Reverse psychology is a method for persuading someone to do something by telling them to, or suggesting they do, the opposite. It uses the concept of reactance, introduced by Jack Brehm in 1966. This is the theory that people do not like the idea of their behavioural freedom being taken away.
If someone senses they are losing some control over their freedom due to rules or authority they will often try to resist this and instead they will embrace the opposite. Thus, if you want someone to accomplish something, rather than trying to persuade them to do it, it can be more effective to persuade them that they can’t, shouldn’t and mustn’t. They will then feel strong reactance in the face of a choice being taken away from them and try to do that exact thing.
So, if Romeo and Juliet’s parents hadn’t banned their relationship, perhaps they would not have been so determined to be together and their untimely deaths could have been avoided. In fact, their parents should have said “yes, we think would be a brilliant couple! In fact, we think you should show your commitment to each other by getting married!”. They are clearly very rebellious and resistant to their parents’ authority, making them highly reactive. Thus they would no longer be drawn to each other.
Reverse psychology examples
- Ever been advised to “play hard to get” with someone you like? Giving the impression that you are unavailable and this person should not bother pursuing you will make them feel as though they are missing out and heighten their desire for you.
- Reverse psychology is often used as a parenting technique. Children are particularly receptive to it because they are naturally very reactant and hate to feel like their choices and control are being restricted. One simple example is if a child says they don’t want to eat their dinner the parent says “no problem, dinner time is over now anyway and I’m taking the food away”. Suddenly the food is desirable again.
However some developmental psychologists, such as Panacionne, warn against reverse psychology saying that it is confusing for your child. For instance with the above example, the parent wants their child to eat, tells them dinner time is over, and then rewards the child when they eat due to the reverse psychology. According to Panacionne this teaches the child that you change your mind a lot and/or do not mean what you say.
- Reverse psychology is regularly used in advertising. If the public is told that they should not buy a product or it is unavailable they are suddenly curious about it and worried that they might be missing out. Clothing brand “Patagonia” created an advert picturing of one of their jackets and the headline “Don’t Buy This Jacket”. It then discussed the environmental repercussions of only buying clothes when necessary. The headline made the product instantly desirable and increased the likelihood of people reading the rest of the advert and visiting the company’s website.
- Some psychologists also use reverse psychology during therapy if they feel it will help the patient, although some therapists prefer the term “paradoxical psychology”. For instance clinical psychologist Leon F. Seltzer employs reverse psychology as one of his methods with highly resistant patients who are not altering their dysfunctional behaviours.
So if a patient is refusing to comply with the therapeutic tools on offer, rather than double down and fight this resistance, the therapist can accept and even encourage this dysfunctional behaviour. If a patient says they wish to leave and the therapist says “No, it is really important that you stay” then the patient will almost certainly try to leave. If, however, the therapist says something like “you are free to leave if you want to” then rebelling against therapy is no longer as desirable as it was and the patient is less likely to leave.
However there are ethical considerations here; even if you expect them to do the opposite, encouraging patients to continue with any damaging or dysfunctional behaviours could be very confusing, or worse, could lead them to do exactly that if the reverse psychology is unsuccessful (more on the ethics of reverse psychology later).
Reverse psychology examples in popular culture
- One day after releasing the single “Applause”, the first single released from her album ARTPOP, Lady Gaga premiered an advert telling the audience not to buy either. The video featured Lady Gaga herself looking into the camera and saying things like “Lady Gaga is no longer relevant”, “Ever since Born This Way, she’s a flop” and “DO NOT buy her new single ‘Applause’ on iTunes’. Needless to say, she is very much still relevant and had great success with that single.
- In the 1990s Disney film Aladdin, Aladdin frees the Genie from the lamp whilst stuck in the Cave of Wonders. He then uses reverse psychology to trick the Genie into freeing him by pretending to be unimpressed with the Genie’s powers. The Genie then frees Aladdin to prove he is capable of doing so and Aladdin gets the freedom he wanted without having to use one of his three wishes.
- In another 1990s Disney film “The Lion King”, Scar tells Simba that he should not visit the elephant graveyard because only the bravest lions go there. Of course Simba goes straight there in an attempt to prove his bravery and because he thought he was missing out.
Tips for mastering reverse psychology
1. Personality type:
Some people are more susceptible to reverse psychology than others. So firstly, if you are going to use reverse psychology effectively you need to make sure you’re trying it on the right sort of people:
- In children: According to social psychologist Jeff Greenberg, children go through phases in which they are more susceptible to reverse psychology. Between the ages of 2 and 4, children tend to be more rebellious, making it more likely that reverse psychology will work on them. In addition, young children do not have the cognitive awareness to see that they are being manipulated. However this susceptibility reduces by age 4, when children are better able to manage their outbursts and are generally less emotional. Of course at the other end of childhood there is adolescence. Greenberg says that teenagers who are rebelling against their parents may be susceptible to reverse psychology because they naturally disrespect or disregard a lot of their parents’ wishes.
- In adults: Some adults are naturally more obedient and compliant. With these people it would be easier to simply instruct them in what you want them to do. However other people are naturally more rebellious and resistant. These people always want to be in control and hate being told what to do. For these people reverse psychology will be more effective.
2. Body language:
It is not only your words which are important but also the way you present yourself. Try to make sure your body language and tone of voice match your words; as a general rule this means you should try to appear relaxed. For example if your child wants to do something and you don’t want them to, saying “no problem, go ahead!” will be much more convincing if you genuinely do not appear to mind because you are engrossed in reading/housework/TV etc, compared to if you are leaning in towards them and struggling to keep your voice under control.
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3. Ensure you know what they want:
You may want your partner to attend a party with you and they are saying they don’t want to go. Simply saying “That’s fine, don’t go then” could be effective. However if you know why they don’t want to go you can be more specific. For example if they think it might go on too late you could say “That’s fine. You’re looking quite tired anyway; it might be a bit much for you”. If, however, they are worried about boring conversation you could say “That’s fine. I’m sure there will be a lot of conversation you aren’t interested in”. Tailoring the argument to their thoughts and wishes will make them much more likely to show reactance.
4. Present options:
You want them to do something, but that does not mean you should ignore all other options and simply hope they forget them. Remember, reverse psychology works best when people who like to be in control feel like their control is under threat. Rather than only presenting your preferred options, you want them to think they have chosen your desired outcome themselves, even if they think they have done it to spite you.
Present several options and then try to make your preferred option sound enticing before arguing against it. Let’s say you want to go to an Italian restaurant for dinner. You could say “There’s the Italian, the Thai place, or that Indian place. The pizzas in the Italian place are really good… They can be very busy though and the Thai place is always much quieter. I think we should go to the Thai place”.
This way you have placed the idea of the yummy pizzas in their mind but then appeared to take it away by saying you choose the Thai place. They will be annoyed by you seemingly taking this option away from them. To really give the feeling of control you can follow it up with something like “You choose. It’s up to you”.
5. Keep your end goal clearly in mind:
Reverse psychology is not about playing mind games and manipulating people, it is a means to an end. With the above example, if your partner genuinely doesn’t want to go to the party because they don’t want to be out late, are you more likely to persuade them using reverse psychology or with a compromise of only going for an hour or two?
If you are trying reverse psychology on a particularly argumentative person it can be easy to get heated and/or side tracked. Remember what you are trying to achieve and stick to it else you might not get your own way and everyone will just be frustrated.
Reverse psychology is legal; as we have seen it is often used in advertising and in therapy. But is it unethical? It certainly can be when it involves lies or threats. For example threatening to end a relationship to get your own way can be very upsetting to your partner. Also, if people discover that you have used reverse psychology techniques on them they can feel manipulated and may not trust you in the future. Do not use it a lot on the same person because they will begin to notice and resent you for it. Also try not to use it for important issues such as health.
For example if you’re worried about the amount of alcohol your partner drinks, telling them you think they should continue to drink will probably not work, even if they are highly reactive, because their desire to continue drinking is probably greater than their desire to resist. With important issues it is always better to be honest and seek a professional if relevant.
However this does not mean reverse psychology is inherently unethical. In fact, depending on your reasons, reverse psychology can be used for positive outcomes. So feel free to implement the tips in this article, but use it sparingly and keep in mind the effect you may have on the person at the receiving end.