People have often heard about it — “reverse psychology” — especially when it comes to negotiations or trying to convince someone to do something they might be leery of. But what exactly is reverse psychology? How often is it used, and are there people out there actively using it to get what they want?
What is reverse psychology?
Simply put, reverse psychology is getting someone to do something by telling them not to do it. The theory behind such a process is that by telling someone they shouldn’t do something or can’t have something, it only makes them desire it more, not only asserting your freedom, but rebelling against the feeling of being told what to do.
“Since Festinger and Carlsmith’s (1959) classic research on the topic of cognitive dissonance, psychological research has consistently shown that having someone do something – in a freely chosen fashion – that is inconsistent with what the person might have done otherwise – is a fabulous way to get people to essentially ‘believe’ in their seemingly contrary behavior,” Glenn Geher, Ph.D., professor and chair of psychology at the State University of New York at New Paltz, told Saludify.
Research has proven the effect of reverse psychology — for example, in 2011, experts found warning labels on violent television shows were more likely to attract viewers in the 9 to 21 age group rather than deter them.
Similarly, other data demonstrated that 2-year-olds instructed to not play with specific toys suddenly found that toy more appealing; also, students offered a choice of five posters and then told one wasn’t available wanted that poster the most.
According to Psyblog, reverse psychology works best on people who are naturally resistant because agreeable people are more likely to go along with what you want. The more attractive the item or action being restricted, the stronger the psychological pull it has over these stubborn individuals.
And the more arbitrary threats present, the more people begin to feel rebellious.
How common is reverse psychology?
You had better believe there are people and corporations out there who actively study and utilize reverse psychology to get what they want from you. While many people feel this is a form of manipulation, not all experts agree with that assessment.
According to Hank Davis, Professor of Psychology at University of Guelph and author of Caveman Logic, reverse psychology is used by almost everyone—consciously or unconsciously.
“Some people criticize the use of ‘reverse psychology’ for being manipulative,” he told Saludify. “I don’t agree. It’s no worse than the behavior modification techniques people use on each other every day, or the product placement techniques we find in supermarkets or in commercial films. The bottom line is we all do what we can – consciously or unconsciously – to create the environments we find rewarding.”
So, can you make reverse psychology work for you? Of course! Just remember that people who catch you in the act aren’t always going to be appreciative of your efforts. Therefore, reverse psychology is best applied when it is subtle, like through marketing.
How can you make reverse psychology work for you?
According to Geher, reverse psychology is a great way to facilitate long-lasting behaviors.
“f I do something I wouldn’t enjoy typically (e.g., filling out an insurance form) and I’m somehow convinced by someone skilled at ‘reverse psychology’ that I chose to do this act among various alternatives, I’m likely to want to do it again at a future point. This is the power of reverse psychology – used by applied social psychologists (such as top-dogs in the field of marketing) around the globe.” he said to Saludify.
Use it with children
It’s most practical application, aside from mass marketing, is likely during interactions with children; however Discovery’s TLC recommends parents only use it as a last resort and sparingly at best.
A good example would be if your child refuses to take a bath. You can say, “Okay, no bath, so it must be bedtime.” This makes the child feel like he or she has a choice in the matter. Just make sure the alternative is less enjoyable than what you really want them to accomplish!
It is also important as a parent to make sure any reverse psychology used is positive; children should be told what they should do, not what they shouldn’t do. Along the same lines, reverse psychology in children is most effective when paired with a reward system or when made into a challenge where they feel as though they might win against a parent of older sibling.
Use it in relationships
Honesty is always the best option when it comes to romantic relationships, but when it comes to classic interactions between couples, there is one area many men struggle with–women saying the opposite of what they really mean. While this isn’t always reverse psychology or a form of manipulation, the Health Guidance organization suggests men take a cue from their female partners and give the method a try.
The next time a woman makes a suggestion her male partner doesn’t think is straightforward, he should also go against his initial instincts and tell her the decision she made is fine. Under the rule of reverse psychology, the woman is forced to back track and reveal what she really wants.
Use it at work
While we all like to work in a team-oriented environment, most people acknowledge that work is about getting others to do what you need them to do without a lot of fuss.
For this reason, clever coworkers and bosses often utilize tools like reverse psychology. Some even liken the practice to hypnosis, or the planting of ideas into the subconscious.
Geher, however, does not necessarily agree with this comparison.
“‘I’d rather call it a form of persuasion,” he said. “Hypnotism, to my mind, requires an altered state of consciousness. ‘Reverse psychology’ is definitely a form of getting someone to change his or her behavior to do the opposite of what he or she might do otherwise – and it includes having that person believe that he or she is choosing that behavior – but I don’t think it necessarily includes an altered state of consciousness.”
Either way, understanding how reverse psychology works can definitely be an advantage in the work place. Allowing people to believe they made a decision because they wanted to–not because they were told to–can be empowering and can actually build teamwork.
In this context, to make someone do something they don’t want to do (or do something you don’t want to do yourself), it would work by saying something like, “Don’t worry. I can take care of this for you, and that way you can do this other pending thing?” (something more likely to be unpleasant or more complicated), or “I can help you with this now, and then you can give me a hand with this other project” (whenever you want help or getting off early, for example.)
Though a useful tool, reverse psychology should be practiced with the understanding that people do not appreciate being manipulated.
If you cannot hone the skill to be a subtle influence in your daily life, it is best to avoid using it. As much as reverse psychology can have a positive impact on your life, indiscriminate use can have a negative impact and damage relationships.