We all dislike the feeling of being taken advantage of. But what does it mean, how does it happen, and how do we avoid it?
We are ‘taken advantage of’ when someone gains from us, at our expense, and without our consent.
What’s the psychology of taking advantage? It’s a relational thing between two or more people. The person viewed as taking advantage usually has some power over another person, or else has a way of hiding their actions from them.
Power differences can range from obvious to quite subtle. Sometimes the advantage-taker is a boss or a parent, in which case they have overt power. But sometimes the power is a particular skill, or a difference in character. The advantage-taker may be, for instance, more intelligent or savvy about the subject in hand.
Alternatively, the advantage-taker may capitalise on psychological or moral differences. They may exploit other people’s shyness or gentleness; or try to benefit from others’ kindness, patience, tolerance, or goodwill.
If there is no power leverage, it may be that the advantage-taker manages to hide their actions, so that the victim cannot see them act. Most forms of theft work like this.
USEFUL DEFENCES AGAINST ADVANTAGE-TAKERS
If we want to defend ourselves against being taken advantage of, then we have two main tricks at our disposal.
- Correct the power differential by reducing the advantage-taker’s power, or increasing our own power
- Expose the hidden actions so that the advantage-taker can no longer act in secret
CORRECTING POWER DIFFERENTIALS
The following are ways to change power imbalances used by an advantage-taker:
- CONSULT – Bring in a third party – this can dilute their influence, as they have a bigger team to contend with
- LEARN – Acquire new skills in the area concerned, so that they no longer hold the upper hand
- ALTER BEHAVIOUR – Change our response, so that the advantage-taker cannot rely on a predictably cooperative response
To expose hiddenness, we can:
- COMMUNICATE – Tell the advantage-taker clearly that we know what they are doing
- TELL OTHERS – Report the situation to third parties, so that the information is in the public domain
- ENLIST OTHERS TO EXPOSE – Ask third parties to investigate. When the advantage-taker notices they are being investigated, they may withdraw
TWO TYPES OF DEFENCE
The above can be summarised as the following two types of defence:
- Bring in third parties (as consultants, witnesses or investigators)
- Change our behaviour (openly challenging, being uncooperative, or showing new attitudes)
Equally, if we want to help others to avoid being taken advantage of, then we need either to equip them with third-party advocates, or to educate them to be less appeasing and more assertive.
A COUPLE OF EXAMPLES
- Suppose a young person is being abused by a parent or carer, either emotionally or physically. The third-party approach would involve accessing third parties (police, teachers, other family members). The behaviour approach would involve becoming more ‘difficult’ in response to the abuse.
- Suppose an adult is being taken advantage of by emotional blackmail. The third-party approach would involve shifting proceedings to a more public forum, where the advantage-taker does not have such easy private access, and has to account to others. The behaviour approach would be to introduce, into the direct conversation, an awareness of the power dynamic (i.e. I see what you’re doing here), and to make the conversation less comfortable for the other.
That’s not to say it’s easy. Those who take advantage are often quite practiced at it, and know which buttons to push, and how to conduct themselves to keep the power skewed in their favour. Consciously or unconsciously, they make a habit of it, and so are quite well experienced. We need to develop new skills if we are to stand up to them.
But it is possible, by using the influence of third parties, and by learning new, usually more assertive, behaviour.