On manipulating others

I re­cently had a dis­cus­sion with a friend of mine on the topic of read­ing oth­ers, so­cially. What they want, what they think, where are they go­ing, etc. Dur­ing this dis­cus­sion, I ver­bal­ized my in­tu­ition on the topic of ma­nipu­lat­ing oth­ers how you think they should act, and what I said had me puz­zled for the next few days. So, af­ter much think­ing I came to a con­clu­sion, but I want to see what LW thinks of my pon­der­ing.

Ba­si­cally, the idea is that, so­cial clum­si­ness many very in­tel­li­gent peo­ple face is ac­tu­ally very much self-im­posed, a hand­i­cap placed upon them­selves be­cause we feel iffy about con­sciously ma­nipu­lat­ing oth­ers as pawns in our grander schemes.

Ba­si­cally, the rea­son­ing of mine was this: Treat­ing other peo­ple as pawns in your plan, rather than ac­tual peo­ple, is wrong. You should not strip oth­ers of their power to de­cide for them­selves. But say, you are more in­tel­li­gent than oth­ers, and could with plan­ning lead oth­ers to do things you want them to. This power over oth­ers pre­sents you with an un­fair ad­van­tage, and this un­fair ad­van­tage pre­sents you with an iffy eth­i­cal dilemma. If you can force other peo­ple to do what you will, re­gard­less of their ini­tial dis­po­si­tion, aren’t you treat­ing them as pawns rather than au­tonomous hu­man be­ings? If you strip them of power to have their ini­tial dis­po­si­tion af­fect their de­ci­sions, aren’t you do­ing wrong? Of course, it’s usu­ally very difficult to get peo­ple to do what you want. Two equals dis­cussing, both may try this, but both may fail, and even if an­other suc­ceeds, it’s still con­sid­ered “fair game” by all par­ties. But more eas­ily this ma­nipu­lat­ing hap­pens, the more of your brain you need to shut down to make the dis­cus­sion “fair”. At some point, ex­press­ing any opinion and lead­ing other peo­ple at all seems risky and iffy.

So how do peo­ple cope? My the­ory is this: They stop in­ter­act­ing. Voic­ing their own opinion, ask­ing other peo­ple for things, or even hav­ing any goal other than fol­low­ing di­rec­tions laid out by oth­ers be­comes off-limits. If they do any of that, it opens an ugly, eth­i­cal box of worms of the shape “Should I make them do this?”

So ba­si­cally, my hy­poth­e­sis is, the rea­son in­tel­li­gent peo­ple are so of­ten so­cially clumsy is be­cause it’s a fa­cade, a self-im­posed hand­i­cap they keep up be­cause evolu­tion has pro­grammed us to have re­pul­sion to­wards un­fairly ma­nipu­lat­ing oth­ers. Be­cause they can make oth­ers do any­thing, they choose to do noth­ing. This man­i­fests as be­ing eas­ily led, a kind of “door­mat”, lack­ing their own will or ego, even.

It’s sim­plis­tic, there are com­pli­ca­tions I can read­ily see that make the whole pic­ture more com­pli­cated, but this stripped down dy­namic of be­ing more in­tel­li­gent forc­ing you to feign hel­pless­ness is what I’m in­ter­ested in, so that’s what I pre­sented. Is there any rea­son to think a me­chanic like this ac­tu­ally ex­ists? Is it wide­spread? Has there been ac­tual study on this me­chanic already?

There are aplenty of in­ter­est­ing-look­ing ar­eas of study if this dy­namic is ac­tu­ally a real thing. Say, PUA could look a bit differ­ent when aimed at door­mat-style peo­ple. Aes­thet­i­cally it would provide more in­ter­est­ing ex­pla­na­tion for why smart peo­ple are not too so­cial, and it also leads to ad­vice that differs a lot from ad­vice given from stand-point of “You need to learn this”. It makes sev­eral “is it okay to ma­nipu­late oth­ers” -type of ques­tions rele­vant for prac­ti­cal ethics study. Of course, it most likely is not a real thing.

Edit: Also, I was a bit hes­i­tant if I should post this un­der dis­cus­sion or wait for that Open Thread to pop up. It’s quite lengthy, so I felt dis­cus­sion post could be ap­pro­pri­ate, but dunno, I could and maybe should take this down and wait for Open Thread.