A woman with long blonde hair stares through the screen, soundtracked by eerie, paranormal-style music. “This is extremely toxic and I don’t recommend you doing it,” she says with an expressionless face and serene voice. “The two darkest manipulation techniques to make people obsessed with you”, states the caption on her TikTok video.
Number one; the “rollercoaster effect”, a toxic combination of causing someone anxiety and pain, then offering them a rush of relief by backtracking. This could be ghosting someone, but coming back after several days to say “my phone died”, she explains. Next; “harmless rejection”, AKA saying you like someone but rejecting them for a fairly inoffensive reason like “you’re focusing on yourself or they’re too old for you”. This causes obsession, she says, stressing every syllable forcefully.
Women all over TikTok are offering viewers the promise of psychological control, namely in the heterosexual dating game. This video by @francescapsychology has over a million views, and is one of many “dark psychology” (basically, the art of manipulation) videos on the app. Francesca, like many other dark psychology influencers, says she is a dating coach and psychology expert but credentials in these industries are famously unregulated.
Is it right for women to encourage one another to gaslight, emotionally blackmail and control men whilst dating? Many would argue heterosexual men have been using these techniques against them for years. One such community of men have been criticised and feared for decades: pickup artists (PUAs).
These self-identified dating coaches have built a movement of men whose goal is seduction and sexual success. The community has long been condemned for promoting sexist ideals, playing on gender power dynamics, and treating women as algorithms to be gamed into having sex.
PUAs are the amalgamation of misogyny and toxic dating - they exploit women’s insecurities in order to manipulate them. “Alpha influencer” Andrew Tate - who was recently arrested on suspicion of human trafficking, rape and forming an organised crime group to exploit women - is somewhat a figurehead for PUA ideology. PUAs advocate grim behaviours like negging (backhanded compliments to establish control and manufacture attraction) and promote dangerous concepts like “last minute resistance”, which states that while women will often say “no” during sex, this can be turned into a “yes”.
If pickup artistry on its own wasn’t bad enough, researchers have found that once men fail to find dating and sexual success through these methods, they may go on to become incels. Within the manosphere - the umbrella term for interconnected online misogynistic communities - taking the “red pill” means waking up to the supposedly shallow dating preferences of women and learning how to exploit it, but taking the “black pill” is the extreme, nihilistic viewpoint that argues there’s no point trying to be attractive to women as they’re intrinsically biased against men who aren’t conventionally attractive.
Is dark psychology the online female iteration of pickup artistry, or worse, could it open a door to black pill ideology?
Tim Squirrel is head of communications and editorial at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, an organisation which investigates solutions to extremism and hate. He says dark psychology videos have huge similarities to something known as female dating strategy (FDS). The hashtag “dark psychology” has 281.8M views on TikTok, whilst 250,000 people are in the Female Dating Strategy community subreddit, founded in 2019.
“Much as pickup artistry is framed as a method for men to take control of their dating life and achieve ‘success’ with women, female dating strategy promises women they can take back control of their romantic and sexual relationships with men,” he explains.
This could look like a TikTok video where the user claims to have deep knowledge of men’s psychology, Squirrel says, and pushes viewers to behave in a certain way to get sex, commitment or gifts.
Much like male PUA, FDS promotes a reductive approach to attracting people you like. “PUA approaches women in a gamified way, effectively treating them as psychologically homogeneous and teaching men that if they master particular tricks and approaches, they will be successful – because women are interchangeable,” Squirrel explains.
Despite FDS and dark psychology’s message appearing to be empowering, the community is deeply distrusting of men, cynical of their motivations and keen to stop any man they deem not of “high value”, he adds. FDS literally tells women not to date men with a mental illness, small penis, or anyone struggling with their finances - yes, genuinely.
Despite blossoming on TikTok and Reddit, FDS and dark psychology isn’t anything new. “A lot of the advice that's made available within the seduction industry is actually borrowing from a much longer lineage and literature that's been aimed at heterosexual women to try and learn how to please and appease men,” says Rachel O'Neill, assistant professor at the London School of Economics and author of Seduction: Men, Masculinity and Mediated Intimacy. FDS has guidance on everything from the classiest way to ask for a napkin in a restaurant to the “dreamgirl” way of listening to your partner’s secrets.
But there’s a fundamental difference between the two groups, since men still hold a greater amount of social, economic and political power, she adds. This context is hugely important, as FDS explicitly entices women through the idea of rebalancing power. “Women have long been told that precisely because they don’t hold the same amount of social, economic and political power, their greatest power lies in their femininity and sexuality,” continues O'Neill.
Anyone who’s faced an onslaught of sexism whilst dating can potentially see how women could be drawn into fighting fire with fire, or simply taking control. But PUAs are just interested in their own sexual gratification. The main appeal of FDS and dark psychology is the idea of retribution.
Dark psychology is projected to be “a form of compensation for women, like ‘you can have power in the sexual realm, precisely because your power is in some way restricted in other realms,’” O'Neill says. “To be told you have access to this power is extremely compelling, it’s a very seductive promise.”
But the flip-side is these videos also bolster many of the clichés PUA and men hold about women. “The stereotype that there are women out there who want to make men obsessed with them,” continues O'Neill. “That there are women who’re going to work this hard to command their attention.”
It’s clear that the potential danger of dark psychology is markedly less than pickup artistry, though. Both promote a toxic level of manipulation, but there have been many cases of PUAs going on to commit physical abuse and rape - and none so far linked to dark psychology or FDS. Violence by women against men undoubtedly exists, but it’s not nearly as prevalent - data from Mankind shows that 26 percent of domestic abuse crimes recorded by the police were committed against men.
Some believe dark psychology content isn’t an issue, though. Simone Simmons is a YouTuber with 600,000 subscribers: Her video on dark psychology has amassed 230,000 views and, unlike the TikTok versions, she argues her content on the subject is educational and can help people identify when they’re being manipulated.
Based in Australia, the 23 year-old psychology/marketing graduate got backlash for uploading her video. “People called me evil for posting it online,” she says. “Yet my audience were the ones who voted for me to make it. You have to ask, ‘You’re the one who clicked on this wanting to know more, so who’s really the evil one here?’”
Simmons doesn’t think dark psychology is that problematic, because “to use it correctly you have to be very skilled at reading people, but the majority won’t be able to do it”.
Despite its name, dark psychology is not a scientific concept, says Dave Harley, the principal lecturer in psychology at Brighton University. Sure, psychology itself has long been interested in the darker areas of human behaviour - such as “lack of empathy, manipulation of emotions and coercive control” - but he can’t conceive of any psychologist who would “actually promote the kinds of ideas” within the dark psychology scene. These are the “kinds of techniques used in advertising, consumer psychology and social media, as it's about controlling other people”. Harley feels it’s conceivable that dark psychology, much like PUA, could offer a route into black pill ideology for women who fail to find success with it.
Control and love are two things that are mutually incompatible, but there’s a whole industry built on furthering this message to people in search of connection. The irony is the more you rely on these techniques, the less likely you are to find a real connection with someone - you’re arguably much closer to “being blackpilled” than you are to finding love.
O’Neill’s research into the seduction industry more widely found that several high profile pickup artists end up depressed or turn to religion - some even commit suicide. “This isn’t something that tends to breed happiness, it doesn't result in what it promises,” she says. Much like the diet industry - which works by followers losing weight initially, gaining it back and convincing yourself you didn’t try hard enough - the seduction industry traps people in a false promise. It begs the question: Who’s really in control in the world of dark psychology?