Reverse psychology is a persuasion tactic that involves suggesting the opposite of what you want to try to convince someone to do what you desire. Think about it: If someone tells you that you can’t do something, don’t you kind of want to do it more? This technique can be helpful or harmful, depending on the context.
Reverse psychology can be employed for positive outcomes (like marketing or parenting), but it can also be used as a form of manipulation. Here is how to recognize reverse psychology and only use it for good, plus alternative methods for getting someone to do what you want.
What is Reverse Psychology? (Reverse Psychology Definition)
Reverse psychology is a persuasion technique used to get someone to do something by telling them not to do it. In other words, you suggest the opposite of what you want in order to convince another person to do what you desire. Also called strategic self-anticonformity, this social tactic can be used for manipulation, but it can also be used for marketing, motivation, or behavioral change.
Why Do People Use Reverse Psychology?
People use reverse psychology as a form of persuasion, passive-aggressiveness, or manipulation. The reason reverse psychology works is that people naturally want to have control and assert their independence—especially if they have something to prove.
For example, if someone suggests you are incapable of building your own business, it may motivate you to do just that. Alternatively, if a parent suggests that a child is too young to use the dishwasher, the kid may want to act more grown up by learning to do the dishes.
In a sales context, modern consumers are bombarded with marketing ploys on a daily basis. A company or salesperson may use reverse psychology to stand out or appear humorous to their target customer.
People may also use reverse psychology…
- To get someone to do something (e.g., “don’t do [target behavior]” or “you aren’t allowed to do X”)
- To get someone to stop doing something
- To get someone to admit they were wrong
- To get someone to change their mind
- To get someone to do something they don’t want to do (e.g., “you probably couldn’t do X very well”)
How Does Reverse Psychology Work?
Reverse psychology works because many naturally want to assert autonomy and independence. If they feel pressured to do something, they want to assert their sense of control by acting oppositional.
This persuasion tactic is rooted in two similar psychological principles:
- Cognitive dissonance is a psychological phenomenon where someone may think or believe something yet act inconsistently with their thoughts. For example, a rebellious teenager may be an athlete who cares about their health, but they decide to smoke cigarettes at a party because it is considered cool.
- Reactance theory explains why people are motivated to protect their sense of freedom when they feel that their freedom is being threatened. In other words, people react to certain rules by rebelling against them. For example, research about reactance theory1https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4675534/#:~:text=Reactance%20is%20an%20unpleasant%20motivational,perceived%20magnitude%20of%20the%20threat. shows that people often get uncomfortable or aggressive when they feel like their freedom is threatened, so restore their sense of freedom by rebelling against the threat.
Psychologists have found that reverse psychology works best on people2https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/15534510.2010.517282 who want to be in control because it creates the illusion that they are choosing the outcome of the situation. For example, stubborn people, rebellious teenagers, Type A personalities, narcissistic people, and other disobedient archetypes.
Potential Risks and Impacts of Reverse Psychology
Reverse psychology comes with quite a few drawbacks that could be detrimental to your relationships. This technique can quickly backfire if someone figures out what you’re doing. Before you engage in this type of persuasion, we highly recommend trying the alternative techniques below to communicate more directly.
If you use reverse psychology on the wrong person or in the wrong setting, it could cause them to…
- Become suspicious of you
- Lose trust in you
- Develop resentment against you
- Feel like they are being manipulated
- Feel confused or emotionally hurt
- Act out or rebel in other ways
- Call out your tactics
When to Use Reverse Psychology
To avoid negative impacts on your relationships, try to only use reverse psychology in low-stakes situations or when direct persuasion has failed (such as the examples below). Use this technique at your own discretion and with pure intentions in mind.
In no way are we advocating that you use reverse psychology for manipulation. If taken out of context, these techniques could be considered a form of emotional manipulation that is incredibly damaging to mental health and relationships.
If you think you are being emotionally manipulated, therapy can help. Consider seeking the guidance of a licensed mental health professional. For a good list of therapists, check out Mental Health America’s helpful list.
How to use reverse psychology in a kind way (examples of reverse psychology)
Reverse psychology can be humorous and lighthearted, like this Little Caesar’s radio ad, which insists that viewers “do not call this number.”
… But it can also be used as a form of psychological manipulation. Before using reverse psychology, ask yourself: “Could this technique or outcome be harmful to someone else’s mental health, physical well-being, or social reputation?” If the answer is “yes,” you may be using reverse psychology in a manipulative way.
Here are some ways you can use reverse psychology to get what you want without harmfully manipulating others:
- Discourage the behavior: Patagonia’s humorous 2011 Black Friday ad used reverse psychology by including a photo of one of their jackets and the text “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” This marketing campaign aimed to take a stand against “fast fashion” and unsustainable consumerism while also promoting the company’s environmentally-friendly clothing initiatives.
- Forbid the reward or behavior: If you tell a child that they can’t have dessert before dinner, you’ll probably find them sneaking in the cookie jar because they know it is forbidden. A parent can flip this psychology around by insisting that something desirable (like eating fruit for breakfast or picking out their own outfit before school) is forbidden.
- Say negative things about the desired outcome: A supplement company may satirically say, “Beware, this protein powder may force you to buy a whole new wardrobe.” This implies that the supplement could help you lose weight, but it will negatively impact your wallet because your clothes won’t fit anymore.
- Suggest that they are incapable of doing something: People often want to prove their abilities whenever their competence is questioned. For example, a teenage boy may convince his younger sister to do his yard work chores by saying, “Girls aren’t strong enough to work outside!”
- Express interest in the undesired item: Let’s say you and a friend want to go to a movie. You want to see Movie A, but you know that your friend tends to be disagreeable. Instead, you suggest Movie B and may even add a few reasons why you prefer Movie B. In the act of opposition, your stubborn friend may argue for Movie A, which was your preferred choice all along.
3 Healthier Alternatives to Reverse Psychology
Reverse psychology is risky to get someone to do what you want. If the target person discovers that you are subtly manipulating them, they may not trust you anymore. Rather than putting your relationships on the line, try these simpler (and kinder) alternatives to persuade people to do what you desire while keeping their best interests in mind.
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1. Positive Reinforcement
Just like dogs, humans respond to treats. While you don’t need to dangle cookies over someone’s head to get them to do what you want, you can use the principles of positive reinforcement to encourage specific behaviors.
Examples of positive reinforcement include:
- Rewards: When someone does what you want them to do, give them a physical reward like a gift or food. This reinforcement is especially effective for minors in childhood or adolescence.
- Verbal praise: If someone achieves a goal or does something you appreciate, you can verbally recognize them by saying “Thank you” or “You are so amazing for doing that!” You can also use verbal praise to recognize someone’s accomplishments or boost their confidence. This makes them more likely to repeat the behavior.
- Social recognition: Human beings are social animals that naturally want to feel accepted as part of a tribe. Rewarding a behavior via social recognition could include showing off someone’s accomplishment (“Look what they did!”), posting on social media (“I appreciate my wife so much!”), or publicly praising someone for desired behavior (“Join me to congratulate Tyrese as our employee of the month!”)
People naturally want to avoid negative consequences and work towards enjoyable experiences. Compared to reverse psychology, this is an easier and kinder way to get someone to do what you want.
2. Open communication
Reverse psychology can be a lot of work. You can take a mental shortcut by simply stating what you want. Research shows that people who make clear requests3https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1980-32502-001 are perceived as more assertive.
Yet many people have trouble expressing and asking for what they want because they may fear sounding needy or being rejected. However, open communication is the hallmark of healthy relationships with family, significant others, friends, and colleagues.
Instead of using reverse psychology, you can get straight to the point by clearly expressing what you desire. Try focusing on clear statements that make a direct request. For example:
- “Could you please do X?”
- “I would love to go to X restaurant with you tonight.”
- “This [product/idea/opinion] is awesome because….”
- “It makes me feel very cared for when you do the dishes after dinner.”
- “I would like to be exclusive and no longer date anyone else but you.”
- “I love whenever you send me a good morning text. It makes me feel like I have the best boyfriend/girlfriend on the planet.”
- “You seem so grown up whenever you order your own food at a restaurant. It makes me extra proud to call you my daughter/son.”
- “I appreciate when you X.”
3. Create a value statement
A value proposition is a sales technique where you create a 30-second “elevator pitch” about why someone should value and purchase your product. This technique can also be used to convince someone that an idea or behavior is desirable for them.
Whether you’re trying to sell a product, convince your significant other to show your love languages, or persuade your children to behave in public, your argument can instantly become more desirable if you explain what’s in it for them.
Explain why your desired outcome provides value to the other person. For example:
- “Restaurant X is way healthier than Restaurant Y, and your stomach will feel so much better afterward.”
- “If we work together to clean the kitchen tonight, you’ll wake up to a nice clean house, so you don’t feel so stressed for your big day tomorrow.”
- “I love when you hold my hand in public. It makes us look like a power couple.”
- “You seem more like one of the big kids when you walk next to me in the store.”
Key Takeaways: Reverse Psychology Can Be Risky
It’s important to understand reverse psychology so you can be aware if you’re being manipulated. However, using this tactic on people close to you can be a major risk to your trust and communication in the relationship.
Other techniques like positive reinforcement, clear communication, and value statements can be more effective and kind methods to get someone to do what you desire.
Want to learn more non-manipulative ways to persuade people? Here are 8 Techniques You Can Learn To Become More Persuasive.
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