Fans of spy movies are well familiar with the following scene: a sadistic torturer is tormenting his victim. As some point, the interrogator leaves. His colleague comes in. He is kind and polite, he offers coffee or a cigarette. How does the interrogated person react to this? As it turns out, in such a situation the interrogatee often breaks and spills the beans. Would this happen if “soft” persuasion measures were applied from the very beginning? Probably not.

The above-mentioned situation represents a typical example of the application of the manipulation method referred to as the emotional see-saw, which is based on the good cop/bad cop routine. Descriptions of similar situations can be found in the literature on the experience of prisoners of Soviet labour camps. Dariusz Doliński and Ryszard Nawrat, Polish social psychologists, described a specific sequence of emotions which the said method is based on. Physical and psychological torture which the interrogatee is initially subjected to evokes rapid stimulation and full mobilisation of the body. Subsequently, the negative stimuli are withdrawn (a good-natured interrogator appears) and consequently the emotional agitation is reduced. This sequence – from negative emotions, through the withdrawal of the source of these emotions and consequently demobilization of the body, makes the person subjected to this method more vulnerable to persuasion for a certain time.

What is more, one does not have to be interrogated by special agents to experience the emotional see-saw. In their innovative experiments, Nawrat and Doliński put flyers behind wipers of illegally parked cars which from a distance looked like parking tickets. Subsequently, they observed reactions of the drivers. They expected that the owners, upon discovery of a piece of paper behind the wipers of their cars, would be upset and scared. Yet, once they have discovered that the piece of paper is just a flyer for a hair conditioner and the source of negative emotions has been withdrawn, the drivers were expected to experience the condition of emotional see-saw. At this point, the drivers were approached by volunteers of a charitable institution (actually assistants of the experimenters) and asked if they would be willing to donate for the poor. As expected, in such circumstances people were more willing to comply with the request and as a result were more generous. The experiments conducted by Nawrat and Doliński demonstrated therefore that the emotional see-saw (which, by the way, is called “fear-then-relief procedure” in scientific literature) may in some circumstances, be applied as a social influence method.

Needless to say, not all negative information or prospects are equally effective in bringing about the condition of emotional see-saw. Two stimuli were compared in the research into this manipulation method conducted over the telephone. Some of the subjects were informed about an outstanding telephone bill and the resulting debt of approx. USD 100. Subjects from the other group were told that they had lost their wallets. As it turned out, only individuals from the second group displayed noticeable emotional see-saw effects. One of the theories explaining the difference indicates that we are most intensely stimulated by the stimuli which pertain directly to us – a loss of one’s wallet may be such a stimulus. This is so, because in our wallets we keep pictures of our children, important telephone numbers and other trinkets of personal value. Therefore, losing our wallet will evoke stronger emotions than the information on a debt, event if its amount is substantial.

For the emotional see-saw to be effective, it is important that the request is made instantly following the withdrawal of the emotional stimulus – it is said (although it has not been investigated precisely yet) that the critical time-frame is just between ten and twenty seconds following the withdrawal of the source of negative emotions. If the attempt to exert influence is made after this time, it is almost certain that the attempt will be ineffective.

What are other possible consequences of the emotional see-saw? ADAC automobile club, the largest drivers’ club in Europe, collects statistical data on accidents and road collisions by analysing their circumstances. Apparently, most crashes take place not right during the difficult moment on the road but immediately afterwards. For example, sometimes drivers will manage to avoid a head-on collision with a sports car executing an overtake manoeuvre with not enough road clear ahead just to hit a truck driving in front of them immediately afterwards. Why? Well, the difficult situation they faced on the road mobilised them and the fact that they luckily got through the situation in one piece threw them off guard. In that very moment, the unfortunate accident involving the truck happened.

During football games it sometimes happen that one team loses a goal only seconds after it has managed to score with difficulty as a result of a sophisticated effort.  This too can be explained with the principle of emotional see-saw – a strong excitation which follows scoring a goal resulted in euphoria and relaxation. And the opponents took advantage of this.

Emotional see-saw effects may also be used in a workplace. Imagine that you have a moody boss, who drags you through the mud in one second and then chats with you about the upcoming spring later on, as if nothing had happened, and who is utterly unpredictable in this respect. It is difficult to say to what extent his actions are a manifestation of a deliberate manipulation, a very peculiar manner or a lack of emotional stability. Nevertheless, it is advisable to prepare an “emergency plan” that would make you ready to respond to such methods.

How do you defend yourself against the emotional see? The simplest method could be described as identification of the action, i.e. we have to be aware that the situation we have found ourselves in is a dishonest attempt to exert influence upon us. The very awareness that somebody is trying to manipulate us is a good starting point that will help us resist the manipulation attempt. If we say to ourselves in our mind “All right, I know this, here it comes again”, we will not let the other person push us into the “cognitive haze” condition, which underlies the emotional see-saw effect. “Cognitive haze” is a condition, which makes us significantly more compliant than usually and thus more willing to automatically consent to somebody’s request. The condition consists in a temporary “stupor” of our body – it acts as a computer with software which suddenly became inadequate to the surrounding reality and thus requires replacing. The problem is that we do not know what to replace the inadequate software with. This happens because our body already knows that it is not necessary to mobilise and brace up (as the negative stimulus has been withdrawn); yet, it does not know how to behave in the new situation and what should it prepare itself for.

One should try to eliminate the connection between the sudden withdrawal of negative emotions and demobilisation of the body. One way to achieve this is through becoming aware of the manipulation attempt taking place – then, our body will not demobilise once the source of negative emotions has been withdrawn and will remain prepared for the potentially upcoming attempt to exert influence. When your boss finally addresses you in a “humane” manner, it does not necessarily mean that everything is fine now or that you can relax. Perhaps he is just about to ask you for a “favour”, i.e. to work an extra hour over the following two weeks or to handle a new project without being paid for additional work.

Anti-stress training could be another defence method.  If we are able to resist the attempt aiming at making us stressed (in the initial stage of the emotional see-saw), a sudden withdrawal of the source of negative stimuli will not result in the “cognitive haze” condition. Therefore, there will be no emotional see-saw.

The phenomenon of emotional see-saw may also apply to family relations, e.g. between parents and their children. What else, if not the emotional see-saw, could be used to describe the following dialogue:

“Mum, our form tutor would like to have a word with you; he said something about zero-tolerance for drugs in the school…”

“What on earth are you talking about?!”

“Nothing, I was just kidding… May I have some of the ice cream we keep in the fridge?”

Stay focused when the danger is gone. You never know, perhaps somebody is trying to put your emotions on a see-saw.


Tomasz Grzyb, Ph.D. SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities, Wrocław, Poland