Emotional Manipulation

Mike Asimos
5 min readMar 14, 2022

Emotional manipulation is the practice of deliberately or accidentally changing the emotions of particular individuals or groups. Emotional manipulation makes it possible to gain an advantage over the adversary even before one uses military power. For example, by using propaganda, one can increase the willingness of one’s society to wage war or do the reverse to the adversary. Yet, from the perspective of military strategy, the most interesting form of emotional manipulation relates to the use of military power. When strategic practitioners use military forces, they intentionally or accidentally change emotions both at home and abroad. Emotional effects produced in this way affect both belligerents and their respective societies, although to varying degrees. These emotional effects can make or break the sustainment of the war effort of either belligerent. Emotional manipulation is thus a part of military strategy from its inception up until its termination — that is, the achievement of victory for either side.

Emotional manipulation at home can help strategists to sustain the war effort. Yet the usefulness of evoking specific emotions for this purpose varies greatly. Concerning the strategist’s own feelings, emotions such as sadness and surprise are seldom desirable because they either decrease the overall willingness to fight or suspend the decision-making process altogether. Fear can be somewhat useful to motivate the careful conduct of war, although it is likely to decrease the strategist’s will to fight in the process, at least when that fear is felt with regard to the adversary. Anger, hatred, or the anticipation of pride may contribute to the sustainment of the war effort but, at the same time, may lead a strategist to pursue reckless actions. Emotions can thus motivate the strategist to keep fighting but they usually come with some drawbacks.

Of course, the role of emotions in sustaining the domestic war effort does not only concern strategists but all of society. Niccolo Machiavelli understood this point very well when he urged strategists to make themselves loved or feared but never hated.84 As Rainsborough points out, Western strategic thinking has generally paid little attention to how important it is to ignite domestic populations’ emotions in order to sustain the strategic effort.85 Likewise, effective emotional manipulation can constitute the difference between armed forces who are willing to fight and die for their society and those who refuse to fight, fight badly, desert, or even revolt.86 Therefore, evoking favorable emotions on the home front may be a prerequisite for victory, especially during long wars of attrition when securing support for the war effort is imperative.

Emotional manipulation can also contribute to victory in a more indirect way, by disrupting relations within the adversary’s society.

Emotional manipulation abroad can contribute directly to victory, by shattering the adversary’s will or by motivating the adversary to pursue reckless courses of action. Emotions such as fear, sadness, and surprise are likely to do the former. These emotions decrease the adversary’s will to fight by making it more risk-averse or even paralyzing its decision-making process altogether. Equally importantly, the anticipation of emotions associated with the prospect of significant loss, such as sadness, can make the adversary less willing to fight. In contrast, anger and hatred are likely to make the adversary more willing to fight. However, provoking these emotions may contribute to a strategist’s overall victory in war because they, too, can motivate reckless action in an adversary.87 Careless actions, in turn, can lead to the loss of essential military resources. This was the case for Spartan King Agesilaus II who, motivated by his hatred of the city of Thebes, repeatedly attacked the city. His army got weaker with every engagement while his opponents adapted and become stronger, gradually shifting the relative balance of military capabilities in the favor of Thebes. As always, the stimulus that produces the emotions, or their anticipation, matters a great deal when it comes to the influence of these emotions on the adversary’s willingness to fight.

Emotional manipulation can also contribute to victory in a more indirect way, by disrupting relations within the adversary’s society. An adversary is not a unified actor. In addition to strategists, there are also civilians and the armed forces to consider. Emotions that produce or enhance adversity between these societal elements are most useful for achieving victory. The most useful emotions for this aim include obvious candidates such as hatred and anger but also envy, resentment, or frustration. During the Peloponnesian war, the Athenian leader Pericles was scared of this kind of emotional manipulation. He anticipated the anger of the Athenian population once the latter saw the Spartans ravaging Athenian lands but sparing Pericles’ property because of his amicable relations with the Spartan King Archidamus II.88 Alternatively, if the adversary’s armed forces get frustrated with the government, they may desert or even organize to overthrow the political elites, as the Praetorian Guard in Rome did several times. In these ways, strategic practice may plant the seeds for societal disruption through emotional manipulation.

Scholars have already identified some general patterns of how military power can elicit particular emotions on the adversary’s side. In my own work, I have proposed that employing overwhelming force may elicit fear, utilizing speed and deception can elicit surprise, and defeating an adversary in protracted warfare can produce sadness.89 Roger Petersen has argued that fear can be elicited by unlimited and indiscriminate killing while anger can be provoked by limited discriminate killing.90 Agneta Fischer and her colleagues have argued that the protracted use of military power can elicit hatred.91 Focusing on military power applied through cyberspace, Rose McDermott has theorized that cyber attacks can elicit fear, anger, surprise, or disgust, depending on whether the attacks target civilian infrastructure, elections, military forces, or domestic cyber systems respectively.92 Although these claims require more empirical support, they provide a strong basis for conducting further research because they offer generalizations that can be tested and subsequently modified according to real-world evidence.

However, these theories have largely evaded discussions about how emotional manipulation works on the home front. Nonetheless, some generalizations can be made based on the profile of distinct emotions. For example, harming one’s own population, even if by accident, is likely to produce strongly negative emotions, such as anger and hatred, toward the strategist. Chiang Kai-shek evoked such hatred by employing a scorched-earth policy in large portions of China during the second war with Japan.93 It is also plausible that positive emotions, such as pride, happiness, and excitement, can be elicited by conducting successful military operations against an adversary, yet the influence of these emotions is far less significant than the influence of negative emotions. Due to the relative lack of existing research, the topic of emotional manipulation on the home front is fertile ground for further exploration.

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Mike Asimos

CEO and Founder of Charleston Capital Holdings in South Carolina