Being deeply empathic can have its downside, as many highly sensitive people have learned the hard way. Along with our deep empathy we also typically seek to avoid confrontation and embrace connection to others. This tendency can be used to manipulate us by those who would do us harm or seek to use us toward some end goal. In the following article by Katherine Ramsland, we learn six key aspects of persuasion we should all be aware of so we can avoid the manipulators and persuaders of the world. Make no mistake, they are out there and continually looking for “suckers” who are too soft or easily led to take advantage of. Highly sensitive people may be quite astute at identifying these individuals, but some may not be as skilled and may benefit from this open discussion of the predators among us. I will follow each point with additional comments (in italics) specific to HSPs.
“Social psychologist Robert Cialdini has examined hundreds of research studies about compliance and conformity to identify key items about human nature that will “move someone in your direction,” and he has delineated six core principles of how to persuade others.
He claims that good persuaders “strum strings that are inside all of us.” He says their goal to create attunement, a state of mind that is prepared for the moves that follow. For example, first ask people if they’re helpful, and then ask for their help. They will help because they want to be consistent with their self-assessment.
Although Cialdini urges us to use these principles ethically, i.e., to educate and improve, it’s not difficult to see how someone with less lofty goals might exploit them. In fact, these points of attunement echo psychologist Robert Hare’s warnings in Without Conscience about predatory psychopaths. (I just spent five years writing with BTK Killer Dennis Rader, which yielded quite a lot of scary insights about predatory vigilance.)
To protect yourself, you must understand how predators can use common human tendencies against you. The things that work to get us to agree or conform are the same things that make us targets.
Let’s look at the six principles and consider how a predator views them:
We tend to view someone in a position of authority as having expertise or power, so we obey. Predators know what we expect, and they offer false credentials spiked with a strong dose of confidence. If they’re verbally adept, so much the better, because we view people who speak slightly faster than normal as being confident; we’re more likely to accept what they say without seeking proof.
Authoritarian individuals are perhaps the easiest to identify as they brashly swagger and postulate being sure everyone knows they are there and “in charge.” Many narcissistic people may fall into this mold as they seek to focus all the attention on themselves. Rapid speech may make it seem as if they know what they’re talking about; as if their stream of consciousness thoughts must come from some deep well of superior knowledge. The deep processing HSPs know as a core aspect of the sensory processing sensitivity construct should inform our skepticism with such people. If we fall for the loud, fast talker who is solely focused on himself (herself) it is our fault for not drawing a mental line in the sand and pausing to think. Slick talkers offer nothing but rash decision making typically geared toward their profit or achieving their goals.
We feel obligated when someone gives us a gift or does us a favor: We want to give back. Hare states that psychopaths will give gifts or do favors to get a foot in the door. Gifts and favors not only obligate but also deflect your attention from the predator’s true intent.
Reciprocity is a very hard one for highly sensitive people because it is not in our nature to not feel it when someone has been “nice” to us. This plays against us in this case where the foot in the door will lead to a wolf in the henhouse. It is also difficult to know when someone has simply done something nice for us with no expectation of reciprocity and when there are ulterior motives. The best policy is, again, skepticism. Not that we should overthink every detail of every interaction but if we notice later that that same person now asks something of us that we may perhaps not wish to do that should be a red flag of potential manipulation.
When we feel comfortable with, or positive about, someone, we tend to say yes to their requests. Perceived similarity makes us feel safer and more willing to give special treatment. Predators use compliments, common interests, and common identity to increase rapport. (Rader did this when he was stopped by a police officer just after a murder, by playing to their shared awareness of a Boy Scout camp, which also gave him the appearance of being a nice guy.)
Highly sensitive people likely encounter a number of issues with people who become “friends” only to later their true intentions. In some cases, a person may befriend us while seeming to align with us as highly sensitive people. What’s better than finding a kindred spirit right? It is only later that the person reveals their actual goal. In such cases, we may feel betrayed, angry at ourselves for trusting so much, or simply shocked that people would do such things to other people. Let’s be real: humankind is full of manipulators and persuaders. We all engage in these behaviors to some extent, though we usually do not rise to the level of a predator with ill-intent. We do however befriend people to achieve goals, ie., we befriend a co-worker to make the daily grind easier, we befriend a new person to make them feel more at ease and able to focus on the task, or we align ourselves with others who we perceive are like us in search of actual friendships. In these cases, recruiting others to like us in service to a larger goal is benign, but in the case of a predator, the goal is selfish, harmful to others, or exploitative.
Empathy is our best friend in such cases. We should listen to our gut instincts when someone seems to be trying too hard to be our friend or align themselves with us. There is a perceived vulnerability in all friendships. We open ourselves to potential manipulation by any and all of our friends but the potential is not a certainty and most friends fulfill their roles without major exploitation. We should learn to set boundaries with friends and recognize when we are being asked to do something we do not wish to. When we find ourselves feeling manipulated we should pull back, even if it seems to offend the other person. Far better to risk offending someone than to be manipulated and exploited. We have to practice skills like saying “no.” HSPs often avoid saying no because it implies confrontation which many of us feel very overstimulated by. Learning to say no and sticking to our boundaries are key to not being exploited by others.
We place value on items that we believe are in short supply, or available for only a limited time. Predators offer desirable items or services within this context, as a hook.
This aspect is far easier in many cases to refute. The salesman who maintains the great price on the car is only good “today” is easy to walk out on because most people enter a car dealership knowledgeable of the fact that the place is full of predators. At times, an opportunity may arise that we must choose to partake of or decline. A predator will use this tactic to suck us in and continue their game. Knowing how to say no is again invaluable. Even if we need to rely on a second person to say no we should do so. Very often it is, in fact, an easy out to say “let me talk this over with …,” or “I’ll think about and get back to you.” You may obviously meet additional pressure but al least you have removed yourself from the immediate situation. The best policy is: don’t rush into anything just because you think it’s a great deal! It’s usually not…
5. Social proof.
When we don’t know quite what to do in a situation, we look to others to help us decide. Clear instructions can elicit our cooperation, especially if it is presented as a majority preference. Predators watch for this sense of uncertainty in us and step in to offer direction.
Highly sensitive people may feel hesitant right away under pressure from a predator or anyone who seeks to manipulate us. Developing the skills to say no and the ability to pause and reframe may seem elementary but are essential to avoiding pressure from others. Each of us, of course, has a unique history with varying experiences at decision-making. For some people, it’s quite easy to say no and feel no particular emotion. For others, it’s amazingly difficult to say no and feel like we have not offended the other person! Sensory processing sensitivity evolved as a trait to enable us to better survive by being able to read the emotional affects of other people (are they a threat or non-threat?), notice subtleties others might overlook (body language cues that tip off ulterior motives), and strong, quick emotions that trigger deep processing of experience (reflection). Sensory processing sensitivity likely has more to do with enabling us to effectively navigate the complex interpersonal landscape of human social interactions than meeting challenges in the natural world. We must learn to prize our reflective natures and not be afraid to be our own persons. Certainly, we are all influenced by others in our choices but when we are pressured to conform is exactly when we should step back the most and decide if that is what we wish to do.
6. Commitment and consistency.
When we commit to doing something, we tend to abide by it, especially if we make it publicly known. We want to show that our values define and direct us. Predators will elicit an initial small commitment to leverage us into a larger one. Once we’re in, the higher the stakes—and the more we’ll behave as they direct. According to Hare, predators hide their dark side until they get us past the point where it’s difficult to disengage.”
Psychopathic predators look for our triggers, so the better we understand our points of vulnerability, the easier it is for us to block malignant manipulation. Anyone can be duped—even during a brief interaction—so take the time to ensure that the persuader is genuine and offers authentic benefit. Do your research and get proof. Don’t just let someone strum your strings.
As Ramsland states “anyone can be duped.” That includes highly sensitive people who appear more open, gentle, and kind. Predators sniff us out like lambs to the slaughter. This does not mean we have to appear cold and hard like so many do in our world but we do need to have the inner strength and social skills to effectively end manipulative situations and detach from predators without feeling remorse. You might not wish to acknowledge this but predators may also be HSPs. Not all HSPs are the kind, gentle, creative, altruistic individuals we might hope for. People are bent and twisted by life events into sometimes grotesque caricatures of sensitive human beings. HSPs do become predators and quite effective ones given their strong empathy which enables them to know just which “buttons” to push to inflict maximum damage. As with any personality trait sensory processing sensitivity may be used for good or ill.
Avoiding exploitation and manipulation by predators has no doubt always been a key attribute of sensory processing sensitivity. Learning to identify predators and avoid becoming their prey may require a great deal of life experience (and some mistakes) but will help us in the long run to avoid the damage and destruction they seek to inflict on others. Sensory processing sensitivity is not a superpower or connected to the supernatural, rather it is an evolved personality trait (or evolved psychological mechanism) that gives us a slight edge in survival and reproductive concerns that may or may not be different than when it was evolved. I maintain that sensory processing sensitivity has great utility in our modern, complex world where we face increased connectivity and opportunities for predators to reach out and take things from us more easily than in the past.
Tracy Cooper, Ph.D, is the author of Thrive: The Highly Sensitive Person and Career and the new book Thrill: The High Sensation Seeking Highly Sensitive Person.