Kathryn Stamoulis Ph.D.

The New Teen Age

The Psychological Persuasion Techniques of Sexual Predators

Know their tricks.

Posted May 29, 2019

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YAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV/Shutterstock
Source: YAKOBCHUK VIACHESLAV/Shutterstock

High-profile sexual predators have been all over the news recently. This has led many to question how abusers could have manipulated so many victims, and why their victims didn’t immediately run away screaming.

Consider former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, now a convicted child molester, who has been accused of sexually assaulting over 250 children and young adults. Multimillionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein, a registered sex offender, has been accused of sexually assaulting over 100 girls, many of whom were recruited from disadvantaged neighborhoods. Singer/songwriter R. Kelly has been accused of decades of the sexual assault of minors and of keeping women imprisoned.

Recent documentaries and exposés have gone into great detail regarding the charges that have been leveled against these men. Many brave victims have spoken out against these men, and their stories have shed light on some of the manipulation techniques which allowed these crimes to go on for so long. These techniques are based on psychological principles used every day to influence human behavior. These principles are even taught in business schools to manipulate consumer behavior in an attempt to get people to spend more money.

Following are four psychological persuasion techniques that sexual predators use to exploit their victims:

1. The Authority Bias

The authority bias is the tendency to be highly influenced by the opinion and actions of people in positions of power (teachers, priests, coaches, celebrities, etc.). Most of us are socialized at a young age to follow the direction of adults and other authority figures and to believe that they “know better." As a result, many people will obey the direction of authority figures even when it is in direct opposition to their own interests.

Social psychologist Stanley Milgram famously studied this bias in 1961 when he sought to investigate the rate at which adult men would obey an authority figure (a man in a white lab coat) who directed them to shock an innocent person at an increasing rate. Before the experiment began, a panel of experts predicted that only individuals with “psychopathic” tendencies would continue to shock the person given that the results could ultimately be deadly (if the shock had been real). Thus, the experts anticipated that only 1 to 3 percent of the men would not stop. They were stunned when 65 percent of the men did not cease giving shocks, even though the men noted that they were distressed by the victims' suffering and screams. Milgram concluded that people often obey out of a desire to appear cooperative, even if it conflicts with their better judgment. 

Sexual predators use the authority bias to their advantage, typically targeting children or people who have less power than themselves. Victims often comply, because, much like the men in Milgram’s experiment, they don’t recognize that it is in the realm of possibility to say “no." Instead, victims often go along with the abuse, because they trust the abusers more than they trust themselves. 

Nassar was able to take advantage of hundreds of girls and their parents because of his credentials. At his sentencing hearing, a victim said, “You manipulated us to trust you, because you're a doctor, and doctors do no wrong, only heal.” Similarly, an alleged sexual assault victim of R. Kelly said, “I felt like it was something I had to do, not something I wanted to do. It was R. Kelly, and who are you to tell R. Kelly no?”

2. Social Proof

Social proof is the principle that we decide how to behave by looking at what other people are doing. If others, especially people we relate to, are doing something, we tend not to question it. 

Social proof is an extremely common and powerful marketing technique. The power of social proof is why companies increasingly spend larger portions of their advertising budgets on social media influencers to have them promote their product to their followers. In its most basic form, workers like baristas and street musicians capitalize on the power of social proof when they put a few dollar bills in their tip jar before they begin their shift.

Epstein and R. Kelly both reportedly used other teenage girls to recruit their victims. Using a peer for recruitment purposes disarms the victim and normalizes the situation. Court documents in the Epstein case reveal that he used young women to approach potential victims with the opportunity to receive money in exchange for giving him a massage. Unfortunately, once he was alone with a girl, Epstein assaulted her. While many young victims said the offer proposed to them did initially sound fishy, the fact that other girls their own age whom they knew were also doing it made them reevaluate the offer and ultimately view it as a legitimate opportunity to earn money.

3. Door-in-the-face technique

In the door-in-the-face technique, the persuader begins with a large request which they expect will be rejected by the other person. The persuader wants the door to be slammed in their face so they can appear dejected, garnering sympathy from the rejector. The persuader then counters with a smaller request, which, unknown to the unsuspecting victim, was their intended goal all along. 

In a classic 1980 study led by Robert Cialdini, researchers asked college students if they’d be willing to fill out a survey about home safety. Students were told that the survey would take about 15 minutes to complete. Only 25 percent of respondents agreed to complete the survey. In another condition, the researchers began with a much larger request. “The survey takes about two hours,” students were told; then, after the subject inevitably declined to participate, the experimenters retreated to the target request: “. . . look, one part of the survey is particularly important and is fairly short. It will take only 15 minutes to administer.” Almost twice as many students agreed to participate in the survey using this technique.

Some perpetrators will make a big ask and then feign being hurt in the hopes that the victims will feel bad for them and comply in lesser ways. Because the victim said “no” to the large request, he or she may feel they owe the abuser a favor or think they should compromise because the abuser apologized for making the initial request. A reported victim of Jeffery Epstein said, “He (redacted description of penetrative sex act), and I jumped back. I pulled back, and I was like, ‘Whoa.' And he was like, “It’s OK, it’s OK. I’m sorry. I won’t do that. I won’t do that.' And then he went back to (redacted description of non-penetrative sex act).” 

4. Sunk Cost

In economics, a sunk cost is anything that has been paid and cannot be recovered. The fallacy comes into play when a person’s investment has been a loss, and their own aversion to loss compels them to make further bad decisions related to the investment, such as putting more money towards it, based on irrational or emotional reactions. 

There are many everyday examples of the sunk-cost fallacy outside of the finance world. Consider the case of a woman who is in a miserable, 10-year marriage, but she doesn’t get a divorce, because she can’t bear the thought of the last decade being a waste. Instead of giving herself the chance of future happiness, she remains in a bad situation, because the psychological discomfort of facing the “lost years” is too difficult.

Many of the young victims of R. Kelly were lured with promises of career advancement or a romantic relationship. Victims may have felt a need to make the sexual abuse they instead experienced count for something, and thus stuck around in the hopes of getting their initial needs met. Even though the abuse kept happening, they kept figuratively throwing money at it, because they didn’t want the abuse they experienced to have been for nothing. Many victims of trauma hope that the next experience they have with the perpetrator will be positive and somehow correct the previous, negative experience. Unfortunately, this rarely happens, and instead, the abuse is merely prolonged.

We have a tendency to minimize the power of persuasion, but as Aesop said, "Persuasion is often more effectual than force." Being aware of the techniques described above can help us better protect ourselves and our children from falling victim to abuse. And with greater awareness of the power of the psychological manipulation techniques used by sexual predators, we can hopefully lessen the blame that is often cast on their victims.

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