In my recent question, there was a surprising number of users insinuating that because the question was about the use of an Interpersonal Theory, it was inherently manipulative. This is a significant issue because if true, then it invalidates the on-topic section of help where it suggests "How do I use [theory/concept] to achieve [goal]?" as a viable structure for a question, and if it is false then it is discouraging (in my opinion), a great type of question in IPS where proper research and references can be used easily for more in depth understanding of the subject.

Specifically, it was mentioned in two (both up-voted) answers and one (also up-voted) comment by 3 different users.

Here: (revision history)

People and their emotions are not toys to be played with. If someone feels like you are acting inappropriately, then they are going to be even more disinclined to open up to you. People do not respond well to being manipulated.

Here: (current answer)

People who know what this is (manipulation) don't fall for it. Same is true for Social Penetration Theory. We're always better off by gauging the relationship and the person and treating them as an individual, not a "game" or "technique" which both do.

And here: (comment)

Taking advantage of social norms to get someone to do what you want them to do when they don't want to do it is manipulation. – swbarnes2 2 hours ago

(An update: since creating this post, there have been many more discouraging comments/posts/chat on the question and it is very clear that there is a noticeably popular opinion that any question asking about "how to use a theory in IPS" is manipulative, but the comments have even gone so far as to insinuate my character is corrupt and I am a manipulative person for trying to use this "inauthentic technique".) - Because this mind-set is one that will obviously continue to arise with any question structured similarly to that which is suggested in the help, I think it makes this an important matter that needs to be addressed.

In my understanding, each one of these examples has miss-understood what Interpersonal theories are, what manipulation is or some combination of the two and this false interpretation seems likely to arise again in future questions about the use of theories so I would like to try and establish where the community stands on this matter.

What do we define as manipulation?

Psychological manipulation is a type of social influence adopted to know about the psychological vulnerabilities of your opponent. It is usually adopted to know what tactics are likely to be the most effective weapons against them. Psychological manipulation changes the perception or behavior of others through underhanded, deceptive, or even abusive tactics. Such methods are often considered as exploitative, abusive, devious, and deceptive. It is often used in an attempt to control the behavior of others. It uses various forms of psychological abuse, brainwashing or bullying, emotional blackmail, to coerce others to do things which they naturally do not want to do. It is also known as emotional manipulation. - reference

There are other types of manipulation, but psychological is the only sort that really applies to this discussion as it tries to change the behaviour or perception of others and can lead to psychological/emotional/mental abuse and is clearly what is being implied when someone says "manipulation" in an IPS context. The more general definition of manipulation can be extended to even simple things like modelling clay and has a notably less negative context than is being insinuated in these cases.

For a more detailed list of types of psychological manipulation and what to watch out for, I really suggest reading this in order to get a clear picture of the contrast between questions such as mine, and psychological manipulation.

In a nutshell, psychological manipulation is always targeted, damaging and malicious (whether intentional or not). Looking back at the questions, my goal to "to use Social Penetration Theory to mutually help each of us with our relationships together" should be the first sign that perhaps Interpersonal Theories are not inherently manipulative.

Thats not to say that a question about IP theories will never be manipulative, but instead I am saying that we should assess the OP's goals and methods in a case by case basis like every other question and not stigmatise the application of knowledge.

What is an Interpersonal Theory?

The biggest misconception here seemed to be that these theories are all some sort of game/trick/technique that can be exploited to get what you want such as what was displayed in a lot of the examples from this link I gave. This is a very harmful misconception that could hinder a lot of potentially great questions and coming up with a routine way of dispelling this belief would be the ideal outcome of this post.

Interpersonal Theories are basically the study and understanding of interpersonal communication and skills themselves. Which is the very thing this site should be thriving on. A theory is an attempted understanding or insight into a particular behaviour and how you use that knowledge is similar to how you use the knowledge gained from life experiences, the benefit here is that documented studies and theories can be sited easily, referenced and built upon. Since honesty and trust are a large part of IPS, I would even go so far as to say that these theories are directly opposed to "dishonest tricks to get what you want from people". For some research with different communication theories. The study and understanding of these theories I feel would be a major benefit to the future of where this site goes and to categorise it as "manipulation" seems like a major diss-service to ourselves.

Simply because of what an Interpersonal Theory is it can not be inherently manipulative. If anything the question should only be called manipulative if OP has manipulative or ill intentioned application or use of the theory. But this applies to every other IPS question too. If OP asks a question where the goal is to (intentionally or not) psychologically manipulate or abuse someone then we should take the recommended steps. But that, is certainly not the same as applying Interpersonal Theories. So for this example, the only type of comment that might be justified in terms of mentioning abuse would be about my unideal use of the theory. Which is what the question was about in the first place.

What should we do about questions that DO involve manipulation?

The answer to this is quite varied, depending a lot on specifically what sort/how manipulative the questions is, but has been covered in previous meta posts.

Is social engineering on topic?

Social engineering is about getting information from people they don't want to give and morally questionable acts. The consensus for this seemed to be that because of how subjective morality is and how much questions can vary, these questions were not necessarily off topic but they were something to be wary of.

What to do with questions about getting around peoples boundaries?

This was about questions where OP wanted to make someone do something and circumvent that persons boundaries. This seems to be a good example of how my question was wrongfully interpreted as they answered in a way that would have been recommended if this were the case. Here the answerer updated their answer to something more applicable after it was explained that the goal was not to make someone do something, and using theories does not mean trying to circumvent someones boundaries. The suggested answer with questions like these was a "Don't!" answer, ideally with a thorough explanation and reasoning. A don't answer can be great, and is a good solution to the above problem but having misconceptions about what Interpersonal Theories imply and responding to every question involving a theory with "Don't" would be distracting from the value of the post, and hopefully we can find a way to discourage the indiscriminate use in these situations while still encouraging it when used correctly.

So what do we do about these answers/comments?

IF we as a community agree that these comments are unhelpful, and they are discouraging a type of question that we really want to be encouraging then what can, or what should, we do about it?

  • Flagging answers accusing a question involving Interpersonal Theories of being manipulative as NAA seems too risky since the flagger should probably be required to determine that the answerers interpretation of the question was objectively wrong since there still could be a small percentage of theory questions that are actually about manipulation.
  • Down-voting seems applicable to me, but it does not really help improve the problem
  • Lastly, I think the best thing we could do is come up with a staple, agreed upon response to inform the answerers and hopefully result in some better and more focused responses that do not get caught up in the false stigma of how people use Inter Personal Theories.
  • Any other suggestions that are a better fit would be helpful
  • 2
    You ask very different questions questions in your title and at the and of a very long post. While I appreciate all the context, I am not entirely sure if you want to ague manipulation/morality or what to do with comments from people who did not understand scope of this site?
    – user6109
    Mar 22, 2018 at 12:07
  • @Daniel both. "IF we as a community agree that these comments are unhelpful, and they are discouraging a type of question that we really want to be encouraging then what can, or what should, we do about it?" First since it is controversial at the moment we must decide if it IS manipulative, and then decide what to do accordingly. Any answer jumping to "what do we do" still works fine since it would be implying that it agrees with the former (that the comments/answers about manipulation are false/unhelpful)
    – Jesse
    Mar 22, 2018 at 12:35
  • @Jesse, I hope you don't feel attacked by my responses to your question. It is not true that increasing in closeness in essence can't be targeted, damaging, or malicious. Increasing in closeness is the explicit goal of spies, moles, con men, double agents, false lovers, addicts seeking enablers, brown nosers, teacher's pets, and probably a hundred other roles that bad people play... it's not a noble goal in isolation. Mar 23, 2018 at 16:35
  • ...but it is a noble goal when properly balanced with other relational values such as care and respect! Without closeness, how would you know what a person needed in order to help? Mar 23, 2018 at 16:42
  • 2
    @elliotsvensson I think in all of your examples, "getting close" is not the end goal but a means to the actual end (getting state or company secrets, money, sex, drugs, a good grade, etc.). To my mind, that's distinguishable from a someone whose main end goal is to know better, and be better known by, the other person, without an ulterior motive.
    – 1006a
    Mar 23, 2018 at 21:44
  • @1006a, thanks for this insight. I think that an appropriate ulterior motive in getting close would be because you care about them and want more opportunities to help them in whatever way you can. I think that this is what's meant by goodwill, which is pretty much assumed a lot of the time. But if the assumption of goodwill doesn't make sense, as with advice regarding a specific idea that came out of institutional research on human relationships... in this case I think it's OK not to treat goodwill as an assumption but as something that needs to be demonstrated. Mar 23, 2018 at 21:57

3 Answers 3


Okay, first off, don't bother about the comment. It's not requesting clarification or suggesting improvements and is just chatty or an answer in comments. It is someone that has an opinion but failing to provide back up for it. That's where 'write an answer' and 'no longer needed' comment flags come in.

As for both answers you're citing from, that's what we need the back-it-up rule for. It's fine if people decide something is manipulative. But as long as they don't add references or explain their experiences (and how they relate to what you did) and can clearly explain why what you are trying to do is always going to be manipulative, these answers aren't good answers. Especially not to a question that is tagged with 'academic-research'. To me, these answers don't even meet the requirements of a frame-challenge, since a good frame-challenge would have offered you an alternative method/theory to use.

As for solutions, I think that can only be hammered out once we decided how to enforce a back-it-up rule on this site. If we are going to do that, I think the answers you're talking about can be deleted. As for your hesitancy to downvote, I think it might be the best solution to the problem right now. If you get answers making wild claims such like that, downvote and comment (point them to a meta about back-it-up rules, references or how to write a good experience based answer). I know a lot of people here feel that downvotes are personal attacks and they'd rather not cast them because they're afraid of hurting someone else, but if we don't cast a string of downvotes as a community on answers like that, HNQ will never notice these answers have problems according to our community (leave comments too!)

If you think it's not bad enough to warrant a downvote, please think twice about upvoting then. Upvotes aren't participation awards, although at this site it looks like they're used that way a lot (just look at the first posts queue). There's a third option besides down and upvoting, which is not voting at all. Answers that are 'meh' definitely qualify for this option. Sadly, your question reached HNQ, so there will always be people upvoting stuff that isn't necessarily a good fit for the site, just because they don't know what this site is struggling with/ they only have the association bonus and can't downvote.

As for the stock response you're asking about, we worked on something like that in chat yesterday, asking answerers to provide some back up to their claims:

Thank you for writing an answer! While I'm sure that you have your reasons for giving this advice, you might want to take a look at this meta about backing up posts. Although it's not strictly enforced, it is a good idea and heavily encouraged to back up your answers with references (either external sources or personal experience). Could you perhaps [edit] to improve this answer with something to back it up? Thanks!

I'm personally a bit hesitant to go posting this on every answer to your question though since I have my own answer there. But posting this will give an answerer the links to meta, and can maybe even be followed up or preceded by a comment pointing out exactly what claims you'd like to see backed up. In this case, you'd probably want to ask for research proving this technique is considered manipulative (it's an academic research question after all!)

  • 3
    I don´t find this stock response particularly helpful, especially in that it does ignore bullet point two of this answer on how to get authors to improve their answers.
    – user6109
    Mar 22, 2018 at 11:49
  • @Daniel, true, although the link to 'personal experience' gives some good guidance on how to write a good experience based answer, it doesn't point out the specific claims that could use back-up/improvement... That's why I suggested following it up/preceding it by another comment. The value in the stock comment for me is that it's an easy way to provide a link to the expectations as discussed on meta. Sadly, including 3 links also takes up the entire comment character limit, so there's no room to point out specific stuff in this one.
    – Tinkeringbell Mod
    Mar 22, 2018 at 11:52
  • Another possibility would be to alter this one, if e.g. the answer does already mention experience but is nothing more than 'in my experience' without info on how the experience relates, the comment can easily be modified to only provide the personal experience link before posting it.
    – Tinkeringbell Mod
    Mar 22, 2018 at 11:53
  • @Daniel Honestly, comments (even stock ones) are probably the best way to convey the most detail. It may be even better if we could edit and improve the stock for this specific case, but it is communicating advice miles better than a vote, flag or ignore would be
    – Jesse
    Mar 22, 2018 at 12:37
  • 1
    @Jesse: Sure, people tend to be pissed off when they just get shut down, without knowing why. But above stock comment alone can leave the author quite clueless on where to improve. Whats common-sense to one may not be immediately apparent to another.
    – user6109
    Mar 22, 2018 at 12:47
  • Is there a place where stock comments like this are 'stored'? Otherwise how is a person to know if a comment they see deployed more than once has some sort of 'stamp of approval' and does being put together in chat count as such a stamp?
    – user9837
    Mar 27, 2018 at 9:57
  • @Spagirl as far as I know, IPS doesn't have any 'approved' stock comments. But someone shared theirs in the chatroom: gist.github.com/superplane39/fa2af7132b392d172181df7c3872a2bc. I've been using that or variations thereof, or I build my own ;)
    – Tinkeringbell Mod
    Mar 27, 2018 at 17:10

I think the issue here is that all interpersonal interaction can be perceived as manipulation depending on the context, and thus context is very important.

Since I-sentences are commonly mentioned here, and seem to be well accepted, I will use this as an example. Once you know what an I-sentence is, and you use them while interacting with people, it is impossible not to know what you're doing, so you may feel like you're manipulating.

Short story: you're in your car with someone and they light a cigarette. The smoke bothers you.

Saying "The smoke bothers me" is an I-sentence (instead of using an imperative like "Put that damn thing out!"). If the smoker didn't know they were bothering you, yet cares about your well-being, then they will blow the smoke out the window or put the cigarette out. That's not manipulation, rather it is fixing a misunderstanding (perhaps they didn't know the smoke was bothering you).

But if they don't actually care about your well-being and knew they were bothering you, then this innocent-looking I-sentence does not fix a misunderstanding. It will still work because it is actually manipulation, since it exploits implicit shaming. Its real meaning would be "Aren't you ashamed of poisoning me with your smoke?"

So as I said it depends a lot on the context and also on your goals are. If your goals are good, then it is less likely to be perceived as manipulation, rather something like "persuasion" which is more positive. However the way your goal is perceived as ethical or not depends on the morality and political criteria of whoever is judging, which may vary.

What should we do about questions that DO involve manipulation?

I'd draw a line at "persuasion" or "influence" which are close, but without the nefarious purpose implied by "manipulation". Many questions and answers are about how to persuade/influence anyway.

For example it is blatantly obvious that this question boils down to "how do I persuade someone to stop doing and thinking something that I find morally reprehensible", but no-one mentioned anything about the fact...

What should we do about questions that DO involve manipulation?

I'd say close them with a comment that explains why they sound manipulative to whoever closed them, and encourage the asker to make their goals and good-will clearer.

Your question got shot down because you made it too obvious that you wanted to test a theory on a friend, which isn't really ethical. Make it less obvious next time ;)

  • My question did not have a nefarious purpose other than to perhaps influence my relationships for the better, and I am blatantly opposed to suggesting users to make their goals less obvious. Closing a question because it sounded like the OP was trying to use a theory on an interpersonal interaction is a bit shallow of a reason considering the help page suggesting "How to use [theory]" as a good structure.
    – Jesse
    Mar 30, 2018 at 1:02

With the specific goal of increasing openness in spite of the other person's boundaries in the recent example, the intent seems to be to use advanced knowledge about human interaction for the purpose of getting through to somebody.

But since it is impossible to gain trust with a person by undermining that person's will, and since closeness is granted with either trust or supernatural grace, it is impossible to use X to achieve Y when X is a theory of relationships and Y is a close relationship: only the two of you together can do this.

It is probably a great idea to study Social Penetration Theory and learn about relationships, and I bet you can even learn how to grow in trust with friends if you understand the theory better. But what's happening isn't

using X to achieve Y,

...instead, what's happening is...

learning X to get better at Y.

A semantic way of seeing this difference is that if you use X to get close with somebody, that's weird. But if you understand X and try to get close with somebody, that's fine. You can try to get close with somebody, but you can't use things to get close with somebody.

With goals that are by their nature impossible to achieve as an individual person, with outcomes that are by their nature out of one person's control, I suggest that the IPS community adopt a template question of

"How can X help me to Y?"

...instead of...

"How can I use X to Y?"


Perhaps the OP just wanted to clarify what the friend expects in order to avoid missing friendship opportunities that result from assuming boundaries are there when they're not. There's nothing wrong with using self-disclosure for this, and nothing wrong with the way the OP's brother and friend reacted ("please don't go there, buddy").

In this case, I think the negative comments and accusations of manipulative thinking can be explained by appearances and semantics: the community reacted to words on a page. They didn't know the truth, and past comments are not automatically updated following OP edits.


I think that "increasing openness" is a case of "trying to convince a person to do something", which was addressed by a different meta post.

  • I flat out disagree with the claims about my intent, and that using a theory is "opposing that persons will". However... if these claims were true then I think your solution would be the best course of action. Perhaps giving some explanation/backup of those two claims could make it clear if this is true or not
    – Jesse
    Mar 23, 2018 at 16:40
  • I don't doubt you, but I am commenting on what your intent "seems to be", meaning the way a reasonable person (in my opinion) would perceive your actions without additional insight. It seems that the various authors of SPT provide lots of explanation for the dynamics of self-disclosure that aren't encapsulated by "people use self-disclosure to [...]", and therefore you can by now probably write a convincing answer to your question. Mar 23, 2018 at 16:51
  • Most informational sites about IPS theories include a section about transferring the theory to real world applications/use, including my linked example in the question: oregonstate.edu/instruct/comm321/gwalker/relationships.htm
    – Jesse
    Mar 23, 2018 at 16:58
  • Maybe your biggest question is how to deal with relational boundaries that are assumed rather than stated. I think you do well to try to become a better friend, but you must acknowledge (I think you already have) that the outcome is really, truly, deeply, out of your control. To quote Angela Lansbury / Howard Ashman: "Barely even friends, then somebody bends unexpectedly." Mar 23, 2018 at 18:26
  • "it is impossible to gain trust with a person by opposing that person's will" => wrong, it works very well in fact. Just prevent them from doing something very stupid, and wait for them to realize you've actually been helping. In fact this is one of the best ways to earn trust. You're expected to talk your friends out of doing stupid stuff.
    – user2135
    Mar 29, 2018 at 18:43
  • Great feedback. Edit made now... Mar 29, 2018 at 18:44

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .