Science in Christian Perspective



A Sociologist's Perspective 
The Manipulation of Human Behavior

Department of Sociology and Anthropology 
Marquette University, Milwaukee, Wisconsin

From: JASA 22 (March 1970): 14-17.

Despite the fact that most people react negatively to the idea of being manipulated, much human behavior aims at manipulating others. The necessity for orderliness in human relationships demands social control over individual and group behavior. Socialization and other forms of control in the family, education, employment, welfare institutions, law, corrections, medicine, politics, mass communications, salesmanship, churches, science, and every other realm of human endeavor involve varying forms and degrees of "manipulation." Much of this takes place in a manner and context that allow man to feel as if he is free and independent, but there are many limitations to human freedom. The goals of control in every society include the "containing" of persons, perspectives, and groups which are interpreted as "detrimental" to societal welfare. Since all men are to a degree autonomous, they have moral responsibilities. Understanding the nature and consequences of social control can increase liberty, as does the fact that we live in a pluralistic society. In their manipulative behavior, Christians ought to implement scriptural values.

As Americans, we tend to react against anyone who is labeled a "manipulator." We fear such persons, thinking that they may use their manipulative influence upon us or upon our wives, children, and friends. People who are not members of labor unions hence tend to be highly critical of COPE, the Committee on Political Education of the AFL-CIO, in its efforts to get laboring people to the election polls and to stimulate them to vote for politically "liberal" candidates. When they pour large funds of money into key electoral districts, they are charged with "manipulating the vote."

Likewise, some have been very critical of the propagandistic activities of the American Medical Association, which has given its members extra assessments in order to pour millions of dollars into its campaign against "socialized medicine;" it has successfully prevented the passage of numerous pieces of proposed social legislation and thus has "manipulated" the political fortunes of our nation. Efforts of the National Association of Manufacturers, the Foundation for Economic Education (publisher of The Freeman), and Human Events to promulgate their interpretations of liberty are interpreted as propagandistic "manipulation" by those who do not sympathize with them, as are the publications and fulminations of Carl Mclntire, Billy James Flargis, and Howard Kershoer. Meanwhile, the followers of these and similar "right wing" gentlemen are convinced that their movement is giving "the true facts," educating the nation, and sounding a clarion call to freedom while the American Civil Liberties Union, Americans for Democratic Action, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the National Council of the Churches of Christ, and other organizations are distorting information, suppressing truth, and stealthily and subversively "manipulating" the masses, moving them gradually into the morass of "creeping socialism."

The point I wish to emphasize through these illustrations is that our own in-groups, the groups with which we personally identify ourselves, never manipulate; they educate, inform, warn, guide, persuade, explain, edify, instruct, enlighten, disseminate the facts, disclose, unmask, clarify, affirm the truth, and defend the public weal. Our own group is honest, frank, plainspeaking, truthful, trustworthy, pure, scrupulous, and without equivocation. Our own group is consistent with history, with the welfare of our nation, and with the great traditional virtues of our faith.

It is only out-groups, groups from which we are alienated by aloofness or antagonistic nonmembership, that manipulate. They indoctrinate, propagandize, garble data, misinform, pervert the truth, deceive, misrepresent, cloak the facts, falsify, misinterpret, engineer consent, engage in pressure politics, lobby, and go about spreading lies in cunning craftiness. Their members are equivocators, propagandists, subversionists, masqueraders, brainwashers, or scoundrels who are anxious to stab us or our cause in the back. They are sly, stealthy, surreptitious, evasive, secretive, beguiling, double-tongued, hypocritical, and insidious prevaricators or charlatans.

In other words, manipulation is always an act of somebody else. We influence; others manipulate. We educate; others indoctrinate. We disseminate truth; others disseminate lies and half-truths. We give men the kind of education that liberates; other so-called educational programs are suspect because they tend to enslave their students in isms of one sort or another.

As Piet Hem, the Danish poet-philosopher, put it in his "grook" about Mankind, men are good to their brothers and want to mend their ways, but they do not want to mend their own.1 There is a paradox in all this. None of us wants to be manipulated, but all of us are inclined to want the power, the status, the honor, and related results of manipulating others.

Manipulation Is Inevitable

Manipulation is present in varying degrees in all areas of man's social life. Parents manipulate their children. Spouses manipulate their mates. Teachers manipulate their pupils. Employers manipulate their employees. Social workers manipulate their clients. Parole officers manipulate their parolees. Medical doctors manipulate their patients. Political parties manipulate their candidates and prospective candidates. Editors manipulate their authors and reporters. Publishers manipulate their editors. Salesmen manipulate the thought processes and actions of their customers. Pastors manipulate their congregations. Young men manipulate their girl friends. In every instance, there is a certain amount of feedback and attempts at countermanipulation.

Anticipatory socialization is present in many of these realms of human activity. Expecting to become a businessman in the future, the student of business administration begins to act and think like a businessman. Hoping to become a college professor, the graduate student adapts his behavior and thought processes toward the professorial role as he understands it. Planning to be a mother in the distant future of adult life, the little girl acts toward her dolls as she thinks mothers should act or as she sees them act toward their babies. What men hope to become thus helps to make them what they actually do become.

There are great variations in the techniques used in the numerous patterns of manipulative social control. The robber uses a different set of methods for manipulating his victims from those of the blackmailer. The confidence man uses methods which differ from those of the shoplifter. The Don Juan who seduces "innocent" girls uses methods which are not the same as those of the panderer finding clients for his prostitutes. The evangelist's methods are not the same as those of the dictator to whom full political powers of censorship are added to conventional propaganda. A church's board of Christian education or the nominating committee of a professional society does not manipulate its "pawns" as readily as the sales manager reassigning territories to his staff. The parent cannot 

Manipulation is always an act of somebody else. We influence; others manipulate. We educate; others indoctrinate. We disseminate truth; others disseminate lies and half-truths.

use the same techniques on his teen-agers as he used on them when they were of pre-school age. Nevertheless, manipulation is present in all of these activities to some degree.

Man's Sense of Freedom

The degree of manipulability varies greatly. It is a product of the resistances internal to the person as well as of external conditions in the social situation. The more subtly and effectively men are controlled by their environment, the less is the degree to which they ordinarily realize they are being controlled. The better they have learned to "follow the rules," the freer they feel.

Every person is a product of his society as well as of his biological heredity. He is controlled by that society to a very high degree. The language he uses is determined by it. The basic customs, folkways, mores, and laws which regulate his behavior are given to him by society. His Weltanschaunng is acquired chiefly from his society and the subcultural groups of wlsich he is a part. The food he eats (and that which he refuses to eat) is culturally determined, as well as culturally provided.

Some portions of these social pressures and influences upon us are relatively easy to perceive, but others are not evident until we have stepped actually or vicariously outside of our own culture and subculture through study, reading, television, conversations with cosmopolitan people, and other experiences. We readily perceive the soldier of an occupying army or the policeman on the corner as lie controls human behavior, but informal social controls arc more difficult to identify. We tend to cloak the latter under the guise of naturalism; we assume that our refusal to eat insects, snakes, or horseflesh is part of "human nature," for our own cultural ways of doing things are not normally questioned. But we sec Hindus who refuse to eat meat as "contrary to human nature" on the basis of the same ethnocentric interpretations. Yet the Hindus know that beef-eating is not only pagan and sub-human but that it also will make them ill. Both our values and the Hindus' are products of social control; society has manipulated us.

As Alfred McClung Lee expressed it, "When things go well, we may like to dwell on how free and independent our will is."2 We may even like to think that we personally are the masters of our fate and the captains of our souls. When, however, things do not move smoothly, we may blame outside determinants for our experience. Divine Providence, luck, heredity, magic, economic factors, society, or other influences are then assumed to control our ill fortunes.

The feeling of being autonomous or being controlled is not the same as actual conformity or nonconformity with manipulative social pressures to which we all are exposed.3 When social controls have become a part of our own personal internalized habits and values, we conform "of our own free will" without recognizing the fact that social forces modify and direct our behavior.

The type of social control most difficult to sense is that which operates by virtue of the fact that each person is a product of his society. To a considerable extent the society guides his behavior by virtue of having formed his nature . . . . The concept of the human as a person with a responsible and free mentality . . . thus appears to he sociologically inadequate because it fails to recognize the amount of control which the person cannot resist because he is utterly unable to perceive it.

This, nevertheless, does not remove all personal responsibility from the individual, for lie experiences many pressures from diverse sources, and there are usually many alternatives of action open before him within the scope of his "conditioned freedom." From this range of freedom open to individual choice within his socially controlled and culturally determined situation, each person is responsible for much of his behavior.

Social Limitations on Freedom

The degree of unanimity in society is related to the degree to which its members feel controlled. Those who wish to return to the mythical "good old days" when everybody presumably shared the same religious, moral, ethical, and cultural values actually are desirous of returning to an age in which men were, as a whole, much more manipulated and controlled by influences external to the person than they are now. Indeed, our modern interest in manipulation and control may be due to a considerable extent to the breakdown of the older forms of social control which has resulted from industrialization, urbanization, and other radical changes in modern civilization. No longer is every detail of a person's conduct subject to the scrutiny of next-door neighbors who are concerned about every area of a person's life, to the restraint of a church that attempts to make conforming automatons out of its members by providing them with a guidebook of rules and regulations that has clear black and white answers for every problem and thus makes it unnecessary to make any decision other than a "Yes" or a "No" to any given opportunity, to the influence a school that is closely linked with the church and helps to control behavior in a manner and direction consistent with those of other community institutions, and to the pressures of an employer who holds direct sanctions over family life and leisure-time activities.

The degree of freedom and control varies greatly, in other words, with social conditions. There are great differences among societies as well as from one community, functional grouping, or subculture to another within the same society. These differences apply, among other things, to the degree of manipulation, the forms or types of manipulation, the techniques of manipulation, the goals of manipulation, and reactions to manipulation.
The goals of social control once were uniformity. Today, with the great variety of groups and perspectives in society, the goal tends to he individual consistency within a general framework of societal welfare. Individuality is prized, and it can be exhibited to a far greater degree than in the past, for its acceptable boundaries have been vastly extended. Supreme Court decisions related to mass entertainment and freedom of the press reflect the expansion of personal liberty and increase the individual's responsibility for controlling his own behavior instead of being "protected' by the narrow conceptions of "public morality" which greatly limited personal choices under past conditions.

There are varying degrees of resistance to manipulative social control, We expect complete conformity from the convicted criminal who is undergoing a prison sentence. We expect little conformity from persons who are considered to be "creative" in the performing arts-but the actors who play the various dramatic roles created by these creators must conform strictly to the demands of their parts and the instructions of the producer. We arc free to resist the orders of our employers, but usually exercising this freedom frees us of our jobs!

People who are labeled as nonconformists sometimes conform highly to one another; their subgroup has become for them a manipulative overlord. Their nonconformity is restricted to limits which, in our society, are gradually expanding with the legal breakdown of certain rules that have hampered the civil liberties of many subcultural groups.

The alternative choices that are open to individuals are themselves cultural products. They are not unlimited, and the exercise of choice even among the limited possibilities is subject to numerous restrictions that could be labeled "manipulative." I am free to fly to Australia, but the financial costs, my sense of obligation to many duties, and other restrictions related to such a trip hamper my freedom.

Our modern interest in manipulation may be due to a considerable extent to the breakdown of the older forms of social control which has resulted from industrialization, urbanization, and other radical changes in modern civilization.

One of the tasks before every society is that of "containing" persons and groups which are detrimental to social welfare. Thus we imprison criminal offenders who are deemed incorrigible, and we place the bounds of probation and parole upon others. We lock up drug addicts while they are in process of physical and psychological rehabilitation. Parents may "ground" their teenagers after they have indulged in conduct that they feel is not consistent with their own welfare or that of the family. The most effective constraint of all is that which comes from within the mind or "heart" of the person-that which rests upon realistic selfconceptions, high moral values, and wholesome spiritual commitments. "Inner containment" of self-control, good self-images, a high sense of responsibility, and the like must supplement and complement the "outer containment" of structural arrangements in society in order to have the most effective preventive and rehabihtative impact on deviant persons.5

Manipulation in Science

One of the major goals of science is manipulation of either its subject matter or of human reaction and
adjustments to it. The human aspects of this are especially significant to the social and behavioral sciences.
We aim to develop laws and principles of human behavior which will enable us to predict and thus to control individual and group behavior.

A great deal of manipulation is connected with research. The funding agencies, whether government agencies, foundations, or universities, control the resources necessary for scientific research. By making funds available for certain subjects and not for others, they manipulate the growth and development of the respective sciences. In our society generally the physical sciences have prospered in this regard, for material things are much more marketable than the intangible principles for human behavior and social organization which result from research in the social and behavioral sciences. In recent years, research resources for the social sciences have greatly expanded, but this has not uniformly applied to all areas. Family research, urban studies, analyses of military organizations and communications, and more recently medical sociology have moved ahead rapidly, while such subjects as the sociology of religion and humanistic studies have lagged behind.

Manipulation on another level occurs in research and development projects to test the effectiveness of certain types of treatment. When an experimental group is paired off with a control group, one group gains the benefits or suffers the damages of the treatment, while the other does not, The subjects are thus manipulated for the sake of science!

"The engineering of consent" through marketing research, advertising, and public relations work has become a major enterprise in our society; our sciences provide a foundation for it. Whenever we attempt through the media of mass comunicatinns, educational institutions, political action, and other means to change the attitudes and behavior of people, we are trying to manipulate them. We manipulate them also through the "technological fix" of making automobiles and highways safer, buildings less hazardous, parts of industrial machines more shielded, electric circuits better controlled by rheostats and protected by fuses, water supplies purer, aircraft guidance systems more efficient, and a multitude of additional changes. Most of the manipulation to which men are subjected in open democratic societies protects their welfare, enhances their individuality, and is desired by the majority.

A Moralistic Evaluation

In conclusion, let me add a few directly evaluative comments. First, let us face the facts. All men are controlled to a very high degree. Much of this manipulation is desirable. Order in society is maintained by manipulation; this order is a basic prerequisite to freedom even while it also limits our liberty. Understanding the nature and extent of social control therefore comprises a first step toward appreciating and realistically appraising our freedom.

Second, we have self-consciousness and are not the passive victims of social pressures. We are autonomous beings with a responsibility to decide between the limited, yet in our society extremely extensive, alternatives before us. Our responsibilities to man and God flow out of our autonomy, our ability, and indeed our necessity to decide among the alternatives that lie before its at the moment of decision.

Third, understanding can help us control the social controls that constrain us. Knowing the consequences of alternatives makes it possible for us to choose with greater liberty rather than less. Social science research reveals the limitations of cultural influence on our behaviors as well as its ubiquity.

Fourth, multiple memberships and orientations in our pluralistic society produce a high degree of freedom, for they promote recognition of alternatives of choice and in our open society allow a broader range of viable choices than was true in the days of our grandparents. Dialogue as in the Minneapolis-St. Paul "Town Meeting of the Twin Cities." the mingling of all social classes within church congregations and other groups, and a concern for all mankind and not merely for those of our kin or nation can help to balance our knowledge of which choices promote human dignity and the will of Cod and which ones subtly erode them. Because we, are "multivalent men," our freedom is enhanced.7

Fifth, as far as our own attempts to manipulate others are concerned, let us make certain that our goals are what they ought to be. When and if we have the proper ends in mind and use means that are fully consistent with those ends, our "manipulating" can promote Cod's purposes by upholding the welfare and dignity of man who is created in His Image. We also need to heed in true humility the scriptural admonition, "Let not many of you become teachers, my brethren, for you know that we who teach shall be judged with greater strictness.
For we all make many mistakes (James 3:1-2, RSV). Not only teachers, but all other manipulators as well, are in a vulnerable position of high moral responsibility and can easily heap condemnation on themselves.


1Life, vol. 61, no. 16, P. 61, Oct. 14, 1966.
2Alfred MeCluog Lee, Multivalent Man (New York: George Brazifler 1966), p. 5. 
3Ibid., pp. 5-6.
4Rohert E. L. Fans, "The Discipline of Sociology," in Robert E. L. Fans, Editor, Handbook of Modern Sociology (Chicago: Rand McNally and Co., 1964), p. 6.
5Walter C. Reckless. "A New Theory of Delinquency and Crime,"Federal Probation, vol. 25, no. 4, pp. 42-46, December 1961. 
6see Lee, op. cit., pp. 44-47. 
7Ibid., esp. pp. 5-6, 19-21, 311-326