact way of drawing the line. (Looking forward to hearing what you think about City on a Hill music!)

Arthur says:

Oh, and — check out the sermon video I’ve just put up, where you can see me trying to put some of this stuff into practice (not so much with illustrations as with dramatisation and “being present”). My college learning community is critiquing it in a couple of weeks’ time.

Richard says:

I’m vaguely distrustful of “manipulation”.

It’s just part of life though. When you talk to someone who who is athletic or has a good pair of teeth, they’re manipulating you into liking them and their argument more just because of who they are. Doing it via an argument designed to tap into emotions.. why not? I frequently do this in techniques where I’m trying to persuade someone to do something wise, but I know they won’t listen to me if I told them the facts.

(Example: I think someone needs to clean up their personal appearance. I do not say to them: “You look like a slob.” I say “You look really great when you shave.” It taps into their desire to be seen as attractive, instead of being on the defensive. It’s also less obvious than negative reinforcement, since our aussie culture provides many examples of negative reinforcement to compare with.

But when it comes to theology? I think it’s okay to fire people up, but the main meat needs to be direct and conscious. If I hear emotional tugs in sermons (usually I feel my ego growing bigger) I try to filter out the “manipulation” and only take on board “persuasion”, as much as I can. I’m not against the occaisional ego stroke for the congregation to increase their self esteem, especially during times like floods etc where communities are feeling a bit down – but in general, sermons are like armouries, equipping people with mental weapons to fight the forces of evil. If they can’t explain their reasoning consciously, their apologetics kung-fu won’t be great.

(Notice my subtle manip right there? :) )

I’m not a fan of Mark D, mostly for this reason. The overuse of emotional manipulation and guilt and fear to strike at any male who doesn’t have his identity fully worked out. Some biblical backup, but by continually mixing the biblical teaching with personal opinion, he implies all of his teaching has biblical backing. No doubt feels he’s doing the right thing. But this is kind of an extreme example… most people don’t punch themselves in the face just to impress a crowd into taking them seriously :P

Andrew Millsom says:

I sort of see what you’re getting at Nathan, but what whatever we do we must follow Paul’s advice of 2Cor.4:2

“But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God.

Andrew Millsom says:

Adding to what I just said, I don’t think we should ever aim primarily to pull on the heartstrings. The thing about beautiful music in a tearjerker movie is that it accompanies the content appropriately, almost like salt brings out the flavour in food. It’s still the content that brings forth the emotion, the music just accentuates it. Even music which, on its own, seems to bring forth emotion (Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade does it for me) does so because I think I understand the sorts of events it’s accentuating, even if I’ve never heard the story (which, in the case of Scheherazade, I haven’t). I get emotional because the music brings to mind content from my life, not because of the music on its own.

Turning to preaching, I think illustrations should be chosen for their power to illustrate the content, not pull on the heartstrings. In talking about death (for example), the content itself will bring forth emotion. But like appropriate music in a movie, a good illustration will accentuate that emotion, almost help people to see the content in 3D. But the illustration isn’t chosen to make people feel a certain way, it’s chosen to illustrate the content.

In relation to manipulation, the key idea in that word seems to be that you, the manipulator, are the one doing the moving. That’s why we can say that a physio “manipulates” a joint (for example) because they’re the one moving it, not the person whose joint it is. In relation to preaching, “manipulating” would mean that we’re moving people, rather than people moving themselves. But that’s not what we’re aiming for in preaching. In preaching (humanly speaking) we’re aiming for people to move themselves i.e. see where they are, see where they should be, and (by an act of the will) move themselves from a to b. If we manipulate them, they’ll find themselves at b and realise they got there without an act of their will, and they’ll most probably go back to a and stay there because we’ve used a method that’s been designed to bypass their act of will.

In short, not sure what Peter Bolt’s on about.

[…] I’ve written something about manipulation and persuasion before. And personally I am deeply, and culturally, suspicious of any attempts to manipulate the way I think with bells and smells, ritual, minor falls and major lifts, or any little tools that bands might use – like clapping. […]