“A loving person lives in a loving world. A hostile person lives in a hostile world. Everyone you meet is your mirror.” – Ken Keyes
World-creation is a concept about self-fulfilling prophecy and how we end creating the very world we perceive, even if it’s ironically a type of world we’re striving to avoid.
The anti-manipulation book Who’s Pulling Your Strings? by Harriet Braiker describes how world-creation occurs in the world of manipulators:
The manipulator uses the defense mechanism of projection in his dealings with the world of others.
She believes that given a choice, everyone else believes the same way she does. In other words, other people see the world in the same start win-lose terms. She feels that others also believe that they can play or they will get played – and that given a choice, others will always opt for being the controlling/manipulating party. She feels that others only feel their own needs – which the manipulator can barely imagine as being different fundamentally from her own. And finally, she feels that others share in her self-centered sense of entitlement.
Given this tendency toward projection – toward seeing in the motives and beliefs of others the same drives that propel her interpersonal dealings – the manipulator cannot act in a trusting manner. She instinctively will approach any situation that requires a choice between trusting another person and behaving cooperatively by opting for the latter strategy.
The manipulator always will put the distrusting foot forward; because she expects others to act only out of competitive self-interest, she will make the preemptive competitive strike first.
If you’ve ever read up on game theory, you’re probably acquainted with the concept of social dilemmas:
Social dilemmas are situations in which collective interests are at odds with private interests. Such situations arise when faced with prioritizing either short-term selfish interests or the long-term interests of a group, organization, or society. Many of the most challenging issues, from the interpersonal to the intergroup, are at their core social dilemmas. Conflicts arise when motives concerning the group are overcome by individual motives…
Social dilemmas describe situations in which the rational behaviour of an individual—defined in pure and simple economic terms—leads to suboptimal outcomes from the collective standpoint.
The most popular example of a social dilemma is the game known as Prisoner’s Dilemma. In this game, there are two prisoners under arrest, who are being interviewed separately. Each prisoner is unaware of what the other prisoner is doing in his interview. If he chooses to confess to the crime and incriminate the other prisoner and the other prisoner doesn’t confess and keeps quiet, the confessing prisoner will get off scot-free and the prisoner who keeps quiet will get the full sentence. For the purposes of this example, let’s say the full sentence is 10 years.
If both prisoners decide to snitch on each other and confess, they will get an outcome where both will get 6 years in jail. This is better than either of them getting 10 years in jail, but not as good as getting off scot-free. However if both of them decide to keep quiet and not confess, they will both get off with 2 years in prison.
The diagram below, known as the prisoner’s dilema matrix, illustrates the options visually:
Braiker describes in her book how prisoner’s dilemma can be used to better understand manipulators:
Over the years, many variations of the prisoner’s dilemma have been conceived to look at how people cooperate or do not cooperate in social settings. We can view manipulators through the same prism.
In one variation, the matrix labels are changed from “confess/don’t confess” to “cooperate/compete.”…
Each person, on any given move, can play to cooperate or to compete. In the game’s setup, if both people cooperate on the same move, they both win moderate outcomes ($10). However, if one person cooperates while the other person competes, the cooperator loses (earns $0); conversely, the competitor wins big ($20). This is the zero-sum outcome – one winner and one loser. Finally, if both parties choose to compete, they each get only a small win ($1).
[Displayed graphically below]
A true manipulator will always look at the game by assuming that the person he or she is playing against will compete. Competing is the manipulator’s natural mind-set…
People who play with the manipulator’s mind-set believe that everyone will automatically play to win – or to maximize gain and minimize loss on each turn – by playing competitively. However, this option will only work best for the competitive player when the opponent plays cooperatively: The competitor gets $20, and the cooperator gets $0.
Manipulators always play the competitive move. When they first sit down to play with an opponent, they make the competitive move. Sometimes their opponent will make a cooperative move on the first try; sometimes he will not. However given that the manipulator continues to play competitively, the originally cooperative opponent has no choice but to change his tactics into also being a nontrusting competitor. In this way, the opponent will improve his score by $1 (up from $0) and in so doing also reduce the manipulator’s score to $1.
On the other hand, consider the experience of people who examine the matrix and choose on their first move to play cooperatively, trusting the other player to also cooperate so that each gets $10 on every move. If both players do play cooperatively, over 10 moves, each will accrue $100. As long as both players continue to play cooperatively – that is, by trusting one another – their gain will be guaranteed over the course of the game.
However, if a cooperative person gets burned by a competitive person on the first few rounds, the only option open to the trusting person is to switch strategies and become competitive too – just as a defense.
What ends up happening according to studies of Prisoner’s Dilemma is that cooperators end up having more diverse experiences when playing the game over time and with many different opposing players. Over a series of games, a cooperator may cooperate with a specific player who is also cooperative and be rewarded for the experience. Both of them walk away happy. In another series of games, he may play against someone who is always competitive and be forced to shift to a competitive strategy also, simply as a defense. At the end of the experience of playing all those series of games against different players, when the cooperators are asked to summarize their feelings, they say that the game, like the world and life, is full of different types of people, good and bad, cooperative and competitive.
When a competitor is asked the same question, however, the response is different. The competitor almost always have the experience where the person he’s playing ends up playing like a selfish competitor also. This happens because his playing style, for reasons already described, ends up converting his opponent to a competitive strategy, yet he is not the type of person to allow himself to be converted to a cooperative strategy by the other person’s cooperative play. Thus, his experiences dealing with others are not as varied. His own behavior actually created the exact world he predicted: one where everyone in the long run is always out for themselves, no matter how they may pretend otherwise in the beginning, therefore others aren’t to be trusted. He then uses this to justify his “get them before they get you” worldview.
The funny thing is, both the cooperator and competitor are correct in their worldviews. The cooperator thinks “Some people are good and cooperative and some people are bad and manipulative and you can’t treat everyone the same.” And what he’s saying is true for someone with his worldview and lifestyle. The competitor thinks “No matter how people act in the beginning, everyone is out for themselves and will show themselves to be selfish over time.” And what he’s saying is also true, for someone with his worldview and lifestyle. Even though they are both describing a different worldview, they are ironically both right about how the world is, at least for themselves specifically.
You may note I said that even though the competitor will change the cooperator into a fellow competitor, at least during the duration of their shared interactions, the reverse is usually not true. The cooperator, by cooperating, won’t change the competitor into a cooperator. Why is this so? The answer lies in the psychological phenomenon of projection, which is where a person believes other people have the same worldview and motivations behind their behavior that they do. For manipulators, they are only nice for two reasons. The first is because they are in a position of fear and weakness and have to cooperate for some reason or other, such as fear of losing something they already have, fear of not getting something, fear of retribution, fear of exposure, increase scrutiny by authorities, cowardice, etc. The second is because they want to lull the other player into a false sense of security to get them to lower their defenses and open themselves up to a bigger manipulation down the road. Because these are the only reasons they are ever nice or cooperative, when they see someone else being nice, they assume the other person is being nice for those same reasons: out of weakness or out of a desire to manipulate down the road. And of course, thanks to world-creation, when they end up inevitably converting the other player into a competitor, they are “proven” right and feel they called the whole situation correctly. Even more tragically, they typically never understand how their own distrustful behavior keeps creating distrust, manipulativeness, and rivalry in people they encounter.
Braiker describes a type of person that calls the realistic cooperator:
Think how this mind-set can affect and poison an interpersonal relationship. Trusting people who allow for the possibility that others can, on occasion, choose to behave altruistically and/or generously or, as in the prisoner’s dilemma game, others can choose to cooperate because it is rational and adaptive will be open to the possibility of trusting relationships. If you approach the world with an open but realistic attitude that allows both kinds of people – trusting souls and self-promoting competitors – your experiences will mirror your expectations. You likely will meet both kinds of people and have the opportunity to form relationships in which mutual trust and cooperation exist and are cherished by both participants.
In cooperation and trust lies the context for mutual respect and healthy interdependence – the blend of autonomy and interdependence that makes intimacy, high self-esteem, strong sense of self, and solid self-reliance possible.
However, the realistic cooperator also knows that competitive manipulators exist in the world; when the competitive opponent is met, the cooperator can adjust and adapt his behavior accordingly. You do not have to reward manipulators by allowing their exploitative behavior and tactics to work.
Manipulators don’t like to knowingly deal in a long term context with other manipulators or realistic cooperators, because neither will repeatedly reward the manipulator’s selfish tactics. The only person who would keep playing with and rewarding a manipulator is an unrealistic cooperator. If the competitor in the prisoner’s dilemma example corresponds to manipulators in real life relationships, then unrealistic cooperators correspond to codependents in real life relationships. Unrealistic cooperators/codependents, much like manipulators, tend to project their own worldviews and belief systems onto others and interpret the behaviors of others accordingly. So when they see a person behaving selfishly, they think that person has never been shown goodness or cooperation, or has been unfairly burned by others, because that is the only reason why they themselves would ever act so consistently bad. So they believe by showing excessive cooperation, even in the face of repeated selfish, competitive moves, they can end up changing the manipulator. The unrealistic cooperator can’t believe that another person can remain selfish, manipulative, and competitive in the face of consistent cooperation because the unrealistic cooperator himself couldn’t act selfish and manipulative when faced with consistent cooperation.
Because of the dynamic we described above, though, the unrealistic cooperator’s behavior ends up having the exact opposite effect on the manipulator. The manipulator is a person who only acts cooperative when he feels he is in a position of weakness and helplessness, or when he is getting a target’s defenses down in order to set them up for a future selfish, competitive move down the line. When the manipulator projects his mindset into the unrealistic cooperator, and realizes that the unrealistic cooperator is never going to do a future selfish move, and therefore is not setting him up for a manipulation down the line, the manipulator then assumes that the unrealistic cooperator must then be chronically weaker than and fundamentally inferior to the manipulator.
Because most people don’t allow the manipulator to keep playing competitive moves against them without eventually turning competitive also, the manipulator realizes he has a great victim when he comes across someone who is willing to keep letting themselves get shafted. After always going up against other competitors/manipulators and realistic competitors, both of whom always end up turning competitive too, when the competitor finds an unrealistic cooperator he feels like he’s hit the jackpot. Therefore he will try to maximize the amount of interactions he has with the unrealistic cooperator. When a competitor/manipulator finds an unrealistic cooperator, he knows he’s found a rare bird and will try to hog up and monopolize as much of that person’s time as possible. Like all true vampires, they sink their fangs in and don’t want to let go until every last drop of blood and lifeforce has been sucked dry. Because of how manipulators are attracted to, grab hold of, and monopolize the time of unrealistic cooperators when they find them, unrealistic cooperators end up having a vast amount of their close relationships being with selfish manipulators. This is because unrealistic cooperators have less appeal to healthier people, because healthy people don’t consider being a doormat an appealing trait, along with less opportunities to meet healthier people, because they usually have a manipulator in their life hogging up the time and resources they could instead be using to meet healthier people.
The end result is that the unrealistic cooperator, or codependent, often becomes a victim of world-creation as well. They wonder why people keep taking advantage of them, they wonder why they keep attracting jerks, they convince themselves that they live in a world of suckers and users and that they are doomed to keep being stuck with users, and they’re right, but they don’t realize how their own actions and beliefs keep working to being that world into creation.
In the world of social dilemmas like the games Prisoner’s Dilemma and Tragedy of the Commons, a person who keeps taking and never giving, always behaving in their personal, private short-term interest and never in the interest of the collective, public, long-term goals that benefit everyone, is called a free rider. A free rider can win in the short run, but in the long run he usually has problems, because as described above he eventually turns everyone against him and makes them act selfish. A free rider strategy only works when there are a few free riders. If everyone starts behaving selfishly, the whole system falls apart. A free rider strategy also fails in the long run because of gossip. Eventually gossip ruins a free rider’s reputation and no one wants to interact with them anymore because they hear about his selfishness beforehand. This is why free riders have to keep finding new systems to game, where no one knows them. Cluster B vampires like narcissists and psychopaths are free riders in that they take but never give, they cause other people to become more narcissistic and psychopathic, they live in a world of their own creation where everyone is either a manipulator who thinks just like them, or a weakling who is different than them only due to chronic defectiveness, and they end up with a string of failed relationships and a bad reputation, and have to keep moving on to new communities and relationships for fresh starts.
Who’s Pulling Your Strings?: How to Break the Cycle of Manipulation and Regain Control of Your Life by Harriet Braiker. I cannot recommend this book enough for understanding the dynamics of manipulation and self-defeating patterns we repeat when dealing with manipulators. Very eye-opening, an essential text.