Do you remember that much-hyped ad agency you took a chance on, only to end up with lackluster work? Or the ill-fated marketing initiative you had a bad feeling about, but greenlit anyway to support members of your team? Or the new partner or employee who claimed to share your values — but stirred up trouble instead?
On some level, you could have seen each mistake coming. So, what happened?
Lots of variables influence our day-to-day decision making — though perhaps none more potently than the attitudes and preferences of other people. The human instinct to seek belonging with others helps us collaborate and build systems and societies. But it also gives ill-intentioned people an opening to mislead, lull, and even coerce us into serving their interests instead of our own.
What I call “peer pressure manipulation” directly targets our communal instinct. Five manipulation tactics in particular lead decision makers into missteps like choosing dubious partners or investments, hiring unqualified agencies, greenlighting ill-conceived internal campaigns, and backing generally bad ideas.
Here we’ll discuss how to defend your own — and your team’s — decision making from peer pressure manipulation. Once you can identify the five common manipulation tactics, you’ll be able to run through a protective mental exercise anytime a pitch for a product, idea, investment, or a course of action feels potentially inauthentic.
How Does Peer Pressure Manipulation Work?
A manipulator needs you to accept three assumptions as true — even if they aren’t stated explicitly.
These ideas make up the foundation of peer pressure manipulation. Learn to notice and evaluate when someone wants you to believe these three “truths”:
- That relevant other people believe what the manipulator tells you they believe.
- That others’ opinions are not just real, but also relevant to your
- That your personal best interests are at stake in the decision to defy or go along with others’ views.
Keep this framework in mind as you learn about the five manipulation tactics — and how to deflect each one.
The 5 Manipulation Tactics
These scenarios are inspired by my conversations with decision-makers from different fields, composited into real-world examples.
1. They steal credibility.
Sarah, a tech conference president, needed to book one more speaker for her event. A marketing expert asked for the spot. He said he’d worked with Amazon, PayPal, Stripe, and other major brands. He also name-dropped an “equity in tech” nonprofit, saying he wanted to empower founders from marginalized groups. Impressed, Sarah booked him.
But minutes into his talk, she had regrets. The expert offered no marketing advice to the audience whatsoever. Instead, he pitched them on his own services. He even offered a “special one-time discount,” which one attendee called a “cringeworthy” move.
After the flop, Sarah researched the expert in more detail to see what she’d missed about him. She learned that his clients were actually current or former employees of Amazon, PayPal, Stripe, etc. — not the companies themselves, as he’d represented. She also couldn’t find any history of his involvement with the causes he claimed to support.
It looked like Sarah’s expert had inauthentically attached himself to brand names and causes he knew would impress her, co-opting their credibility for himself.
When someone’s pitch relies heavily on their associations, vet their authenticity. Ask questions about those relationships. What exactly is the person’s connection to those people or brands? Have they invested time in those causes? What actions have they taken to act out the values they claim to hold?
2. They exploit shared threats to win your trust.
While we often bond with people over interests we have in common, the people we tend to immediately like are the ones who share our negative opinions.
Someone who shares Gwen’s frustration with the CFO is more likely to sell her on their proposal. Someone who shares Ben’s fear that the deal will hurt them is more likely to win his trust. Shared negative sentiment can unite people — but it can also help manipulators align people with their agenda.
Carefully vet any pitch that invokes shared enemies or common threats to build rapport. If someone talks about a fear you both have of a disastrous outcome or impending event, or if they claim to share your anger toward a person, situation, or brand — take note. How they use this common threat matters. Do they mention it because it’s a real problem they aim to solve? Or does the common threat serve no purpose other than to help them bond with you? If someone stokes your anger or fear just to signal like-mindedness, they’re priming you to accept whatever they say next.
Ultimately, there’s no need to be suspicious of every person who shares your fears. But a product or plan you’re considering should be compelling for what it offers — not for what it stands against.
3. They fake market validation.
After a brand partnership failed to drive sales, Jordan, a marketing executive, reread their partner brand’s case studies to investigate what went wrong. He noticed something strange he’d missed earlier: The case studies were hypothetical and didn’t name actual clients. This brand also boasted large social media audiences but had low engagement, indicating possible “bot” followers. And the media logos on the brand’s site turned out to represent paid ads rather than articles or press. Jordan started to think the brand was faking their audience size and possibly their past work.
Faking market validation is low-hanging fruit for manipulators. They understand that the appearance of a robust audience taps into our instinct to seek peer validation and belonging. And they count on us taking these metrics at face value.
It’s tempting to use appearance as a proxy for reality. But take a moment to ask for sources of market insights that reveal audience size and sentiment. Quantifiable data like NPS scores, usage statistics, web analytics, and social engagement indicate sentiment more directly than follower numbers. Get names of references and case-study subjects, and ask about ambiguous heuristics like media logos on a website.
4. They try to discredit the competition.
Michael, the sales director of a nutritional beverage brand, wanted to partner with a local distributor. But so did a competing brand — and only one of them could win the exclusive deal. So Michael went to battle: He told the distributor that the other brand would be a risky choice. Their product, according to Michael, was not trusted in the nutritional science community and many considered it “unsafe.” Partnering with them, Michael implied, would compromise the distributor’s reputation, and could even bring liability.
There’s nothing untoward about critiquing a competing product’s quality or fit. But trying to discredit them by painting them as tainted, illegitimate, or taboo is a manipulative strategy that makes people fear stigma by association if they dare to make the wrong choice. In Michael’s case, he invoked one of society’s biggest stigmas to discredit his competitor: a disregard for safety.
If you get the unsettling sense that a person pitching you something wants to discredit or stigmatize a competing option, you’ll need to first parse the facts from the characterizations. Dig into “people think” or the “community believes” claims to find out who actually says what. What are their exact words? Did they use the word “unsafe,” or is that a characterization? How do various stakeholders interpret information from the source, and what incentives do they have?
If you conclude there is merit to the characterizations after all, take the next step. Evaluate the pitch on its benefits without consideration for other options. Reject the false dichotomy that just because Option A is bad, Option B must be good.
5. They divide and conquer.
Cade, an ambitious logistics manager, was not fully trusted by peers because he always seemed to crave more authority. He asked his VP for permission to form and chair a regulatory oversight committee. This committee would ostensibly protect the company from mishaps — but it would also give Cade access to other managers’ private project logs. The VP wasn’t convinced, but told Cade he’d consider it if the rest of the team was on board.
So Cade petitioned the department heads. He told them that he already had the VP’s support. The department heads didn’t want to ruffle feathers, so they signed off. Then, Cade told managers that their department heads were on board — and the managers, too, reluctantly signed off. People were wary of granting oversight to Cade. But they didn’t want to challenge their bosses and peers, so no one spoke up. Thus Cade showed his VP what looked like “unanimous support” from the team and received permission to form the committee that, privately, no one wanted.
This tactic of dividing and conquering is known as pluralistic ignorance. It works by inducing a fear among group members of opposing a bad idea because they’ve been (wrongly) led to believe they’re alone in their opposition.
If you find yourself pressured to adopt a consensus view you’re unsure of, investigate whether it has actual support — or just compliance. Ask colleagues what they like about the idea and how they see it helping. Watch for their tone. Are they evangelizing, or just going along? Create an opening for candid feedback by sharing your own uncertainty: “I don’t know how I feel about X. Are you convinced it’s the right move?” Anonymous surveys can also open the door for discussion by uncovering that team members aren’t sharing their actual views.
. . .
Peer pressure manipulators don’t use the strongest arguments to persuade us. They just tap into our need for approval and connection, or exploit our fear of losing standing in the group.
The good news is, we don’t need to stop caring what other people think of us to resist this manipulation. We just need to spot the sleights of hand, simplistic leaps, and false assumptions that prop it up. So ask questions and test claims. Manipulation topples when you challenge its foundation. And more often than not, other people will thank you for pushing back.