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J Pers Disord. 2006 Apr;20(2):139-56; discussion 181-5.

What is manipulative behavior, anyway?

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Department of Philosophy, University of Louisville, KY 40292, USA.


One of the most common ways of characterizing patients diagnosed with borderline personality disorder is that they are manipulative. Clinical usage of the term varies widely but clearly carries a pejorative meaning. Furthermore, behaviors that look similar to those called manipulative in clinical contexts are not called manipulative in broader society. It is crucial to become clear on what manipulation is, because studies show that carers routinely perceive BPD patients as manipulative and so have less empathy for them. In this paper the concept of manipulativity is clarified and its scope narrowed by distinguishing it from a number of related concepts, and a number of reasons why manipulating others is morally objectionable are suggested. I argue that, while some BPD patients may be manipulative, much of their behavior can and should be understood in a different light. Moral and clinical values are conflated in carers' judgments of manipulativity, and clinicians and researchers need to clarify when and why manipulative behavior is dysfunctional, and when it is merely morally wrong. Separating these two domains will enable carers to be more empathetic and less blaming of their patients' behavior.

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