How Reverse Psychology Works


Sometimes couples will try to get each other to do things by asking them to do the opposite. That's reverse psychology.
Sometimes couples will try to get each other to do things by asking them to do the opposite. That's reverse psychology.
Layne Kennedy/Fuse/Thinkstock

You've probably done it innumerable times. And you might not even be aware that you're doing it. "It" is reverse psychology. Reverse psychology is a simple concept. You want someone to do something, but are pretty sure they won't do it even if you ask nicely. So you try to trick the person into it by asking or telling them to do the exact opposite of what you really want them to do. An example: You're trying to get your hubby to paint your bedroom without success. So you tell him, "Never mind, I'll do the bedroom — I'm a better painter anyway." The next thing you know, he's got a paintbrush in hand.

Many people associate reverse psychology with kids. What parent hasn't, say, told a purple-haired teen that the color really works on him, in hopes that he'll immediately dye it his original color? But people of all ages are susceptible to its effects.

Reverse psychology often works because humans have a need for independence, says Dr. Jeanette Raymond, a Los Angeles-based licensed psychologist, therapist and relationship expert. "It's more empowering to think that you did something out of your own free will than because you were forced, threatened, shamed into it or are afraid of losing that relationship."

In the psychotherapeutic field, reverse psychology is more accurately termed a paradoxical intervention. (The term "reverse psychology" is a media invention, Raymond says.) In a paradoxical intervention, a therapist tells a client to engage in a behavior the client is trying to resolve. So if a patient is trying to stop being a procrastinator, his counselor might tell him to spend one hour per day procrastinating. The idea is that this will help the client focus on the behavior and its possible causes, and allow him to see that the behavior is voluntary and therefore can be controlled.

There are some concerns over whether paradoxical interventions by a professional are ethical. Sometimes a patient's problem involves a fear or pain, so asking the patient to try to create the fear or pain isn't always deemed appropriate [source: Howes].

Who Does Reverse Psychology Work On?

Reverse psychology, or paradoxical intervention, is a relatively new concept in psychotherapy, says Raymond. Yet it can also be considered folklore. For example, all through history, parents have been told not to warn a child they don't want her to marry the ne'er-do-well she loves, for fear she'll promptly wed the loser. But does it work on everyone, and in every situation?

Experts tell us reverse psychology is more likely to work on those who like to be in control — Type A folks, rebels and narcissistic people, to name a few. (Agreeable, more passive people typically will do what you ask, so reverse psychology isn't necessary for them.) It also tends to work better on those who are making decisions based on emotions, rather than when calmly evaluating things [source: Straker].

But Raymond argues the success of its usage depends less upon personality type than on the dynamics of the relationship. "Where a person is struggling with autonomy and individuality, paradox may work because [that person] feels as if they are still resisting by doing what you tell them not to do."

As an example, she cites Julian Assange, head of the WikiLeaks site. "The more he was told to stop, and had a ton of threats put on him by powerful countries such as the U.S.A., the more he defied and became a martyr to the cause," she says. "If he had been told that it was great, keep doing it (paradox) by the USA, he probably wouldn't have been so intent on it."

Thankfully, most of us aren't pondering whether to employ reverse psychology to stop the release of sensitive governmental information. No, most of us use it for rather benign reasons, and typically on kids and love interests, or in business settings, as you'll see.

Using Reverse Psychology With Children

When all else fails, parents often try reverse psychology on their children.
When all else fails, parents often try reverse psychology on their children.
gpointstudio/iStock/Thinkstock

Anyone with kids has probably used a good dose of reverse psychology on them. After all, kids seem hard-wired to do the opposite of what their parents desire. (At least some of the time, anyway.) And like many of us, they don't like to be told what to do or not to do.

In one experiment, 2-year-olds were told not to play with a certain toy. Voilà — they suddenly really, really wanted to pay with that toy. Similarly, in another experiment older kids were told they could select a poster from a group of five. But right after that announcement, they were told one of the five was actually not available after all. Guess what? They suddenly found the missing poster quite desirable. Some studies also show that certain warning labels merely make a product more alluring to kids, such as those put on a violent TV show [source: PsyBlog].

So what's the takeaway? Parents can use reverse psychology to blunt some of kids' innate desire to thwart their wishes. But they must do so responsibly and sparingly, say experts. First of all, if you employ reverse psychology too often, it will become apparent and won't work. Your kids will view you as a manipulator, which isn't a good thing.

Second, you should never employ "negative" reverse psychology, which can be damaging to a child's self-esteem. For example, don't tell your son you'll put away his bike for him because he probably can't figure out how to maneuver it into your crowded garage without scratching the cars anyway. Instead, look for positive or innocuous forms of reverse psychology. Let's say your young daughter won't eat dinner. Tell her that's fine, but since dinnertime apparently is over, it's now bedtime.

With teens, it often helps to argue against yourself, in sort of a reverse-reverse psychology. If your 16-year-old wants to attend a sketchy-sounding event, for example, tell her you can't force her to stay away, even if you have evidence there are dangers. She'll have to decide for herself what's wisest. Now you're effectively arguing against yourself, which may cause your child to take your advice in the end [source: Online Parenting Coach].

"Paradox is not giving permission to do what the child wants rather than what the parent wants," says Raymond. "It’s about encouraging the child to do the wrong thing, so that it then becomes unappetizing."

Some psychologists are opposed to using reverse psychology under any circumstances. Dr. Vicki Panaccione, a child clinical psychologist, says on her website that if you reward your child for doing the opposite of what you say — you tell your son not to cut his long hair, he does and then you tell him how great he looks now — you're teaching him NOT to listen to you. You're also teaching him that you don't really mean what you say.

Using Reverse Psychology in Love and Business

Sometimes in relationships, parties are evasive when it comes to certain topics, not being honest about what they really think or feel. If you feel this is happening in your own relationship, especially if the evasion is in regard to a major event, you can try using reverse psychology. Maybe your boyfriend tells you he wants to take a break, because you've become too clingy. Cheerfully tell him fine, you were just thinking that you were relying on him too much anyway. Then don't contact him in any way after that. He may abruptly change his mind and beg to resume the relationship.

Or maybe you've been discussing having children with your wife. You're pretty sure she wants to start a family now, but she says it's wiser to wait a little longer. You say, "OK, let's wait two more years" She may suddenly say she wants children sooner than that —like, now.

In the case of business, experts say it's most useful for those in sales. It's not appropriate to employ this technique to try and persuade people to buy items they don't need. But it can be helpful, and appropriate, to use the technique on customers interested in your product [source: Loewen].

There are several ways you can incorporate reverse psychology in sales. One is called "disqualifying the client." In this scenario, you tell the customer he can't afford a particular item, or it's not appropriate for him, in the hopes that will make him want it all the more.

Let's say you're helping a couple find a new car. You show them everything in the showroom except two luxury vehicles in the corner. They ask why you aren't showing them those two, and you say it's because those cars are expensive — the implication being that the couple can't afford them. The couple insists on viewing them, then purchases one of the two just to prove they can afford a pricey vehicle [source: Michalowicz].

Another common reverse psychology technique employed in sales is to ask your customer, after you've given your pitch, to rate your product on a scale of 1 to 10. The customer likes it a fair amount, so he rates it a 7. You appear surprised, and say you thought from his reaction he was going to give it a 3 or 4. Oftentimes the customer will then explain why he rated it a 7. As he rattles off the product's positive attributes to you, he basically sells himself on it [source: Michalowicz].

Author's Note: How Reverse Psychology Works

Researching and writing this article reminded me of my childhood, and the reverse psychology my older (and much-adored) sister would regularly employ on me. Every Saturday, one of us was in charge of cleaning the upper level of our home, while the other girl took the main level. Our mom let us decide who took which floor. The upper level was smaller, so less to clean. I preferred it, so did my sister.

When Saturday rolled around, Sue would say something like, "I really want the downstairs today. I hate cleaning the bathroom [upstairs]." I knew that meant she really wanted the upstairs, as did I, so I would readily agree to the arrangement. But then she would start talking about all of the reasons cleaning the upstairs was a drudge, and how she was so glad she had the downstairs today.

Even though I knew exactly what she was doing — employing reverse psychology so I would let her clean the upstairs without a fight — she made cleaning the main level sound so appealing I'd always capitulate She would grudgingly agree to switch, then laugh at me as she sprinted upstairs to clean the area she really wanted all along. To this day I don't know why I couldn't resist switching, when I knew she was using reverse psychology on me.

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Sources

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