Dear Drama Observers,
For several years now, I’ve traveled and conducted seminars about manipulators or what I refer to in this letter as Drama People. That’s a pleasant little topic, no?
Manipulators are nothing if not perplexing. The mental discombobulation they generate often elicits numerous hard-to-answer questions.
- I would never do something like that. Why does he?
- What’s wrong with her anyway?
- Why did I fall for it? Am I just stupid or what?
- How do so many people get taken in by his schtick?
- Is homicide really that bad a thing?
- I’m weighing the pros and cons here. How much would my sentence be reduced for good behavior?
In one of my seminars, I talk about the why-did-I-fall-for-it question above, which I’m asked quite often. There are numerous reasons but one of the factors is common naiveté. In the seminar manual, I wrote:
We start out naïve but develop savvy as we grow and mature. Balance is needed. Some people develop too much suspicion and too little trust, becoming paranoid in their relational expectations. Others develop too little suspicion, granting trust freely and often to those who don’t deserve it. These are the ones most vulnerable to a manipulator’s enticements. They’ve become chronological adults with childlike gullibility. “You can fool all the people some of the time,” said Abraham Lincoln,” “and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” Manipulators are skilled at exploiting the naiveté of those who can be fooled.
The first stage of Erik Erikson’s psychosocial development is “trust vs. mistrust.” A successful negotiation of this developmental task lays the foundation for a balanced trust system. Perhaps it’s due to unsuccessfully navigating this passage but, for whatever reason, some people arrive at adulthood temperamentally wired to trust people before such trust is earned or warranted. They give the benefit of the doubt too easily and overlook the flaws of others to a fault. That’s just the way they’re wired.
In other cases, it’s less wiring and more learning. Some people are over-taught how to be good to others and under-taught being careful of others. Maybe they were instructed to be ‘good Samaritans’ but not instructed to be ‘wise as serpents and innocent as doves.’ Perhaps they’ve come to view being suspicious of others as synonymous with being “judgmental.” They were never taught how to be good to people while still reserving trust until such trust is earned.
So, naiveté can stem from nature or nurture. Or just from being human. We’re all capable of episodic naiveté. That is, we can still get snookered sometimes. Perhaps that’s because manipulators are so invested in drama and we’re not. Pickpockets can pick our pockets because we’re not expecting our pockets to get picked.
It seems to be a rite of passage into adulthood to get fooled by a manipulator. It’s going to happen sooner or later just by virtue of being alive. The question is, will we learn from it?
In 1786, George Horne wrote, “When a man deceives me once, says the Italian proverb, it is his fault; when twice, it is mine.” The modern-day translation is, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”
How Do We Fall For It?
I’m a World War II buff and I’ve always appreciated the 1974 British documentary, World at War. In the opening episode, Werner Pusch, a 1930’s German government official, described his first-hand observations of Adolf Hitler’s ascendancy and his first-time experience at a Nazi rally.
For the first few minutes, he wasn’t a good speaker; he was just warming up and finding the words. But then, he turned out to be a terribly good speaker.
And the whole atmosphere grew more and more hysterical. He was interrupted after nearly every phrase by big applause and women began screaming. It was like a mass religious ceremony.
And I listened to his speech and I feel [sic] the more and more excited atmosphere in the hall. For some seconds, again and again, I had a feeling of what a pity I can’t share that belief of all those thousands of people—that I am alone and contrary to all that.
It was funny, I felt that he was talking all the nonsense that I know, the nonsense he always talked. But still, I feel that it must be wonderful to just jump into that bubbling pot and be a member of all those who are believers.
I find so many things intriguing and noteworthy about Pusch’s observations but let me mention three, all of which have to do with the why-did-I-fall-for-it question:
The bigger the mass, the greater the gravitational pull. If everyone around you accepts the manipulator’s alteration of reality, it’s no easy thing to stand athwart that distortion and be the lone observer of what’s real. Pusch lamented, “I am alone and contrary to all that.” Like pieces of fruit dropped into a blender, individual judgments disappear into the smoothie of collective opinion. Manipulation, at that point, becomes a thing of ease.
Emotion Over Reason
Notice Pusch’s statements: “The whole atmosphere grew more and more hysterical. He was interrupted after nearly every phrase by big applause and women began screaming” and “I felt that he was talking all the nonsense that I know, the nonsense he always talked.” There comes a point where the feelings of the moment take precedence over the veracity of the message. Truth is the break pedal in the manipulation vehicle; Emotion is the accelerator.
As those great Philosophes, the Doobie Brothers, once noted:
“But what a fool believes he sees/
No wise man has the power to reason away”
The Lure of Belonging
Of all the things that jumped out at me about Pusch’s observations, it was the description of his own internal pull to abandon what he knew and be stirred into the “bubbling pot.” He observed, “I had a feeling of what a pity I can’t share that belief of all those thousands of people.” It’s that basic human desire to connect—a good thing—that potentially becomes a bad thing when subjected to the exploitation of manipulators.
So, if you’ve ever experienced the post-manipulation angst of wondering why you fell for it, some of the factors listed above may provide a partial answer.
Till next week.