Can you think of people that have made a difference in your life? Perhaps your parents or maybe a teacher or mentor? They somehow helped you be a better person. Do you think of them as manipulating or influential? It’s an important question because people often use the words manipulation and influence interchangeably. For example, one website describes social engineering as “a manipulation technique that exploits human error to gain private information, access, or valuables.” Whereas we define it as “any act that influences a person to take an action that may or may not be in their best interest.” Both definitions sound similar, yet they are quite different. In this article we will take a closer look at manipulation vs. influence and what sets them apart.

Influence vs. Manipulation


Manipulators seek to control another person. They don’t consider the good of the other party. Manipulators demand immediate answers to questions in order to attain commitment from the person they are interacting with. They often use guilt, fear, and embarrassment to corner you into a decision you would not normally make should you have time to think about it. The manipulator has no empathy towards the other person. They will freely implement tactics that are detrimental to their subjects, for example, punishments in the form of negative criticism, as well as intimidation. There is no room for “we” in manipulation; it is all about self-importance and dominance over the other person.


In his book, Social Engineering: The Science of Human Hacking, Chris Hadnagy describes influence as “the process of getting someone else to do, react, think or believe in the way you want them to.” In other words, it’s the art of making someone want to take an action or think the way you want them to. Influence can move or sway someone to a desired action instead of coercing them to.

When you influence someone, you help them to see why taking an action will be in their best interest. Of course, influence can be used for good or bad, depending on the intent of the person doing the influencing. A teacher can influence a student to pursue a career path that will benefit them; on the other hand, a so called “friend” can influence their peer to start taking drugs. It’s fair to say that there are similarities between influence and manipulation, however influence need not be manipulative.

How They Differ

One fundamental difference between manipulation and influence is intent. Influence creates an environment that makes it easy for a person to act or think in the way you want them to. Whereas manipulation is forcing or coercing a person to take an action you want. While influence can benefit both parties, manipulation typically benefits only the manipulator.  For example, if a person is trying to buy a car and the salesperson persuades the buyer into purchasing a car that fits the buyer’s needs, both parties benefit. But if the salesperson knowingly pressures the buyer into purchasing a car that they know will break down soon, then the deal is one-sided. Basically, it comes down to intent.

Some psychological tactics of manipulation and influence can overlap; it may be beneficial to ask the following questions when discerning the difference between manipulation and influence: What’s the intent? Is it ethical? Will it have negative consequences in the long run? And will it leave the person feeling better after the interaction?

Hollywood films may have us believe that manipulation is more powerful than influence. The truth is, just about anyone can be intimidated to take a certain action in the fear of the moment. Manipulation is nothing more than a temporary hack. You may get someone to do what you want using fear and intimidation, but the effects on that person’s behavior are usually short lived. On the other hand, influence (when used ethically) can have a profound and long-lasting effect. In the words of ex-FBI agent and bestselling author Joe Navarro, “if you want to influence others, present your best self, utilize those best qualities you possess, create psychological comfort that others will feel and come away from knowing they have had a positive experience. That is the quintessence of true influence.”

Learn More at the Advanced Practical Social Engineering Class

If you’re interested in learning more about the psychological aspects of influence and manipulation, check out our website for our next offering of the Advance Practical Social Engineering Class (APSE). In APSE, you will learn the tactics and techniques social engineers use to leverage attacks, and how that information can protect you or your company against these potential attacks.