What Is Reverse Psychology, and How Does It Work?

By picking up some illustrative scenarios that are familiar to most of us, I will bring up a very fascinating technique that people use to get the things they want: Reverse Psychology. The practice innvolves changing people’s minds by telling them to do precisely the opposite of what one wants to see as a final result.


Forbidden Things Are More Attractive

Reverse Psychology is related to the well-known phenomenon – forbidden things are more attractive. For instance, if you google search “Do not smoke”, the results will show a lot of pictures of people smoking right next to a Do Not Smoke sign hanging above their heads.

Well…who likes to be told what to do? Usually and most certainly, nobody.

Nor does a child who causes a total mess trying to reach the forbidden upper shelves, and neither does an old person who does not pay attention to his own medical restrictions.

After all, they share one thing in common: they want what they have been told that they cannot have, or they do what they have been told that they cannot do.

Such explanations bring to our attention a well-known phenomenon – forbidden things are more attractive and appealing.

In this article, a Professor of Social Psychology will share with us what type of people are more prone to use reverse psychology, what are the simplest forms in which people use this method to get what they want, sometimes maybe even without realizing it, and can it backfire?

We will further explore how parents and people in relationships use this method to get what they want – by suggesting exactly the opposite. Part of this discussion will also be an examination of the thin line between being manipulative and using reverse psychology harmlessly.

Reverse Psychology in Different Settings

Does Reverse Psychology succeed with everyone, or in any given situation?

I have already mentioned an example of reverse psychology as applied to children. Several studies illustrate the impact that reverse psychology has in children and how many parents use it to bring their children into line.

In one experiment, kids were told to pick a poster from a group of five. Anyway, just after that announcement, they were told one of the five was actually not available at all. This may not surprise you – the kids suddenly found the missing poster to be quite desirable.

Except in children, you can often see that reverse psychology takes place in relationships too.

People use reverse phycology to push their partners toward specific actions. It is easy to understand that there is a need for caution in this case, so that reverse psychology does not cross the line to manipulation.

Even though it can be harmless, one should be careful not to manipulate a partner while using reverse phycology. Once the “victim partner” realizes what the other is doing, it can be really awkward or even damaging for both parties.


How Reverse Psychology Applies in Education

Imagine your 10 year-old self walking into a classroom where the class board reads, “Do not read the X book, it might be too difficult for you to understand”. You would probably be more interested in that book and want to prove your teacher wrong … you would even read it.

classroom with the green board
Do not read this book, it might be too difficult for you to understand

This case illustrates a learning environment where the teacher believes that a taste of reverse psychology might be useful, the same as this real-life teacher who shares the results of using reverse psychology in her class to get her students interested in the subject that she is teaching, or to discipline them.

Learning and motivation are closely related to behavioral factors, and teachers often practice reverse psychology to influence the outcome they want to see.

When the Freedom Is Threatened, the Idea Becomes More Attractive

Jeff Greenberg
Jeff Greenberg

Jeff Greenberg, Professor of Social Psychology, University of Arizona, among other things shares with Youth Time a fundamental explanation about what is Reverse Psychology.

He asserts that it is a lay idea that often the best way to get someone to do something is to tell them not to do it.

The best explanation for this phenomenon is reactance theory.” he explains.

This theory proposes that people have a set of perceived freedoms, and when one of those freedoms is threatened, people experience a negative feeling of reactance (frustration, anger) and the perceived freedom becomes more attractive and people try to reassert that freedom.

According to him, the more important the threatened freedom, the greater the reactance the person will experience.

So a child may not want to eat broccoli but may perceive that there is a right to do so. If that freedom is threatened, eating broccoli becomes more attractive.

Greenberg adds that parents often use it to make something that is good for them but they usually don’t find appealing more attractive to their children. Respecting Youth Time’s question about what are the simplest forms in which people use this method to get what they want, sometimes maybe even without realizing it, he states as follows:

People may also tease others, creating barriers to overcome, for things like access to sex to increase desire for it.”


Reversing the Reverse – When It Backfires

Conclusively, Greenberg also believes that it is possible for reverse psychology to backfire.

Research suggests that some people are very prone to experiencing reactance, whereas other people are not. Reverse psychology will work best for people prone to experiencing reactance. In addition, if the individual does not perceive an activity as a freedom, then forbidding it will not make it more appealing, and may make it less appealing.”

He gives an example of what would be triggering if Americans were told they could not vote, and on the other hand, what would happen if the same thing were told to people living under dictatorships.

Telling Americans they can’t vote would increase their desire to do so, but telling people raised in a dictatorship or monarchy that they could not vote would not — unless through learning about other cultures, they develop the sense that it is a freedom they should have.”

With Greenberg elaborating more on reverse psychology from an academic point of view, and by recalling all of our personal experiences on this matter, we may agree that this method is prevalent and can have a very real impact on people’s choices, starting from random to more important decision-making processes.

Photos: Shutterstock / Photomontages: Martina Advaney
Photo of Jeff Greenberg: From the personal archive of Jeff Greenberg

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