How To Manipulate People (But in a Good Way!)

What would you do for a thousand bucks? Would you work extra hard? Would you network with lots of people, even if it made you initially uncomfortable? Would you try new job roles and throw caution to the wind?

What would you do for love and acceptance? Would you suppress your own opinions and desires? Would you lower your freak flag, choosing to do what it takes to receive that acceptance? Would you lie to yourself or others?

This is the important question: How do those past rewards affect the choices you make today?

My beloved readers, I’m talking about something called conditioning, specifically operant conditioning, a phenomenon you might have learned about (and swiftly discarded) in Psych 101.

Why We Do The Shit We Do

Let’s say that, as a kid, you got a lot of positive response from being goofy. Let’s also say, for argument’s sake, that your name is Ian.


It started with mimicry. You’d repeat a line that you heard on Family Matters, and you’d get a chuckle out of someone. “Did I do that?” you’d say in your most nasal and grating voice. Your mom laughed, even if it was just to humor you.

Eventually, you figured out why those things were funny, and started coming up with your own goofy little routines. These were received even more positively, with people asking, “did you make that up?” and then inviting you over to play video games.

Your family laughed, your teachers laughed, your classmates laughed, and people smiled at you and talked to you more. Eventually, you became known as the funny kid. For us primates, this is cash money. We humans are incredibly social creatures, and anything that indicates approval or acceptance can be potent rewards for behavior.

Something happens to us when we get rewarded in a way that tickles our brains just right: We become more likely to repeat those behavors in the future, or perhaps to intensify them in some way.

You, young Ian, became a bit of a class clown, and you thrived on getting attention. Sometimes you were a bit obnoxious, which segued perfectly into getting involved in musical theater.


While that dark period of your life is at an end, you still find yourself performing in front of crowds, and you generally enjoy having eyes on you. That slow progression of rewarding experiences at a young age still influences your behavior to this day, and it’s become part of your personality. You goofball.

Becoming Conditioned

Operant conditioning works through two opposing mechanisms: reinforcement and punishment.

Reinforcement is any response that increases the frequency or intensity of a given behavior. We usually think of this in terms of reward: Your kid engages in a behavior you like, so you let her play a video game for a while. Maybe she cleaned her room, and you’d like her to do it more often. It works, a little, kind of.

Most reinforcement is less obvious. It’s usually not a matter of “desired behavior leads to someone rewarding you”; instead, we find multiple sources of reinforcement in our environment. Debbie (that’s your daughter’s name, by the way) kind of enjoyed cleaning her room with music on, and it almost felt like a game. Thus, whether you had rewarded her or not, two behaviors were reinforced: room cleaning, and the use of music during chores.

Let’s think complex: You’re at work, and you spend a little extra time cleaning up your inbox before you get started with your other duties. Those duties go well, and you get kudos from your manager. From that day forward, you find yourself engaging not only in inbox cleanup, but also other preparatory organizational behaviors, as well as interacting with your manager more. Because of self-reinforcement (stuff was easier) and social reinforcement (kudos!) you end up living a more organized life. When conditioning affects behaviors other than the one engaged in, this is called generalization.

Now let’s think simple: Your commute is more enjoyable when you take the scenic route, so the frequency of that behavior increases. Your partner compliments your gams when you wear high heels, so you bear that discomfort a little more often. Your brain gets flooded with pleasant neurotransmitters when you smoke crack, so you start smoking a bunch of crack.

A quick aside on "positive reinforcement" and "negative reinforcement": I love you, but you're using them wrong. Just say "reinforcement." Thank you.

Punishment is any response that reduces the frequency or intensity of a behavior. Again, this can come from the outside: Debbie does not clean her room, so she gets denied video game privileges. This works, kind of, a little.

Most punishment, like most reinforcement, happens organically as you interact with your environment. When Debbie fails to clean her room for a week, she can’t find her jump rope, and she ends up feeling shitty. This reduces her “failing to do chores” behavior, as well as her “leaving stuff wherever” behavior.

Again, let’s think complex: You get drunk one night and get in a fight with your best friend, Darryl, while playing Dungeons and Dragons. Darryl’s half-elf, Sylverwynd, refuses to help you during a battle, and you get slain by an orc. A shitty night all around. Perhaps without realizing quite why, you find yourself getting drunk less often. Oddly, you also feel less inclined to see your friend (even though you were the one being a jerk!), you play tabletop games less often, and you stop reading Lord of the Rings halfway through because the names all suddenly seem unbearably ridiculous. That one crappy night led to an array of behaviors being punished.

Now, simple: You get a headache when you read, so you read less often. You think you hear someone making fun of your shirt, so it sits in your closet for a few years. You eat a ghost chili and experience the ring of fire phenomenon, so you subsist solely on saltines until you die of malnourishment.

Seeing the World with Operant Eyes

Think about all of the little behavioral changes you’ve made in response to others supporting you, or failing to do so (which is a powerful punisher). Maybe you’ve found yourself dressing in new ways, working out more intensely, getting more interested in photography, practicing your karate less often, writing more poetry… Any behavior is subject to operant conditioning.

Any of these increases or decreases in behavioral frequency and intensity may have happened due to reinforcers or punishers, or both. I write in my blog about twice a week; each time I do, I get some nice reinforcement from readers, from the numbers on my social networks going up, and from my mom (hi mom!). Any time I fail to do so, I get punished by feelings of laziness, by a reduced amount of social interaction, and by my numbers going down.

We are constantly being reinforced and punished. This is natural, and is a consequence of being social animals with certain needs. Are you guys manipulating me by only commenting when I post something? Of course not, it’s just a natural consequence of how writing works. It’s built in.

Now, my dear readers, is when the manipulation comes in. What are you doing to reinforce and punish behaviors?

How to Win Friends and Manipulate People

Think about how you act when an introverted friend finally calls you on the phone. Do you say, “I’m glad to hear from you!” or is it more, “Damn, it’s about time!” One is a reinforcer, one is a punisher. Even if said in jest, the second is likely to make your friend less inclined to call in the future.

How about when your husband (you have a husband now, by the way; his name is Harold) gets drunk after work for the third night in a row. Do you laugh at his antics, despite the fact that they bug you? Or do you go off and do something else until he stops being a douchebag? One is a reinforcer, the other is a punisher. You don’t mean to reinforce his incipient alcohol abuse when you smile and roll your eyes at him; you’re just trying to be an understanding wife (you’re female, by the way). He’s being reinforced nonetheless.

Think about how you respond when a co-worker won’t stop bugging you with trivial shit, or a guy is coming on too strong, or a stranger is making vaguely racist jokes. Any non-negative response is likely to be reinforcing, even if you’re just being polite.

Please keep in mind that I’m not advocating active, purposeful punishment. Lack of reinforcement is usually enough. Ignoring people, excusing yourself from a situation, or offering a neutral response are all perfectly okay things to do to jerkwads. Don’t want your friend being such a misogynist? Withhold that polite laugh that you otherwise would have given.

Now, think about how you react when a friend makes positive changes in their life, or your kid is actively not destroying the house, or someone is being less annoying than usual: Remember that a lack of response can be a punisher.

Enjoy Your Curse

So, now that you know how reinforcement works, you should have a better idea of how you’re influencing your peeps. Next time you politely laugh at an antisocial joke and realize that you’re increasing the frequency and intensity of that behavior, I’d like you to shake a fist at the sky and scream, “Damn you, Ian!”

Just… don’t go overboard. I’ve been immersed in psychology for years because of my graduate work, and I’ve seen people become too aware of the effects that they have on others. In the end, you are only responsible for you; I just want you to have a little extra awareness of the power you have. You can help people succeed, you can strengthen your friendships, and you can increase your own positive behaviors, all with a little well-placed kindness.

To close, I do want to acknowledge that, while operant conditioning definitely plays a role in how we act, we are thinking creatures. We can decide to abstain from behaviors without needing to face consequences one way or the other. We can choose to push through punishers like boredom and frustration and keep doing homework, or practicing that guitar.

Let me know what you think. Just realize that every word you say influences my behavior.

18 thoughts on “How To Manipulate People (But in a Good Way!)

  1. Dearest Ian,
    Please don’t ever stop this. Your blog, that is. Also, I think you should bring back the Care Bear costume this Halloween. Maybe be the purple, though. Purple is a good color for your skin.

    I stopped mumbling when speaking because I found I could actually have conversations with people when I enunciated my words instead of them giving up after two or three “What?!”s.

    I stopped holding in my ridiculous/strange/occasionally inappropriate statements because I learned that they made people laugh WITH me, not AT me as I assumed they would.

    I stopped avoiding confrontations that NEEDED to happen for me to make progress within my life because avoidance cannot change ANYTHING. Limbo is not fun, my friend, hell no.

    I began wearing cardigans because I’ve found more people view me as an adult (or at least that’s my perception).

    I grew my hair back out because I was hit on by too many lesbians (NOT that there’s anything wrong with lesbians, I’m just not in their clan).

    Most of my friends are male because I grew up in a house full of pubescent boys, so they’re very familiar to me. I’m working on that one.

    Most importantly, I never really knew who I was until I fell into a VERY deep hole. By FINALLY experiencing what it’s like to be the REAL me, I feel empowered to move forward and persevere in areas of my life I find important to ME, not ANYONE else. Although I am still influenced by the people around me, as any human is, I now have the ability to inject a hearty dose of self-preservation into the mix. You do line-dancing every Saturday night at the bowling alley? That looks fun and all, but I think I’ll pass. Plus, I don’t own a pair of cowboy boots. Now hand me a frying pan, duck fat, a guava, yogurt, peanut butter, sriracha, and two tiny chickens and I’ll MacGyver a meal of MEALS!

    1. All of those are excellent examples of conditioning, and your level of self-insight is unusual for a human. The process is so invisible that sussing it out can be next to impossible. For instance, I only recently realized that my love of receiving joking verbal abuse is kind of a weird twisting of some reinforcement I received throughout middle and high school. I’m fine with that (what’s a good ribbing between friends?) but I had to drop my self-deprecation, which I think was conditioned similarly, a lot. I was becoming a sad sack.

      Re: Whatever that shit you were describing at the end. I WANT.

  2. OMG, Ian…. the entire part under “punishment”, has me falling off of my desk with eye-tearing LAUGHTER as I lean over it for support… and the “punishment” section is as far as I have even READ so far… you are KILLING me here!! I shall continue with your blog, and possibly comment further, though not necessarily so.

  3. BTW… it was MAINLY the “Dungeons and Dragons” part of that section…. Oh Lord, I couldn’t STOP laughing!! PS… “I announce that I am leaving.” HAHAHAAAAAAA 😀

    1. He is pretty damn entertaining, isn’t he? P.S. Everytime I read your ‘HAHA’s in type, I mentally hear the sweet, soothing sound of your…what did you call it?…cackle. And WHAT a cackle, indeed! 🙂

      1. @ Lamont… Yes, “cackle”… good memory, matre-tress!! HAHAHAHAAAA! Perhaps you can even admire it in person one day soon, ‘ ey?? ~ Amy 😀

  4. Another excellent piece. Is that you in that newspaper picture?? 😀

    This kind of stuff is the pop (or, more accurately here, simplified) psychology I wish people knew. And cared about. I think being taught to analyse your behaviour and feelings is a blessing and a curse, but it’s the only way to be mindful and grow as a person in a purposeful way (wrt self care/tricking yourself into achieving your goals but also how to step lightly in others lives).

    In a slight elaboration on what you’re talking on here, I think the concepts of positive/negative punishment and reinforcers are innately interesting concepts, and help clarify the way operant conditioning work. I come from a perspective that is very interested in humans, but more so in animal behaviour and dog training, so that may colour my view here.

    For those who do not know, the reason for “negative reinforcement” meaning punishment being wrong is that in the psychological context “negative” means to take away, and “positive” to give. So negative reinforcement is to remove something unpleasant as a reward vs allowing oneself something yummy; negative punishment is refusing to give your dog/child attention, and positive punishment is to strike or suchlike.

    I can see why you didn’t include it, as it’s going pretty off-track, but that’s one of those concepts that I fell in love with when I learnt it. I love simplicity and logic. I’m always excited about new ways of reframing complicated subjects to give clarity. Mmmm.

    1. That is me, fresh-faced at 25, so full of vim and vigor! And I like how you framed this in the context of mindfulness. That’s really what it is; do we choose to act without regard for how we affect others, or do we pay a bit of attention and take ownership of those consequences?

      Great comment as always… and yeah, I feel like the positive vs. negative thing is a lost cause, even some of my fellow grad students still misuse it… Hell, even I’m still tempted to, haha.

      1. That is a pretty amazing picture, Ian. That will be most entertaining into your twilight years. 😀

        I guess the positive/negative thing was always bound to fail in casual conversation. It’s not like there isn’t a very good reason to view positive as good and negative as bad. But I like it. 🙁

        Do you have a psychology degree? What did you specialise in? If you are OK derailing your own comment thread. 😛

        1. Haha, I like the distinction too, it lends a much finer view of how we’re influenced (as much by loss as by gain).

          I’ve got my BA in psychology, and I’m one research project away from my master’s… and lord it’s driving me insane. SO… CLOSE. But damned if I know what I’ll do with it once I have it. Maybe use the degree to patch over that hole in my drywall. 🙂

          1. Oo! I didn’t know you were currently in school. I hear grad school in the US is quite soul crushing. (I’m assuming all post grad education = “grad school”.) Not that it’s not hard here, but y’know.

            What’s your research topic? If it’s not too exhausting to put *more* time into it, I’d be interested in a blog post on it. 😀 Are you doing clinical psychology?

            I feel pretty lucky that my interests fall kind of in line with a potential career. It’s not like I got to be one of those people who wants to do X and goes out and does it, but at least I’m enthusiastic about stuff where if all else fails I could be a lab technician. I have friends whose passion is history. Not so helpful. 😛

          2. Master’s degrees ain’t so hard here (millions of souls are currently howling in disagreement… but it all just seemed like undergrad classes with more papers), but they do end with a research project or thesis that can be a real beast.

            Mine might eventually make a good post, but it mostly centers on the differences in the variations of OCD (counting, ordering, sin/morality, hoarding, etc) and a hypothesis I have that some are more related than we think. Kind of dry and unpleasant, but I do plan to have some pretty bitchin posts on OCD, so it may all come in handy!

            In contrast to you, my interests fall in line with nothing but navel gazing 🙂 Not doing clinical, so there are few jobs that this tidily qualifies me for. Janitor?

          3. Master’s degrees ain’t so hard here (millions of souls are currently howling in disagreement… but it all just seemed like undergrad classes with more papers), but they do end with a research project or thesis that can be a real beast.

            *shudder* Theses. Makes me think of my friends doing readings and essays instead of calculations and lab reports (psych lab reports are very different to chemistry and biology, GOD I hated having to learn that) – nononono. Straight chem isn’t my strong point, but gimme that any day over essays and suchlike. 😀

            From what I’ve gathered from my friends doing masters here (ecology, marketing and forensics respectively), I’m pretty sure we actually do less papers, and less class/directed lab time, just a hell of a lot more work overall.

            Your subject sounds interesting! But then I find pretty dry stuff interesting – doubly so when I can talk to a real person about it rather than just reading it.

            Well, I’m pretty sure you’ll be good at research and presenting an argument when you come out? You can just keep studying and become a massage therapist with lots of letters behind your name. 😉

  5. Hey! I loved what you wrote! Your quirky sense of humor really shines through. And I like that you take what could be a dry topic to someone who is less interested in psychology and really made it come to life with great examples. I really enjoyed this! I think I have known many of these things intuitively, just based on my behavior, and observing others, but it’s great to read the reasoning behind it all. Fantastic!

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