Scare Tactics and the Illusion of Control in Life and Relationships
In "The Purpose of Life from a Practical Point of View", Zac wanted to know why 'scare tactics' within relationships don't work:
“It will be cool to have an article on "Scare tactics", and why it doesn't work when there is no genuine honest and open communication.”
The question was posed in the context of styles of leadership and how to stop playing games in a relationship – which are actually two topics with a whole lot in common.
In this article, you're going to learn what a scare tactic is, why people use them, why they're ineffective in the long term and what techniques you can use to avoid them to have longer, more fruitful relationships, romantically and platonically.
First though, let's get an understanding of scare tactics.
A scare tactic is using a negative emotion, primarily fear, to manipulate another's actions or feelings. Examples include:
Purposefully making your girlfriend jealous
Playing on her fear of losing you
Stopping your girl making friends/seeing particular people/going to a party
Essentially, scare tactics are mechanisms for control, which can be employed in different guises in any relationship, although our main focus for this article will be romantic relationships.
This is an area of the social arts that a lot of novices can slightly fall into when they first start dealing with relationships.
See, some of the 'scare tactic' techniques are used in a smaller scale in the initial seduction, such as making a girl jealous, withdrawing attention, etc.
Given that these techniques were probably mighty successful during the pickup, they'll be used continuously even with a girl who is already sufficiently invested and in the changed dynamic of a boyfriend-girlfriend relationship.
And the thing is that in the short-term, they work. Controlling a person through her fears can be very powerful.
If you are feeling as if you are losing control of the relationship (like you frequently might, should you be playing these games), the short-run validation and sense of renewed control you receive with playing a card like this can be very enticing.
When these measures are displayed starkly like this, it's easy to say say you'd never do any of them to a girl who has invested in you, but the reality is that they come dressed with all manner of emotional clouding and rationalisations when you're plotting courses of action within your own mind. It's important to be mindful of them.
So while you may not set out to use scare tactics, they are something that can creep into your habits if you have an understanding of social dynamics, especially if this understanding is combined with an undercurrent of fear.
This brings me to my next point: a man who wants complete control of his experiences is one who lives with an underlying tone of fear woven throughout his life and his decisions.
In romantic relationships this usually manifests as the same fear by which you are endeavouring to control people:
- Fear of rejection
- Fear of being dumped
- Fear that you aren't enough
The listed things above are usually the primary reasons that the 'scare tactic' user fears losing control.
So just as you inject fear and negativity into the relationship, the relationship will induce fear and negativity in you.
And just as you induce fear and negativity into the other person, so will you drive them more towards a world defined by those emotions. And those are people who are capable of doing some pretty harsh things.
Essentially, it's a live by the sword, die by the sword way of behaving.
The Black Swan of Cairo
A brief change of direction here for a second to get an even wider look at control and whether it works, 'scare tactics' or not.
I want to introduce you to an article by Nassim Taleb called 'The Black Swan
of Cairo - How Suppressing Volatility Makes the World Less
Predictable and More Dangerous.'
Taleb's book of a similar name has been cited as one of the twelve most influential books post-WWII by the Sunday Times, a mantel I think it truly worthy of.
The article is actually on the financial crisis of 2007 - 2008 and the Egyptian Revolution, but I assure you the lessons held within can be applied across many, many fields.
So what message do I want you to take from Mr. Taleb?
First, we'll need to get into a teeny-weeny bit of his theory:
“Humans simultaneously inhabit two systems: the linear and the complex.
The linear domain is characterized by its predictability and the low degree of interaction among its components, which allows the use of mathematical methods that make forecasts reliable.
In complex systems, there is an absence of visible causal links between the elements, masking a high degree of interdependence and extremely low predictability. Nonlinear elements are also present, such as those commonly known, and generally misunderstood, as “tipping points.”
Imagine someone who keeps adding sand to a sand pile without any visible consequence, until suddenly the entire pile crumbles. It would be foolish to blame the collapse on the last grain of sand rather than the structure of the pile, but that is what people do consistently...”
An example of a simple system that can be modelled effectively would be something like a game of checkers.
Examples of systems that occupy the complex domain would be things like the stock market or a romantic relationship.
Why is it important that we recognise that relationships are complex systems?
Because it means they can't be controlled effectively, whether it be an attempt by a mathematical formula or persistent use of scare tactics.
Essentially, we can surmise that control is an illusion.
Mr. Taleb goes on to say:
“Complex systems that have artiﬁcially-suppressed volatility tend to become extremely fragile, while at the same time exhibiting no visible risks. In fact, they tend to be too calm and exhibit minimal variability as silent risks accumulate beneath the surface. Although the stated intention... is to stabilize the system by inhibiting ﬂuctuations, the result tends to be the opposite. These artiﬁcially constrained systems become prone to “Black Swans”—that is, they become extremely vulnerable to large-scale events that lie far from the statistical norm and were largely unpredictable to a given set of observers.
Such environments eventually experience massive blow-ups, catching everyone off guard and undoing years of stability or, in some cases, ending up far worse than they were in their initial volatile state.”
So we can suppress the breadth (or volatility) of another's actions or feelings and confine them into a course of action that we wish (by using 'scare tactics' or another measure) rather than letting them act of their own volition. And this may seem to help secure us the illusion of control in the short-term.
But eventually they'll end up heading in the opposite way of our attempted manipulation, sometimes most drastically with these Black Swan events precipitated by seemingly innocuous 'tipping points'.
A 'scare tactic' example of this would be a woman feeling that it's fair game to cheat on her boyfriend as payback for continuously making her jealous by parading other women.
He thinks he is staying on top by his ability to induce jealousy, and this may be the case in the short-term, but he is building up within her a well of resentment that may reach its 'tipping point' with a slight power shift in the relationship (which are inevitable if you go for long enough).
The negativity is thus drawn to the surface and may manifest as this kind of Black Swan.
There are countless other examples one could give.
An example that Taleb gives is the Egyptian government suppressing political expression for decades, only to push that political expression down beneath the surface until it grew strong enough to burst out into revolution, the likely 'tipping point' being higher food and energy costs.
The alternative to attempting to control things is to step back and realise precisely what I mentioned above; that a human being - and a relationship with one - are things that can't be controlled or suppressed successfully in the long-term.
It is better to meet the smaller risks and volatility by acknowledging them head on, because sometimes little bits of 'scare tactic', and the emotion associated with them, happen naturally within a relationship.
In the case of a relationship you do this by saying:
- I can't control this person
- I can't control whether she feels attraction for another man
- I can't control the person that she is
- Essentially, I can't forever control the outcome of this relationship
By being honest with yourself and each other you acknowledge the risks and variables inherent in the complex system of your relationship.
This puts it on a much more sustainable path because you siphon all of that previously felt fear out.
And you replace it with a system of thought that allows each member of the relationship to express his or her own volatilities of behaviour as they arise, rather than pushing them beneath the surface to manifest much more powerfully down the track.
Additionally, being at calm with the randomness and volatility of life is a very attractive trait. It also helps you not to become fatalistically invested in relationships, which helps eliminate a lot of the fear of the relationship ending.
This gives you a more sustainably attractive magnetism than trying to control somebody through fear anyway.
Which brings me to my next point: the way to the most sustainable and fruitful relationships is by inducing good emotions in other people, in terms of relationships and in terms of leading people.
The belief that you can't control another person is one of these positive-emotion-inducing mindsets, as it frees people to be themselves (and that makes them feel good about themselves).
There are many other ways that you can induce positive emotions in other people, namely by being positive yourself – Chase's article on emotional contagion shows you how to do that.
This is probably the most powerful thing you can do across all your relationships (be positive), but the list of possibilities to induce good emotions is endless.
Should You Never Be Negative?
This is not to stay you should never induce negative emotions in people (you can't control that either anyway), or pander to them so that they never feel aggrieved in your presence. Sometimes that is necessary, but it isn't the paradigm you should be operating from.
Operating from a paradigm of positive emotions gives the rare times you show or induce negative emotions much more power. That has implications for relationships and for leadership styles.
A final word on this. Sometimes these 'scare tactics' happen more or less naturally. I know I've highlighted that briefly, but it helps to reiterate it.
Inadvertently, you are going to induce fear in a girlfriend and a girlfriend will induce fear in you, but that's not a reason to clutch at things like 'scare tactics' (or any other measure of control) to secure yourself the illusion of it.
This can be something that is really hard to do if you have been hurt badly in the past, but the realisation that trying to control things makes them more volatile long-term should be your ticket out of the scare-tactic mentality.
One more thing that is imperative here is to choose the right girl to get into a relationship with. If the person with whom you're in a romantic relationship's primary feeling associated with romantic relationships is fear (of being rejected/dumped/cheated on), despite you giving them the environment that should make them most free of it, then it won't work.
Ricardus had a good article on finding the right girl, but if you have any more questions or would like to know something that isn't in his article, hit me up in the comments.
Freedom from Scare Tactics
Here's what we've covered in today's article, in summary form:
A 'scare tactic' is using negative emotions, primarily a fear of something, to manipulate another person
On a smaller scale, these are used in initial seductions, so it can be enticing to continue to use them in the longer-term once in a relationship
People who gravitate more towards using 'scare tactics' have an undercurrent of fear themselves in their relationships, primarily a fear of losing control
Injecting this fear into a relationship only begets fear, making it a poor long-term relationship path
Relationships are complex systems, as Nassim Taleb describes them, and thus are beyond the realm of logical control
Using something like 'scare tactics' can provide us with the illusion of control in the short-term
In the long term however, suppressing the actions of somebody (whether by fear or otherwise) ends in them moving more markedly in the opposite direction of the manipulation into Black Swan territory
The alternative of trying to control and using fear is to surrender the illusion of control
Surrendering the illusion of control is inherently liberating for any person you're in a relationship with and is thus an attractive quality
The best way to have sustainable and fruitful relationships is to infuse them with positive emotions
There are many ways we can do this, by not holding onto the illusion of control and being positive ourselves, among many others
Despite your best intentions you will have fear induced in you and induce fear in your partners at some point, but resist the temptation to try clutch at techniques (such as 'scare tactics') to secure the illusion of control
If you don't have the right girl, creating a relationship based on freedom from control and positive emotions isn't possible - so choose your lovers carefully
Remember: relinquishing control of your relationships does not mean you 'let a girl go do
anything she wants' and just take it. Rather what it means is that you
pick as partners women you won't have
to 'keep a close watch on' and whom you can let go of the reins and not
be trying to keep them in mental cages to restrict their movements and
This way, rather than having short-term placidity and long-term volatility, you get a more natural, even-tempered pace to your relationship, and a healthier one, too.
'Til next time,
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