Prosocial manipulation

There is an axis of social calculativeness: whether your speech and social actions were carefully designed for particular outcomes, versus being instinctive responses to the situation.

This is related to an axis of honesty: whether your words represent your actual state. I suppose because the words most likely to produce the best response naively are often not true. Though I’m not sure if this is reliably true: feelings in the moment are often misleading, and honesty is often prudent.

Another axis is selfishness versus pro-socialness: whether your actions are meant to produce good outcomes for you (potentially at the expense of others) or a larger group such as the world.

The calculativeness axis seems widely expected match the selfishness axis well. Manipulative people are bad. I don’t see why they should go together though, in theory. You can say what you feel like in conversation, or say things calculated to achieve goals. Shouldn’t people saying things to achieve goals do so for all kinds of goals, many venerable? In about the same distribution as people doing other things to achieve goals?

A natural question is whether calculated behavior really is reliably selfish, or whether people just feel like it is for some reason. I can think of cases where it isn’t selfish. For instance, a diplomat trying to arrange peace is probably choosing their words very carefully, and with regard to consequences. But it is hard to say how rare those are.

Perhaps we just don’t think of that as being calculative? Or I wonder if we do, and while we like it if peace is arranged, we would still be somewhat wary of a very good diplomat in our own dealings with them. Because even if they are acting for the good of the world, we suspect that it won’t be for our good, if we are the one being calculated about.

After all, we are presumably being led away from whatever our default choice would have been after hearing the person just represent their internal state as came naturally. And moving away from that sounds probably worse, so more likely that manipulation means to exploit us somehow than to secretly help us get an even better outcome. This is closely related to the honesty axis, and would mean ‘manipulative’ doesn’t really imply ‘globally consequentially bad’ so much as ‘dangerous to deal with’.

I am speculating. Are there common positive connotation terms for ‘socially manipulative’ or ‘calculating’? Is that a thing people do?

17 responses to “Prosocial manipulation

  1. “Thoughtful”‘, “diplomatic” are positive terms

    People do these things. It’s interesting because Clinton in “What Happened” discusses this issue. Her point is more so along gender lines, as she points to how Obama takes his time to articulate a point, and is considered a serious person speaking about serious things, whereas she is perceived as deceitful. It’s worth nothing on your point about diplomats that her approval ratings were high as she left office as Sec of State (the highest for a sec of state), but incredibly low when people had to make a decision on whether to deal with her as leader (around 70 percent distrusted in October 2016 for both she and Trump).

    • Diplomatic is not unambiguously a compliment – it’s often used to insinuate dissembling.

    • I think what’s going on here is probably something to do with that line from Rick & Morty: “It doesn’t matter how smart you are if you are an asshole! Even if you are right no one will want to give you the satisfaction!”

      Even if a manipulative person brings about a good outcome, folks won’t want to credit them with it. After all, what does it say about you that someone had to fool you into the greater good? The good ‘shouldn’t’ need fancy tricks to bring it about, a simple explanation ‘should’ suffice.

  2. I don’t think there’s any real correlation between calculated behaviour and selfishness. You mention people may feel like they think there’s a correlation? Is this a reflection of personal stipulation? Your example of the diplomat favours no correlation, but you say this may be a rare case. Can you think of a case where calculated behaviour fosters selfish intentions?

    Fun read, I look forward to more articles!

  3. I do think there’s a sometimes-recognized distinction between calculated social action that works by enhancing the autonomy of others (e.g. making sure to inform them of things they especially care about, without a strong prediction of what they’ll do with the info, while declining to spam them) and calculated social action that works by routing around the agency of others (e.g. preventing them from learning bad news lest they be sad, or making specious arguments to persuade them to do an action you think is good).

  4. Positive terms might be “persuasive”, “influential”, “savvy”, “silver-tongued”, “understanding”, “insightful”, “charismatic”, “diplomatic”, or “tactful”…

  5. Pingback: Rational Feed – deluks917

  6. “Shrewd”, “clever”, even “helpful”: The best social manipulators just seem like smart, nice people who are good to have around. The most calculating people are those who generally avoid being described in calculating terms. (At least, that’s one way to think about the problem, and it’s probably true in some cases.)

  7. Great point. It’s almost as if the calculations have become so innate and subconscious that they are no longer explicitly “calculating” – it just comes across as social savvy.

  8. Social calculativeness or risk assessment? This discussion is extremely interesting to me because I can relate to this. Except I define it as risk assessment. Every action has a reaction. Having success and downfalls in my own life, this is actually how I live it now. It is learning from these downfalls and remembering success that allows you to not calculate so much. The people who aren’t practicing social calculativeness worry me. These people are the clueless Individuals who can never figure out what they did wrong or how to get to their end goal. The compulsive “blamer” when things go wrong. These are good, intelligent successful people that don’t use social calculativeness. Is one better than the other? Is one selfish? Of course, but what is life about to any particular individual? Making other people happy or themselves happy for a portion or all of the time?

  9. I believe if someone speaks from the heart whatever the content of the conversation as long as they’re being honest with themselves and their own heart and they’re not trying to be manipulative in their own mind but trying to gain acceptance whether it be from their own intellect or from their own personal experiences in life suppose I was a man in a bar and speaking to a woman and I spoke from my heart and I wasn’t necessarily attracted to the woman but what I spoke was honest and truthful whether it be bad or good and that woman thought that it was good and decided to speak with me some more and it led to a relationship was this person well I would say that is good I think no matter what your intent is as long as it’s Honest Tea coming from your heart these are good things someone who is deliberately trying to deceive or trying to intimidate or trying to lure someone into a fake reality is evil it’s difficult in these modern times and social media and the forms that we have to communicate with one another the intent of your heart determines the outcome😎

  10. Stefan Schubert

    Somewhat related paper:

    “Altruistic individuals lie as often as more selfish ones, unless lying hurts another party.”

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