Law 13: Appeal to People’s Self-Interest, Never to Their Mercy (48 Laws of Power)

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Overview of Law 13: Appeal to People’s Self-Interest, Never to Their Mercy

When you need help from someone in a position of power, don’t talk about your needs or something you did for them in the past. Instead, appeal to people’s self-interest, never to their mercy. They’ll be glad to help if they’ll get something important to them in return.

Principles of Law 13

Achieving power often requires seeking help from people above you. But you can’t just blurt out what you want — there’s an art to asking. 

According to Law 13 of the 48 Laws of Power, to succeed in getting what you want, you have to focus not on your desires, but on those of the other person. She probably couldn’t care less about your needs, and if you focus on them, she’ll view you as desperate or as an annoyance.

Also, don’t make the mistake of basing your appeal on such irrelevant things as your loyalty, friendship, or favors you’ve done for the other person in the past. Appeal to people’s self-interest, never to their mercy.

In order to show how fulfilling your request benefits the other person, you need to understand what motivates her and what matters to her. Put yourself in the other person’s place, and see things as she would. Does she have ambitions or enemies you could help to address? Look for the ways you can help fulfill her needs or further her goals.

Here’s an example of how to apply Law 13 of the 48 Laws of Power: In the 16th century, while Portugal was trying to build trade relations with Japan, Portuguese missionaries also tried to convert the Japanese to Catholicism, in which they had no interest. The proselytizing irritated the Japanese emperor, which affected trade negotiations. When the Dutch began to arrive in Japan to set up trade relations, instead of spreading religion they offered something the Japanese found valuable — expertise with firearms and navigation. The emperor lost no time in evicting the Portuguese and dealing exclusively with the Dutch. The Dutch knew how to appeal to people’s self-interest, never to their mercy.

Putting Law 13 to Work

When making a request of someone powerful, your appeals to justice, reciprocity, or gratitude will likely work against you, when your target understands only self-interest and ruling by force.

Here’s another example of how not to apply Law 13 of the 48 Laws of Power. Stefano di Poggio learned this to his detriment. When Castruccio, the ruler of an Italian city, was away at war, a conflict broke out between his family and a rival family, the Poggios, who wanted to oust him. Stefano di Poggio intervened and stopped the conflict. For this act, he appealed to Castruccio to spare him and his family any punishment. He expected Castruccio to be grateful that he’d stopped fighting. Castruccio invited the Poggio family to the palace to talk. When they came, he imprisoned and executed them.

No one is obligated to be grateful; telling a superior that he should be grateful to you or that he owes you something suggests you’re a burden he should get rid of.

Here’s a contrasting example of appealing to people’s self-interest, where an appeal to self-interest paid off. The island of Corcyra was close to war with the Greek city-state of Corinth. Representatives of Corcyra and Corinth both appealed to Athens to take their side.

The representative from Corinth gave an impassioned speech, citing things Corinth had done for Athens in the past, and the importance of showing gratitude toward friends. The representative from the island acknowledged Corcyra hadn’t done anything for Athens and had even allied with Athens’ enemies in the past. What he could offer going forward, however, was an alliance of naval forces — Corcyra’s navy was nearly as strong as Athens’ navy and together they could challenge Athens’ rival Sparta. After a debate, the Athenians voted overwhelmingly to side with Corcyra. This is the power of Law 13: Appeal to People’s Self-Interest, Never to Their Mercy.

The representative from Corinth erred in trying to lay a guilt trip on Athens by invoking the past. He also failed to suggest any benefit to Athens of a future alliance with Corinth. In the end, pragmatism and self-interest win.

Exceptions to Law 13

Are there exceptions to Law 13 of the 48 Laws of Power? A few people may be insulted by appeals to their self-interest because they like to think of themselves as altruistic. They feel good about themselves and feel superior to you when they can be charitable or magnanimous. They don’t need any help from you other than a chance to feel — and be viewed publicly as — beneficent and superior. Fine — give them the opportunity to be magnanimous. But, in general, follow Law 13: Appeal to People’s Self-Interest, Never to Their Mercy.

Law 13: Appeal to People’s Self-Interest, Never to Their Mercy (48 Laws of Power)

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Amanda Penn

Amanda Penn is a writer and reading specialist. She’s published dozens of articles and book reviews spanning a wide range of topics, including health, relationships, psychology, science, and much more. Amanda was a Fulbright Scholar and has taught in schools in the US and South Africa. Amanda received her Master's Degree in Education from the University of Pennsylvania.

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