Reverse psychology refers to a persuasion technique in which one person tries to get someone to do something by suggesting that they do the opposite.
It can take various forms, such as:
- forbidding the desired behavior,
- questioning the person’s ability to perform the desired behavior,
- encouraging the opposite of the target behavior, and so on.
In the psychology literature, it is often called “strategic self anti-conformity” (SSA), which is defined as a requestor’s advocacy of a position that is opposite of their true position (Hajjat, 2016).
Reverse Psychology Examples
Telling you not to read this article is a form of reverse psychology. I am trying to persuade you to continue reading by suggesting that you do the opposite.
Now that you know what reverse psychology is, it’s not probable that reading the sentence above persuaded you to continue reading, but tactics like this one are fairly common in marketing campaigns.
Some studies try to analyze the effectiveness of marketing techniques like this one, but the results are often inconclusive.
You might want to rebel and continue reading just because I told you not to, or you might not. Perhaps you planned on reading the full article anyway, and my persuasion tactic didn’t have any effect.
When parents ask their little child to eat vegetables, the child often won’t listen. This might lead to a situation where the parent uses reverse psychology.
The parents might change their strategy and say “Fine, don’t eat your vegetables. I bet you can’t eat all that broccoli anyway,” the child might try to rebel and defiantly eat all the broccoli.
The child didn’t want to eat the vegetables. The child just wanted to win.
The child is satisfied with their behavior because they think they’ve proven the parents wrong. In reality, the parents have used reverse psychology to get the child to do what they wanted.
Imagine the following scenario: you are going to see a movie with a friend. You have two options, but you have a preference for movie A.
If you know that your friend is an agreeable person, you would be right to state your preference directly. If you know that your friend is disagreeable, you might want to use reverse psychology.
If you state your true preference for movie A, your disagreeable friend will start arguing for movie B. If, however, you first suggest movie B, your friend might take the opposing view and start arguing for movie A.
You might argue for a while but then surrender to your friend’s preference (which is your preference).
If you know that someone is a generally disagreeable person and often does the opposite of what people tell them to, complimenting them on something you don’t like would be a form of reverse psychology.
For example, you might not like your romantic partner’s haircut, but you know they generally disagree with everything you say. So you compliment their haircut. In defiance, they might change it.
Large, bright, red buttons with signs next to them saying “DO NOT PUSH” or “DO NOT PRESS” are a common trope in popular culture.
The sign is, of course, using reverse psychology to make you want to press it.
And it seems to work! This YouTube channel, for example, is titled Don’t read my profile Picture, and has just three videos. Its biggest video titled Don’t click on this video has 2.4 million views, and the channel itself has over 40,000 subscribers.
Making a product less available and more difficult to access is a form of marketing that uses reverse psychology.
Brands engage in different kinds of anti-marketing ploys to get customers to want their product more. The resulting brands are known in Japan as secret brands—brands that have no regular retail outlets, no catalogs, no commercials, and no web presence, apart from a few cryptic mentions. People like such brands because they are hard to find.
Saying that you are not fit for something might be a persuasion tactic aimed at getting reassurance from others.
For example, saying that you are unprepared or unfit for a competition might be a way to get reassurance. People might say how well-prepared you are, how hard you worked, how talented you are, and so on in hopes of getting your spirits up.
Whether you believe what you’re saying or not, saying that you are unprepared or unfit for something is often a technique for making others compliment you.
If you find some behavior annoying, you can use reverse psychology to make someone stop acting that way.
For example, if you find your child’s humming annoying and you know that they generally do the opposite of what you tell them to, you can cheerfully start humming in the same way.
The child, annoyed with the fact that you like their humming, might want to stop. In this case, the tactic implies engaging in the behavior one finds annoying in the hopes that the other person will stop engaging in it.
A humorous article concludes, after reviewing a large amount of data, 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” (Schwartz, 2015).
The article ironically uses reverse psychology to make you want to apply for the “official certificate in reverse psychology” and send money to the corresponding author.
A classic example of reverse psychology is when a parent tells their rebellious child that they don’t like their romantic partner (whom they like) in the hopes of increasing their attraction.
The child might react by showing more attraction towards their partner just to go against what they perceive as the wishes of their parents.
Adolescents are often vulnerable to clever acts of reverse psychology from their teachers or parents because the teen years tend to be characterized by low agreeableness and willingness to rebel.
Reverse psychology relies on the psychological phenomenon known as reactance.
Psychological reactance can be explained as the idea that an item will be wanted more if people are told they cannot have it.
It is an unpleasant motivational reaction to offers, persons, rules, or regulations that eliminate behavioral liberties.
It occurs when an individual feels that someone else is attempting to limit one’s choice of response or range of alternatives.
Reverse psychology, therefore, works because the person being persuaded has a negative emotional reaction to being persuaded, and thus chooses the opposite option.
Studies show that not all people are equally prone to be persuaded through reverse psychology (Rosenberg & Siegel, 2018). The technique may work well on people who are resistant by nature and low in agreeableness.
Direct requests, the opposite of reverse psychology, work much more effectively on people who are compliant and agreeable by nature.
Key Term: Strategic Self Anti-Conformity
Strategic self-anti-conformity is when a person advocates a position opposite of their true thought while hiding the fact that they are using a persuasion tactic.
Typical examples are marketing techniques or tricks such as “do not click this link” or “do not push this button.”
Strategic self anti-conformity and psychological reactance relate to their expected negativity or disagreeableness from their influence target (Hajjat, 2016).
Key times in which it is used include:
- Marketing: Marketers have utilized reverse psychology as a way to promote products to the wider public, promote products to certain targeted segments of the population while purposefully excluding others, and promote a certain company or brand image.
- Parenting: Reverse psychology is often used on children due to their tendency to respond with reactance. Many psychologists, however, warn against using reverse psychology on children and teens on the presumption that they will rebel because teens will more often than not see through the manipulation tactic.
- Rebellious adolescents: Reverse psychology is most effective with adolescents. Adolescents are particularly prone to rebellious tendencies and will frequently behave in a manner antithetical to the advice of well-meaning authority figures (MacDonald et al., 2011).
- Psychotherapy: In psychotherapy, there is a technique called ‘the paradoxical intervention’ or ‘antisuggestion’ which uses the same principle as reverse psychology to try and cure a patient (Corey, 2016). The therapist frames their message so that resistance to it promotes change. By going with, instead of going against, the behavior, the therapist makes the behavior seem less appealing to the patient.
This means pretending to agree with the patient’s thoughts and beliefs to make the patient realize their fallibility.
Reverse psychology is a persuasion technique in which one person tries to get someone to do something by suggesting that they do the opposite.
Reverse psychology works when the person being persuaded has a negative emotional reaction to being persuaded, and thus chooses the opposite option.
This is not equally effective for all people, but it might be useful for dealing with naturally disagreeable people.
Corey, G. (2016). Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy, Enhanced. Cengage Learning.
Hajjat, F. (2016). Is There Such a Thing as Reverse Psychology? In M. W. Obal, N. Krey, & C. Bushardt (Eds.), Let’s Get Engaged! Crossing the Threshold of Marketing’s Engagement Era (pp. 721–722). Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-11815-4_218
MacDonald, G., Nail, P. R., & Harper, J. R. (2011). Do people use reverse psychology? An exploration of strategic self-anticonformity. Social Influence, 6(1), 1–14. https://doi.org/10.1080/15534510.2010.517282
Rosenberg, B. D., & Siegel, J. T. (2018). A 50-year review of psychological reactance theory: Do not read this article. Motivation Science, 4, 281–300. https://doi.org/10.1037/mot0000091
Schwartz, E. S. (2015). Certificate in Reverse Psychology probably not worth it. BMJ, 351, h6296. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.h6296