Steps towards understanding perceived manipulation in environmental government communication

A preliminary study

More Info


Mitigating climate change necessitates shifting citizens' behaviour towards more sustainable practices. Integrating psychological insights into public communication can significantly influence this behavioural change, while also potentially increasing perceptions of manipulation. In the current era of high distrust in governments, understanding the characteristics of manipulation is crucial to ascertain whether government communication is perceived as manipulative. Given the lack of established measurements to identify and gauge perceived manipulation, this thesis takes an exploratory step in searching for the determinants of perceived manipulation in Dutch public communication using both quantitative and qualitative methods.

Drawing on the philosophical, psychological, and psychiatric literature on manipulation, this study identifies potential determinants and biases that influence perceived manipulation. The four potential key determinants of manipulation include bypassing rationality, covertness, trickery, and indifference. Potential biases such as source scepticism, individualism versus collectivism, climate change scepticism, negative attitudes towards the campaign, and opposition to climate action are identified. Literature also indicated that the perceived manipulation might impact the acceptance of manipulative communication. Consequently, an approach was developed to evaluate the acceptance of manipulative communication by considering philosophical perspectives, including perceived morality, harm, and loss of autonomy associated with manipulative communication.

A conceptual model illustrating potential relationships of the described potential determinants, biases and evaluation items guided the survey design. The determinants were translated into measurable items formulated by the author based on the literature review, enabling empirical testing. To validate these measurements, a quantitative survey was conducted. A fictitious campaign using social norms to influence energy use behaviours was developed and tested, resulting in 100 valid responses from Dutch citizens. The quantitative data were analysed using reliability analysis, ANOVA, and correlation analysis in SPSS.

The quantitative findings revealed high internal reliability for questions related to perceived bypassing rationality, perceived trickery and indifference. While perceived trickery and indifference were measured on four and three items, respectively, bypassing rationality was measured on only two items questioning the validity.

The quantitative analysis indicated that perceived trickery and covertness were not significant predictors of perceived manipulation in this example case. Nevertheless, it is crucial to maintain the association of these constructs with the concept of perceived manipulation, as the qualitative data of the experiment indicated that participants often describe manipulation using elements from the constructs of trickery and covertness.
Importantly, perceived bypassing rationality and indifference emerged as empirically supported determinants of perceived manipulation, indicating that public communications that bypass logical reasoning, avoid factual information and fail to provide reasons for intended behaviour to the manipulatee are likely to be perceived as manipulative.

Contrary to other research, this study found that the source, whether government or energy supplier, does not impact perceptions of manipulative campaigns using social norms and acceptance of manipulative communication. Notably, campaigns that do not provide reasons for the goal increase perceived indifference and covertness by the campaign-makers but do not significantly increase perceptions of manipulation.

This research contributes to both societal and scientific domains. By identifying determinants of perceived manipulation, the study provides policymakers with a quantitative tool to measure perceptions of manipulativeness in their communications. This foundation can help policymakers assess perceived manipulation and create ethical guidelines for the growing use of social influences. Scientifically, the study bridges philosophical, and psychological perspectives, contributing to a comprehensive understanding of perceptions of manipulation in public communication. It introduces and validates novel constructs for measuring perceived manipulation, providing empirical evidence on the roles of bypassing rationality and indifference, which can inform future theoretical developments and practical applications in communication strategies.

The research faced limitations including a small sample size and the use of a convenience sample, which may not fully represent the general public. The high educational level of participants might have influenced the perception of manipulation. Additionally, the internal consistency between scales was not always robust, impacting the reliability and validity of the measures.

Future research should broaden the scope of this study by incorporating more complex issues. By doing so, we can ascertain if the effects of perceived manipulation and its determinants vary with the novelty of the subject matter. This may shed light on why certain suggested determinants of perceived manipulation, such as the level of covertness and trickery aspect, did not demonstrate a significant association with perceived manipulation in the current study.