Reverse psychology is a manipulation technique that involves getting people to do something by prompting them to do the opposite. Reverse psychology can take various forms, such as forbidding the target behavior, questioning the person’s ability to perform the target behavior, and encouraging the opposite of the target behavior.
For example, a parent might use reverse psychology on their child by telling them “you probably won’t be able to eat all this broccoli”, in order to get their child to finish the broccoli.
People use reverse psychology in a wide variety of situations, so it’s important to understand this concept. As such, in the following article you will learn more about reverse psychology, see how you can use it yourself, and understand what you can do when people try to use it on you.
Examples of reverse psychology
A simple example of reverse psychology is telling someone that a certain athletics program is hard to get into so they shouldn’t bother applying, if you believe that doing so will cause the person to do the opposite and apply.
This and similar forms of reverse psychology are often used by parents on their children, particularly when the child is highly rebellious and tries to do the opposite of what their parents tell them to do. For example, one paper on the topic provides the following example of reverse psychology in parenting:
“Brown’s son has developed a fascination for a particularly annoying melody… which he now hums or whistles frequently. He is also extremely contrary where Brown is concerned, especially in cooperative settings. He seeks wherever possible to do the opposite of what Brown wants him to do and sabotages or refuses to participate in any joint enterprise with Brown. Knowing this, Brown now responds to his son’s annoying humming by cheerfully joining in, with the hoped for result that his son stops humming.”
In this case, the reverse psychology involves encouraging a certain negative behavior, in the hopes that doing so will get the target person to stop engaging in it.
Another example of reverse psychology is when people say negative things about something that they care about, in an attempt to get others to say positive things about it. In particular, people often use this form of reverse psychology by saying bad things about themself, with the goal of prompting others to come to their defense and give them compliments and reassurances. For example, this can involve someone saying “I look bad today”, in an attempt to get someone else to say that that’s not true.
In addition, reverse psychology is also frequently used in business as a marketing and sales tactic. For example, one study on the topic describes several ways in which companies use reverse psychology in marketing, together with relevant examples from past campaigns:
“…marketers have utilized reverse psychology as a way to:
(1) promote a product to the entire market, without deliberatively excluding a specific market segment (e.g. Little Caesar’s “Do not call this number” “Do not visit our website” campaign)…
(2) promote a product to a certain targeted segment while purposefully excluding another (e.g. Dr. Pepper’s “Not for women” campaign)…
(3) promote a certain company or brand image (e.g. Patagonia sustainability initiative “Do not buy this jacket”).”
Finally, a humorous example of reverse psychology appears in a short paper titled “Certificate in Reverse Psychology probably not worth it”, published in a medical journal, which contains the following text:
“After reviewing a large amount of data we have concluded that you probably don’t want to apply for the official certificate in Reverse Psychology, even though the fee is so reasonable that you won’t believe it…
Whatever you do, do not send money to the corresponding author to learn how to apply for this exclusive opportunity today. Your patients do not want you to learn about this simple secret, and it’s probably not worth it.”
While this example is humorous, it nevertheless mirrors many real and serious uses of reverse psychology, in a variety of fields.
How reverse psychology works
The main reason why reverse psychology works is that when people feel pressured to act a certain way, they often prefer to do the opposite in order to assert their autonomy. This is based on Brehm’s reactance theory, which suggests that:
“…an individual who feels a threat to his or her sense of freedom will experience discomfort that motivates re-establishment of that freedom. Such reactance motivation should increase the likelihood of nonconformity to influence attempts. In these situations an influence source may have success by misrepresenting his or her true desires assuming that the target’s proclivity for disagreement will result in the target adopting the position that the source secretly desires.”
Accordingly, reverse psychology works especially well on people who tend to disagree with what they’re told or with orders that they’re given (such people are sometimes referred to in this context as nonconformists, anticonformists, or contrarians). Note that some people tend to disagree with others in general, while others tend to only do so in specific contexts, or when it comes to specific people, such as authority figures.
In addition, there are other factors that can cause reverse psychology techniques to work in particular cases. For example, in a situation where someone is told by an annoying colleague that it’s impossible to do something, they might be driven to do that thing out of spite for that colleague.
Overall, reverse psychology works primarily because when people feel pressured to act a certain way, they try to do the opposite in order to assert their autonomy and increase their sense of control. Furthermore, in certain situations, reverse psychology can also work for additional reasons, such as spite for others.
Note: reverse psychology techniques are sometimes referred to as “paradoxical”, because they involve prompting people to do one thing while hoping that they will do the opposite.
Reverse reverse psychology
Reverse reverse psychology is a manipulation technique that involves prompting people to do exactly what you want them to do, while also causing them to think that you’re using reverse psychology on them and wanted them to do the opposite. Essentially, reverse reverse psychology relies on getting the target person to think that you’re using reverse psychology on them, in order to get them to defy your attempts and do what you originally prompted them to do, which is what you wanted them to do all along.
For example, reverse reverse psychology could involve telling someone rebellious to not do something, in what seems like an attempt to get them to do it through reverse psychology, while in reality you’re trying to push them to not do that thing after all.
As such, reverse reverse psychology is a specific form of reverse psychology. Furthermore, it’s possible to go ‘deeper’ in terms of levels of manipulation, for example by using reverse reverse reverse psychology. However, past a certain point, doing this becomes no different, in practice, than using basic reverse psychology and reverse reverse psychology.
How to use reverse psychology
The following is a list of the main ways in which you can use reverse psychology in practice:
- Forbid the target behavior (e.g. “don’t do X”).
- Discourage the target behavior (e.g. “you shouldn’t do X”).
- Say negative things about the target behavior (e.g. “X is so bad, who would want it”).
- Predict that the target person won’t engage in the target behavior (e.g. “you probably won’t do X”).
- Question the target person’s ability to perform the target behavior (e.g. “you probably couldn’t do X well”).
- Encourage the opposite of the target behavior (e.g. “you should do Y, since it’s so much better than X”).
There are many situations where you can use reverse psychology, and different approaches to it will work better in different situations. For example, if you’re trying to get a rebellious person to do something, and you know that they defy authority figures as a matter of principle, your preferred course of action will likely be to forbid the target behavior that you want them to engage in. On the other hand, if you want to get someone to agree with your stance but know that they always disagree with everything you say, you can express support for the stance that’s opposite from the one that you truly support, if you believe that this will cause your target to argue in favor of your original stance.
In addition, you also need to make sure that you’re not acting in a way that could backfire and cause the target person to do what you’re suggesting directly, since that’s the opposite of what you actually want them to do. For example, consider a situation where you’re trying to get someone to pick one of two options through reverse psychology, by presenting your preferred option in a negative manner, and hoping that it will cause them to pick it. Here, you will often need to strike a balance between presenting your preferred option in a way that’s negative enough for the reverse psychology to work, but not so negative that it causes the target person to avoid it.
Finally, when using reverse psychology, you generally want to do so in a matter that’s as subtle as possible given the circumstances, to avoid having the other person notice it. Specifically, if the target person realizes what you’re doing then the reverse psychology will generally fail and they will often not act the way you want them to. Furthermore, because this technique is inherently manipulative, it can damage your relationship with the other person if they figure out what you’re doing.
Overall, you can use reverse psychology in various ways, such as by forbidding the target behavior, questioning a person’s ability to perform the target behavior, and encouraging the opposite of the target behavior. Different approaches will work better in different scenarios, and when using reverse psychology, it’s important to be subtle about it, but to also make sure that you’re not acting in a way that could lead the target person to act the opposite way of what you actually want them to do.
Deciding whether to use reverse psychology
There are two main dangers that are associated with using reverse psychology:
- The reverse psychology can backfire, and cause the target to pursue the directly suggested course of action instead of the intended opposite. This can happen, for example, if the target trusts you and chooses to follow what you said, or if they lack confidence and you doubting their abilities causes them to give up. In addition, this issue can also arise if the target person notices the attempted manipulation, and ends up following the original suggestion in order to defy you.
- If the person notices the attempted manipulation, this can damage your relationship. For example, if a person notices that you’re trying to use reverse psychology on them, it can cause them to be angry at you, to distrust your motives, or to feel confused regarding what you actually want. This is especially an issue if you have a close relationship with that person, and people can react strongly to the use of reverse psychology, because it represents an attempt to influence their actions in a deceptive manner.
When deciding how to use reverse psychology, and whether to even use it at all, it’s important to keep these dangers in mind. For example, if the potential benefits of reverse psychology are low, but the potential risks of using it are high, it’s likely better to avoid it, and try using a more direct approach instead
In particular, some specific factors that you should consider are how likely the reverse psychology is to work, how likely the other person is to notice it, how they will probably react if they do notice it. This means, for example, that you might want to use reverse psychology if the other person is unlikely to notice it or react negatively, but that you should avoid this technique if there’s a good chance that the other person will notice it and react badly.
Furthermore, you should consider the likelihood that the other person will follow the original course of action being suggested instead of the reverse and the consequences of this happening. The more likely this issue is to occur, and the worse its consequences are, the warier you should be about using reverse psychology.
Finally, note that because the use of reverse psychology can be problematic from a moral perspective, you also want to ask yourself whether it’s something that you truly want to do, even if the risks involved are minimal. When doing this, it can help to keep the golden rule in mind, which denotes that you should treat others the way you want to be treated yourself.
Using reverse reverse psychology
In some situations, you might choose to reverse reverse psychology, rather than basic reverse psychology. For example, this might be the case in situations where the other person might be expecting you to try and use reverse psychology on them, so reverse reverse psychology will be more effective.
However, there are two important caveats to keep in mind with regard to this:
- First, this approach relies on the target person noticing the attempt at reverse psychology, which, as noted above, can lead to interpersonal issues in some cases.
- Second, the ‘deeper’ you go in terms of layers of deception, the more difficult it becomes to predict the other’s behavior, which makes the results of this approach relatively hard to predict.
Other than that, reverse reverse psychology can be implemented in a similar manner to regular reverse psychology.
How to deal with someone using reverse psychology on you
The first step to dealing with someone using reverse psychology is to realize that they’re doing it. To do this, ask yourself what’s the likelihood that the person who you think is using reverse psychology is pretending to push you in a certain direction in order to get you to do the opposite. When in doubt, take the time to slowly think through the situation, and consider factors such as what this person stands to gain from pushing you in a certain direction, and how they’ve acted toward you and toward others in the past.
Furthermore, make sure to account for the possibility that the other person is trying to use reverse reverse psychology on you, rather than simple reverse psychology. However, to avoid falling into a thinking trap, where you obsess over endless possible levels of manipulations, try to not go beyond just a few levels of deception. Instead, focus on simply assessing the situation to the best of your ability.
Once you’ve successfully identified that someone is attempting to use reverse psychology on you, you need to choose your optimal course of action. Some notable things you can do are the following:
- Ask the other person for more information. This can help you verify that they’re using reverse psychology, and can give you more time to think, while also creating opportunities for the other person to mess up and expose information that will help you make a better decision.
- Call out the other person out on their use of reverse psychology. This can be beneficial in some cases, though there are situations where it’s more useful to pretend that you didn’t notice the attempted manipulation.
- Go with the originally suggested course of action, the opposite course of action, or a different alternative. Which option is the best for you depends on your particular circumstances, and on what you’re hoping to achieve. The most important thing is to focus on what’s best for you, rather than on what the other person is trying to get you to do, either directly or indirectly.
When you do this, try to consider the situation and your options in a non-emotional manner. You can use various debiasing techniques to help you with this; for example, you can slow down your reasoning process and write things down to help you think, or you can create favorable conditions for decision-making by creating some distance from the person who’s using the reverse psychology.
Overall, to deal with someone using reverse psychology on you, you should first recognize what they’re doing. Then, you should think through your options in a rational manner and pick your best course of action, which can include things such as asking the other person for more information, calling them out for their use of reverse psychology, or following an entirely different course of action than the ones that they mentioned.
Notes on terminology
A formal scientific term that’s sometimes used to refer to the concept of reverse psychology is strategic self-anticonformity. The rationale for this term is that the person using the reverse psychology technique is publicly acting in a way that contradicts their true intentions for strategic reasons (i.e. to get someone else to follow a certain course of action). This term is adapted from the diamond model of social response, which was later developed into the double diamond model of social response, primarily by researchers Paul R. Nail and Geoff MacDonald.
In addition, because reverse psychology revolves around getting a person to defy what they’re told to do directly, it is sometimes referred to as a defiance-based technique, in contrast with compliance-based techniques, which revolve around getting a person to comply with what they’re told. However, reverse psychology as a whole is sometimes referred to as a compliance technique, since it is used to get people to comply with an intended course of action, even if they’re not aware that they’re complying.
There are some related psychological phenomena that are associated with the concept of reverse psychology. These include, most notably:
- The boomerang effect. The boomerang effect occurs when a strategic message, that is meant to achieve a specific effect, leads to an opposite attitude or behavior than was originally intended. For example, the boomerang effect can be said to play a role if someone ends up disliking something, as a result of being repeatedly told how great it is in an annoying manner.
- The backfire effect. The backfire effect is a cognitive bias that causes people who encounter evidence that challenges their beliefs to reject that evidence, and to strengthen their support of their original stance. For example, the backfire effect can be said to play a role if someone who believes in some myth is presented with evidence that disproves it, and ends up rejecting that evidence and strengthening their support for the myth.
Summary and conclusions
- Reverse psychology is a manipulation technique that involves getting people to do something by prompting them to do the opposite.
- For example, a parent might use reverse psychology on their child by telling them “you probably won’t be able to eat all this broccoli”, in order to get their child to finish the broccoli.
- Reverse psychology works primarily because when people feel pressured to act a certain way, they try to do the opposite in order to assert their autonomy and increase their sense of control.
- You can use reverse psychology in various ways, such as discouraging the target behavior or encouraging the opposite; however, before you do this, make sure that reverse psychology is the right course of action, and consider its potential downsides, such as the damage that it can cause to your relationships.
- To deal with someone using reverse psychology on you, you should first recognize what they’re doing, and then think through your options and pick your best course of action, which can include things such as asking the other person for more information, calling them out on their behavior, or following a different course of action than the ones they mentioned.