On communication and manipulation

3. All communication is `manipulation of signal-receiver by signal-sender.’

This profound communication, though it might easily have come from any used-car salesman reflecting on life, was actually sent by Dawkins, (in The Extended Phenotype, (1982), p. 57), to the readers whom he was at that point engaged in manipulating. Much as the devil, in many medieval plays, advises the audience not to take his advice.

From David Stove, 1994 ‘So You Think You Are a Darwinian?’

Stove cites this proposition as a peculiar Darwinian belief that’s obviously false. But he offers no refutation there. Maybe none is deserved. I don’t know if Dawkins argued for it or asserted it. (I should read The Extended Phenotype.) For now, I just want to examine the proposition.

It seems intuitively wrong. And unpleasant. But truths can be unpleasant.

What would it mean to accept the proposition? Wouldn’t you strive to avoid being a signal-receiver, to avoid becoming a victim of manipulation? So, never listen to anyone, never read anything. Only one-way communication: talking at people instead of with them, when you want to manipulate them.

But people would realise it’s not worth listening to you, who will never engage in real (two-way) conversation or argument. So your communication/manipulation efforts would eventually become futile.

Is this enough to kill the proposition, as a self-undermining notion?

You could accept the proposition, and continue to act like a normal social human being, by accepting an additional non-intuitive proposition: to be manipulated isn’t always a bad thing.



1. to manage or influence skillfully, especially in an unfair manner

See, the ‘unfair manner’ clause is optional. Manipulation might not be unfair.

Let’s look at a common sense view. We hold that to manipulate people is wrong. Communication can be abused for manipulative purposes. But communication is generally, properly, not manipulation.

It seems that there’s a meaningful distinction to be made between normal, healthy communication, and manipulative communication. Manipulative communication is stuff like lying, high-pressure sales tactics, propaganda, gaslighting, brainwashing. Who would hold that all communication is of this nature? An extreme cynic.

Extreme cynicism, if anything, characterises the present age…

Let’s look at an example of ordinary, good communication: a workplace context, someone telling a junior colleague something about how to do the job. We can easily identify the senior colleague as the ‘signal-sender’ and the junior as ‘signal-receiver’ here. But realistically, the whole communicative interaction will be a two-way negotiation. First there’s some greeting or introduction, then questioning, clarification, which goes both ways.

The goal is a shared understanding of some useful knowledge. The ‘signal-sender’ wants some assurance that his signal has been received and properly understood. Hence, a need for some, let’s say, confirmatory feedback signal.

(Now, does this confirmation signal need its own confirmatory feedback? Isn’t there a danger of infinite regress here? In real life, we are satisfied that successful communication can have a stopping point. So we accept that a successful understanding has been achieved without requiring feedback, sometimes. Under certain conditions. Probably something like, when the message is very simple, and a pattern of reliably successful communication has already been established.)

Alright. Now let’s compare this to, what we might call dysfunctional, anti-social, manipulative communication. It comes in various forms as mentioned above. So, again, a specific example: lying. Say, a dude tells his wife that he’s been at work all day, but actually he was at the pub–he got fired last week. The purpose of the lie is deception. If the lie is successful, the wife will believe that an honest communication has taken place, i.e. she’s learnt new information, and a shared understanding has been achieved.

But she’s actually been fed false information. She has been manipulated into believing a falsehood, we might say.

We wouldn’t say someone has been manipulated into believing true information, if they trusted someone who truthfully informed them of some fact. ‘Manipulation’ usually implies some unfair–unethical–conduct. Like lying.

But as seen above, it’s also just ‘to manage or influence skillfully’. To tell someone something is to influence them. And it takes skill, doesn’t it? That of language-usage. Not every lifeform has this skill!

But we’re talking about interactions between language-users. This is a given, not a special skill. So we don’t characterise honest ‘speaking’ as a particularly skillful action. That’s why we don’t call it manipulative.

Are we done here? Is this a strong enough defence of the common sense view?

I want to analyse other sorts of manipulation. The cynic might argue one of those, rather than lying, is a better model for understanding ‘normal’ communication as manipulation. Another time!


Read Dr George Simon if you want to know real stuff about the topic of manipulation in human beings, instead of armchair philosophy.