October 16, 2020

Dear Drama Observers,

I’ve had an enduring interest in those who manipulate (frequently referred to in this letter as Drama People) and in those who get manipulated, the latter group being the ones who frequent my office. Why are some people manipulatable while others seem less so? In some ways, it’s easier to understand the inner workings of a predator than it is to understand the vulnerabilities of their prey.

I must confess that I’m more than a little nerdy when it comes to my fascination with this subject. I’ve recently done some reading by those in the field of political psychology who’ve studied what happens in authoritarian regimes.

Australian political scientist, Karen Stenner, has found that a significant percentage all cultures have what she refers to as an “authoritarian predisposition.” By that, she means they have a low tolerance for the contentiousness of working out differences as required in liberal democracies and prefer instead the quick settlement of differences by those who rule by executive fiat. History is replete with accounts of authoritarians whose rise to power is facilitated by those willing to submit.

But what makes them willing to submit? A few years ago, I presented a seminar entitled “The Psychological Disorientation of Manipulation” in which we discussed, among other things, what makes people vulnerable to manipulation. One of those factors has to do with an underdeveloped identity which disables a person from thinking for themselves. What follows is that particular section of my seminar manual:


There have been numerous attempts to describe the evolution of an identity. One such framework was constructed by James Marcia, a developmental psychologist from British Columbia.

Marcia posits that identity develops in four phases (diffusion, foreclosure, moratorium, and achievement) and during each phase, two things (crisis or commitment) are either happening or not happening. Perhaps a more explanatory word for crisis would be “evaluation.” The adolescent is evaluating his or her ideas, values, and opinions. Commitment occurs when the adolescent commits to a position—i.e. “that’s what I believe, that’s what I hold to.”

With healthy development, the adolescent forms the necessary cognitive structures for making determinations about what to believe and why to believe it.

In the first of these phases, diffusion, neither crisis nor commitment has occurred. But in the next phase, foreclosure, the adolescent commits to certain ideas, opinions, and values without having properly evaluated those notions. The adolescent gets those ideas from an authority figure to whom the power has been granted to make those determinations. The adolescent takes someone else’s ideas and adopts them uncritically. That’s why we say that the foreclosure adolescent has “second-hand beliefs.” And the driving question of foreclosure is “what?” or “Tell me what to believe and I’ll believe it.”

In the next phase, moratorium, the adolescent begins to critically evaluate the ideas that were uncritically accepted in foreclosure. The rationale behind the ideas is evaluated and questions are asked such as:

  • How do I know that’s true?
  • Why do I believe that?
  • Who says that’s true?

Whereas the driving question of foreclosure is “what”, the chief question of moratorium is “why?” or “Why do I believe what I believe?”

In the last phase, achievement, the adolescent has done both. Ideas, opinions, and values have been evaluated and a commitment has been made to those notions. These are settled ideas or what we might call “first-hand convictions.” The adolescent can now say, “I know what I believe and why I believe it.”

Others have described this same developmental progression using the words: dependence, counter-dependence, and independence.

Now, the ideas, opinions, and values of achievement may be identical to those formed back in foreclosure. But here are some differences:

  • Achievement ideas are personally owned in contrast to foreclosure ideas which are authority-contingent. What the foreclosure adolescent believes all depends on the beliefs of the authority figure.
  • Achievement ideas become internalized whereas foreclosure ideas exist external to oneself.
  • Achievement ideas are stable while foreclosure beliefs are fragile. If the authority person changes opinions or if the adolescent becomes beholden to a different authority, the ideas will change as well.
  • Achievement adolescents have the capability to flex, adjust, and alter their views as additional information presents itself. Foreclosure adolescents tend to be rigid and inflexible, unwilling to consider alternate opinions unless the authority grants “permission” to do so.

Some people emerge chronologically into adulthood having never moved past the foreclosure stage of identity development. They become adults who grant to others the undo authority to determine what to believe. “If (fill-in-the-blank) believes it, so do I” is the stance taken. They lack the ability to think for themselves and are overly threatened by those with differing opinions.

These foreclosure-stuck adults are easily exploitable by manipulators. It’s a hand-in-glove arrangement in which the manipulator assumes authority that the target unwittingly grants.


Perhaps there’s a parallel between foreclosure-stuck adults and those with authoritarian predispositions.

A safeguard against manipulation, whether on the personal or societal level, is to think for yourself and to be very stingy about giving away that power to someone else who would love to claim it as their own .

Till next week.

2 replies
  1. Liz Pearce
    Liz Pearce says:

    How does this apply to religion? It seems that religion becomes an authority at times for making decisions, appropriate behavior and opinions. Is it possible to be religious and be protected against those wanting to manipulate you? It seems independent thought competes with the dependency that some religions ask for. Any thoughts would be welcome.

    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      That’s a good question, Liz, and my answer here probably won’t be as good as the question. There are indeed people who adopt their religious beliefs in a non-questioning manner, in a way consistent with the bumper sticker that says, “God said, I believe it, that settles it.” They may know what they believe but can’t begin to tell you why they believe it. The better practice is to critically evaluate your belief system and ask all the why questions. Accepting them uncritically gives you a set of beliefs but critical evaluation gives you a set of convictions. Convictions are more stable than beliefs.

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