Notes politics Psychology

Law 33: Discover Each Man’s Thumbscrew (The 48 Laws of Power)

Law 33: Discover Each Man’s Thumbscrew

Everyone has a weakness. Usually, it is an insecurity, an irrational need, or an emotion. It can even be a secret pleasure. When it has been discovered, it can be used as an advantage.

Most people want to be left alone, to do things their way, so they put up defences. Going up against these can be exhausting, but understand that everyone has a hole in their armor. Some people’s weaknesses are obvious, but some know how to hide them. When someone has carefully disguised his weaknesses, he is usually undone by a small gap in his defenses.


A lion was chasing a chamois along a valley. He had all but caught it, and with longing eyes was anticipating a certain and a satisfying repast. It seemed as if it were utterly impossible for the victim to escape; for a deep ravine appeared to bar the way for both the hunter and the hunted. But the nimble chamois, gathering together all its strength, shot like an arrow from a bow across the chasm, and stood still on the rocky cliff on the other side. Our lion pulled up short. But at that moment a friend of his happened to be near at hand. That friend was the fox. “What!” said he, “with your strength and agility, is it possible that you will yield to a feeble chamois? You have only to will, and you will be able to work wonders. Though the abyss be deep, yet, if you are only in earnest, I am certain you will clear it. Surely you can confide in my disinterested friendship. I would not expose your life to danger if I were not so well aware of your strength and dexterity. ” The lion’s blood waxed hot, and began to boil in his veins. He flung himself with all his might into space. But he could not clear the chasm; so down he tumbled headlong, and was killed by the fall.

Then what did his dear friend do? He cautiously made his way down to the bottom of the ravine. and there, out in the open space and the free air, seeing that the lion wanted neither flattery nor obedience now, he set to work to pay the last sad rites to his dead friend, and in a month picked his bones clean.


Greene gives us some guidelines in spotting these weaknesses in others, but even in ourselves. Pay attention to unconscious signals. Seemingly unimportant gestures and passing words can reveal deeper truths about someone. To spot them, you should learn to pay attention to everyday conversations you have with people. Another tip is to find the helpless child.

Many weaknesses stem from childhood before the individual creates compensatory defences. When you can identify a supressed childhood need, or an area where the child was indulged, you can gain important knowledge about a person’s character and what motivates them. A sign of this weakness is when this person acts like a child when you touch on this soft spot. If you indulge this soft spot, whether parental support, or anything else, they will not be able to resist you.

Another tactic is to look for contrasts. People who project a tough exterior are often cowards deep down. A prudish exterior often hides a lustful soul. The uptight are dying for adventure and the shy crave attention. By looking beyond appearances, by contemplating the opposite image of that they are projecting, you will be able to spot people’s weaknesses. But sometimes, it is important to know who matters, and not what matters. People themselves can be emotional thumbscrews. You should make an effort to understand who is secretly pulling the levers.

There are two main emotional voids, insecurity and unhappiness. The insecure crave social validation. As for the unhappy, look for the source of their unhappiness. Both these types are incapable of masking their weaknesses, or at least are not very good at it. Finally, people are triggered by uncontrollable emotions, or base motives such as greed, vanity, hatred, or lust. People that are gripped by these emotions lose control, making it possible for others to fill the gap.

The Things On

Yellow Kid Weil recalls a story about how he tried to deceive a president of a large bank in Omaha. He claimed to have a stock deal that he had already invested most of the money ($900,000) and needed the final $350,000 to complete it. He patiently went to the theater with the wealthy man, played golf with him, and visited his home where he met his wife. But his verbal skills didn’t seem to work until one day, his wife noticed a lovely scent.

At the time, it was not effeminate for men to wear perfume. She asked Yellow Kid where had gotten the it, and he said that it was specially made for him in France. Really, it was a cheap perfume called “April Violets” that could be purchased from a department store. The next day, he purchased ten ounces of this product, and poured them into two French bottles, carefully sealed them, and gifted them to the bank president’s wife. He told her that they were especially made for him in Cologne. The banker called Yellow Kid the next day and said that his wife had told him he was lucky to be associated with a man like him. His attitude changed and agreed to pay his share. The conman parted with $350,000. It was his biggest score.

Another story is told of the famous swindler Count Victor Lustig. One day, he pulled up in front of a famous hotel in Palm Beach, Florida, in a Rolls Royce driven by a Japanese chauffeur. Lustig walked with an elegant cane, acted mysteriously by only speaking a few words, and seemed very busy as he constantly received telegrams throughout the day. The guests were amazed by this character. One day, Lustig walked up to one of the less distinguished guests in the hotel, Mr. Herman Loller, the head of an engineering company.

Lustig engaged in conversation with him. Loller had recently made his fortune and making social connections was a priority for him. Over the next few days, the two became good friends. Loller admitted that his business wasn’t doing well, and Lustig replied by admitting he had financial troubles of his own. Lustig explained how the communists had seized his family estate and he was too old to learn a trade and find work. But something had saved him, a money-making machine. Loller was initially shocked at what he had heard, but Lustig assured him that he was not producing counterfeit money. This machine could duplicate any currency that was placed in it. He constructed a tale about how the Germans had developed it to undermine the British and how it supported Lustig during tough times.

The two men then went into Lustig’s room where the Count showed the engineer a mahogany box with cranks, slots, and dials. He placed a dollar bill in the box, and then early in the morning, Lustig pulled out two bills that were still wet from the chemicals. He gave these notes to Loller who verified them in a local bank.

The engineer wasted no time, he was now determined to buy it, especially after Lustig told him there was only one in existence. Loller made a high offer: $25,000 (more than $400,000 in today’s terms). But Lustig seemed reluctant, until he finally agreed to close the deal. A year later after many futile attempts, Loller went to the police and complained about how Lustig had sold him a useless mahogany box for a large sum of money.

Lustig had a keen eye for people’s weaknesses. He noticed how Loller overtipped waiters, was awkward in conversation with the concierge, and talked loudly about his business. He knew that the engineer’s weakness was his need for the social validation and respect his wealth earned him. He was the perfect sucker. The dissatisfied, unhappy, and insecure are the easiest targets for swindlers like Count Lustig.

Find out each man’s thumbscrew. ’Tis the art of setting their wills in action. It needs more skill than resolution. You must know where to get at anyone. Every volition has a special motive which varies according to taste. All men are idolaters, some of fame, others of self-interest, most of pleasure. Skill consists in knowing these idols in order to bring them into play. Knowing any man’s mainspring of motive you have as it were the key to his will.

Baltasar Gracián

The downside of playing on people’s weaknesses is that you may stir up an action you cannot control. When you play on someone’s vulnerabilities, you may unleash emotions that will ultimately upset your plans. Push the timid enough, and they could go too far.

Read The 48 Laws of Power

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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