Nathanael Garrett Novosel, June 19 2024

Negative Emotional Hacks

I’ve written several blog posts on the emotional formula that you can use to manage how you feel as effectively as possible: Emotions = Desires + Beliefs + Experiences

To summarize, the point of these posts have been to help you identify where your emotions come from and how to change the drivers of those feelings so that you can manage your emotional state more consciously instead of being at the mercy of them.

What those posts had not covered is the fact that experts at marketing, sales, and manipulation are using those same exact factors to trigger your emotional state so that you act in predictable ways—usually, in ways that benefit them, not you. A quick list of examples:

Similar to the ways in which I have discussed managing your emotions in a positive way—state and manage what you want, uncover and reframe what you believe, and focus on a more positive experience—these persuaders are using the same techniques to trigger the emotional state that gets you to do what they want you to do. For example, if they build your desire up enough for a better world, they can get you recycle, vote for higher taxes, buy a product that claims to help people, or even change your diet or schedule. Similarly, if they get you to believe that one candidate is good and the other is bad, they will motivate you to go to the polls to vote. Finally, if they help you when you are in need by providing help or money, they will be able to call on you for a favor later and receive help in return.

I am sure that you can think of many kinds of influencers that use these techniques to influence your behavior:

Everyone is vying for your attention with the primary intention of getting you to behave in the way that they want you to. Since emotions are one of the highest drivers of a physical response, the more angry, fearful, excited, or hopeful they get you, the more they can get you to take action. Hence, the world we live in—especially in the days of the internet, but it still exists in town squares and every other place where large groups of people that can be influenced gather—is constantly bombarding you with stimuli targeting your emotions so that your emotional response will lead to a physical one.

Note that some people will make you believe that this is due to something specific, like the Internet, Capitalism, Democracy, or a dozen other systems that either enable or encourage this manipulative behavior, but the truth is that as long as someone wants someone else to behave in a way that benefits them, they will use these techniques. The only reason the Internet matters is that it allows you to be constantly bombarded with emotionally stimulating content within your own home, meaning that being in your home doesn’t protect you anymore. The only reason Capitalism matters is because it maximizes someone’s freedom and ability to perform actions that will make them money (vs. another system that would discourage action since it would benefit others more than or instead of them). The only reason Democracy matters is that now the system requires that politicians persuade 50% of the population to vote for them, incentivizing them to promise the world and demonize the opposition because otherwise there will be less motivation for the masses to vote. But it wouldn’t matter if those did not exist—there were Witch Trials, Snake Oil Salesman, Con Artists, and other bad actors manipulating people long before any of these systems became factors.

So what can you do? Well, there are plenty of articles out there on critical thinking, so I won’t cover that here (even though it’s incredibly useful). Instead, we’ll talk about what you can do to counteract them directly (all of the emotional regulation practices still apply, but I will not list them here):

So these are examples of ways that you can be manipulated. Let’s now list the emotions that they can “hack” to get you to behave in ways that are possibly against your interests:

There are many more, but those are examples of your emotions getting “hacked”—i.e., the persuader is deliberately triggering them—and causing you to behave in ways that they want you to. If you genuinely do wish to act in that way, then by all means, take the action. But if you might regret it later because you couldn’t afford the purchase, should’ve studied or done something else other than perform that activity, or vote for a politician that generally does not have your interest in mind (but you hate the opponent), then you might wish to use monitoring and emotional regulation techniques to mitigate the risk of these methods working on you.

Sample techniques to combat them include gratitude (if you like what you have, then you are less likely to spend money on something you don’t actually want/need), opposing beliefs (“yeah, but that politician also wants to pass a law that bans my favorite product”), and focusing your attention away from the influencing forces. The goal is not to eliminate all external influencing factors—that’s nearly impossible as long as you live around other people—but rather to make sure that you aren’t influenced in a way that is actually detrimental to you instead of beneficial. After all, that’s the difference between good change management or persuasion and manipulation: the latter is focused purely on the benefit to the persuader under the guise of benefitting the target of the persuasion. If it doesn’t actually benefit you, it’s definitely manipulation.

On a final note, it’s important to point out that these manipulative tactics can not only cause you to act against your best interest, but they can also get you to act unethically. I know this is surprising, but consider a situation where a friend asks you to steal a necklace. You, of course, say, “No way.” But then he or she lies by saying, “It’s my necklace—she stole it from me.” Are you more willing to steal it now? Of course! After all, the person changed your belief that it is no longer stealing but, rather, getting back what was his/hers. That’s the danger of manipulation.

Politicians use this technique to get you to vote to give them more power where they then set rules that take more of your money or take away your freedoms. Corporations might use techniques to get you to harm yourself, like when cigarette companies convinced people that smoking was healthy. Scammers on dating apps use love and affection to get you to send them money (called “catfishing”) and have even gotten their suitors to perform terrible acts for them (like beat up an ex-boyfriend). Even friends can get you to lie for them to cover up their misdeeds through persuasion. These are all examples of using emotional manipulation to get you to act unethically under the illusion that it’s “not so bad” of an act because of whatever belief they get you to hold.

The most dangerous example of this that I have seen in psychology research is from the study by Dan Ariely on cheating. The long story short is that he and his team ran a series of tests to check whether people would cheat. They had participants take a test where the control group got X number of answers right when being graded by an experimenter and then had the test group be able to shred their tests up and state how many answers they got right (we’ll call that Y). On average over a large sample size, the difference between X and Y would be the degree to which people lied and, therefore, cheated about their test when there were no consequences for doing so. The experiment paid participants for the number of correct answers, so there was benefit to the cheaters for cheating.

Now, the good news from those results is that most people only cheat a little—enough where they can say that they are still good, ethical people. They use excuses like, “I would’ve gotten that right! I knew that answer!” to justify the cheating. Only a few cheated a lot to get the most money after realizing that no one would ever be able to prove that they cheated. This is great news because people are generally honest, ethical people even when they can’t get caught.

However, there is one scary part of the survey that gets to how dangerous emotional manipulation is: they changed the parameters of the study and had people grade each other’s work, and the participants cheated significantly more when they were grading others’ papers because they now had the belief that what they were doing was not selfish but was instead altruistic (to be clear, it was not because they were cheating the experiment out of money and effectively stealing by doing so) to give their fellow participants a higher score (not to mention the “I’ll scratch your back if you scratch mine” effect of them hoping that they get higher scores from their peers’ “benevolence” as well).

What does this mean for emotional hacking? The most dangerous emotional hacking is the hacking of empathy where if someone can get you to believe that what you are doing is for a good cause, you will commit greater unethical acts because you will be better able to rationalize your actions in Machiavellian terms: “The ends justified the means.”

In summary, everyone is trying to influence everyone else to behave in ways that they want. It is human nature. The only thing you can do is protect yourself by minimizing the ways in which you can be negatively influenced to performing acts that benefit the persuader at your or others’ expense. However, the most dangerous emotional manipulation tactic of them all is the “good cause” because it can not only get you to act in ways that sacrifice your own well-being for others…but it can get you to act unethically and possibly harm others in ways that you feel are justified. It’s why people ignore when their team’s players commit fouls, ignore when their politicians commit the same violations that the opponent’s politicians do, and block traffic or commit terroristic acts in the name of a greater cause that they believe is worth the harm that they are doing to others.

Be very, very careful in this life that you do what is best for yourself without harming others and that you don’t either get manipulated by someone else in a way that would harm you (or others) or manipulate others in ways that harm them (or others). We are all influencing and being influenced, so you can’t avoid it completely; all you can do is use these techniques to prevent yourself from becoming an unwilling victim or, unfortunately, a perpetrator.

Written by

Nathanael Garrett Novosel


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