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Persuasion versus Manipulation

Persuasion versus Manipulation

“Isn’t this manipulating the audience???”

This is the number one question I prepare for when giving presentations.

I know I’m not alone here. Many of us have received a similar inquiry after explaining how behavioral science and psychology can help motivate people to live more sustainably.

It’s a tough and important concern to address – both for ourselves and others – and the response isn’t simple.

I tend to tackle this question from three related angles: ethics, definitions, and agency.

So, let’s dig in.

#1 Ethics in Marketing

The most important point in all of this is that we must always adhere to ethical standards when doing behavior change communications.

That starts with not communicating things that are not true. While we can get excited to use motivators like social proof and tangible benefits, we must be sure they are real and true.

It can’t be false advertising since we’re often dealing with people’s livelihoods in our work and it’s simply not ethical to sell fake promises, even if it sounds really compelling.

So, we shouldn’t do things like promise income from an alternative livelihood if that’s not real or can’t be guaranteed, or suggest that most people are currently doing the desired behavior when it’s only at the early adopter stage.

The motivators we choose to use should adhere to the ethical principles of our work, so that we do not manipulate our audiences.

I included some guiding principles at the bottom of this email if you need a place to start.

#2 Persuasion versus Manipulation versus Coercion

Here are some definitions from

  • Persuade: to prevail on (a person) to do something, as by advising or urging; to induce to believe by appealing to reason or understanding; convince.
  • Manipulate: to manage or influence skillfully, especially in an unfair manner; to adapt or change (accounts, figures, etc.) to suit one’s purpose or advantage.
  • Coerce: to compel by force, intimidation, or authority, especially without regard for individual desire or volition.

Persuasion, manipulation, and coercion are three different things that look, feel, and sound quite different from one another.

As an experiment, I did a Google Images search on these words. Below are the first images that appeared in the search results for each word.

It’s a telling indication of how they differ from one another.

Person holding a debate style conversation with two colleagues
First image result for PERSUASION
Two people being held by strings like puppets with hands controlling them
The first image result for MANIPULATION
Man interrogating another man who is in handcuffs and looks to have been physically assaulted
The first image result for COERCION

When we talk about using behavioral science, psychology, and savvy communication strategies in our work, we’re talking about persuasion, not manipulation.

It’s about making more compelling arguments in hopes of appealing to the interests of your audience.


We do this constantly in our lives.

» You may have persuaded your boss to promote a member of your team, or to invest in a cool capacity building opportunity like the Making Moves course (wink, wink)

» You might have made a persuasive pitch for why the family should eat at a particular restaurant this weekend, or attend an interesting event.

» Maybe you’re even in the process of persuading a family member to get the Covid-19 vaccine.

Making a persuasive case for doing one thing over another comes as a result of bridging what we want to say with what our audience cares about.

We avoid crossing the line into manipulation and coercion by not messing with methods or emotions that take advantage of people or make it an unfair choice.


This is actually what gets me worked up the most about the question of manipulation.

So much of traditional conservation messaging – the doom and gloom, the use of fear (especially the fear!), the guilt, the shame –  to me, is manipulation.

You are manipulating people’s emotions to feel bad about something, or feel bad about themselves, in order to get them to act. At times, it’s even borderline coercion.

That’s why I feel so passionate about talking about conservation behaviors in positive, exciting, and interesting ways. To make a compelling case that taking action is worth it.

#3 Audiences must retain agency

No matter what we’re asking people to do, it’s important that each individual retains the ability to decide whether or not they will do that thing.

We should not be taking that decision or option away from them.

Rather, we’re working to make a great pitch for why it’s a good choice. Especially since we know how hard it is to choose to do something new and different.

There have been questions about whether some behavioral economic techniques, like choice architecture and default options, take away one’s agency to make their own decision in a way that is harmful to them. In particular, this has been a hot topic around organ donations and if it should be an opt-in or opt-out process.

Which brings us back to having a set of ethical standards to follow, so we can avoid these issues.

Here’s one I created, which you are free to use:

I agree to follow ethical standards of marketing, advertising, and behavior change communication by:

• Not misleading target audiences by using false claims, lies, imaginary guarantees, dishonest statements and promises, or more.

• Empathizing with the target audience and acquiring a better understanding through research; not resorting to harmful stereotypes as audience personas. I will relate to, treat, and depict target audiences with dignity and respect.

• Not manipulating audiences by using extreme emotions and exaggerations in messaging, either by using scare tactics (fear, guilt, threats, shame) or exploiting desires (sex, money, fame, popularity, etc.)

• Disclosing if any influencers or spokespersons have been paid for supporting the product, brand, and/or message.

• Following local guidelines and laws for disseminating marketing materials or messages in local communication channels.

• Ensuring the target audience always retains agency, meaning individuals are free to act independently and to make their own choices on whether to make a change or not.

P.S. For more information on the science of persuasion, check out this video that describes the six universal principles of persuasion from Dr. Robert Cialdini’s book, Influence.