Reverse psychology: What is it, and does it work?

Medically reviewed by Laura Angers Maddox
Updated January 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Content Warning: Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include abuse which could be triggering to the reader. If you or someone you love is experiencing abuse, contact the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Support is available 24/7. Please also see our Get Help Now page for more immediate resources.

Reverse psychology is a common way for people to get what they want or accomplish their goals. You may have seen someone else use it even if you haven't used it. It’s not always easy to recognize reverse psychology when it happens or to know how to respond. It can, therefore, be helpful to understand what it is, how it’s used, and how and why it may work on specific individuals.

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What is reverse psychology?

The definition of reverse psychology may seem confusing at first glance but may make more sense when closely examined. According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, reverse psychology is “a method of trying to make someone do what you want by asking them to do the opposite and expecting them to disagree with you.”

Reverse psychology is a strategy for getting what you want by demanding or suggesting what you don’t want. Scientists call it strategic self-anticonformity (SSA) because your communicated demand goes directly against what you want.

The term also recognizes that reverse psychology is a strategy. Rather than communicating your wishes directly, you hide them and instead ask for the contrary to what you want. When you use reverse psychology, you use words that indicate what someone must do, even though you want them to do the opposite.

What is reactance?

Psychologist Jack Brehm first proposed psychological reactance in 1966. The theory states that when people feel their freedom threatened, they react against it. By trying to limit someone’s behavior, you make them want to rebel and do the exact opposite. When you use reverse psychology, you are appealing to someone’s reactance and desire to do something just because it is forbidden or discouraged.

If you've had freedom in the past and it's taken away, you may experience reactance. For example, if a parent tells a child that they are not allowed to play video games after school after the child has been doing it for a while, the child may feel intense reactance. As a result, the child might try to find a way to play despite their parents' requests.

Using reverse psychology, you can elicit a sense of reactance from others so that they push back against your stated demands. Demanding what you don't want may lead to them doing what you want. 

Examples of reverse psychology

Many people have stories of using or experiencing reverse psychology. Here are some examples of how people use reverse psychology:

Reverse psychology in sales

Some sales techniques, like the door-in-the-face technique, use reverse psychology. The salesperson starts with an outrageous pitch, pressuring the consumer to buy. But they want the consumer to counter with a smaller offer, making it easier for them to accept.

For instance, the salesperson begins with a pitch for a high-end vacuum, detailing its features, only to mention the steep price. When the potential customer hesitates, they present a more affordable option: a cheaper vacuum with fewer features.

Reverse psychology in marketing

Marketers use reverse psychology to influence consumers’ choices. They might create a sense of scarcity by using words like “limited” or “rare” and hint that the item could sell out soon. They may also try to create a sense of urgency by saying the deal won’t last or is only available for a short time. By making consumers feel like they might miss out on an opportunity, marketers can encourage them to act quickly and purchase the product.

Another way that marketers use reverse psychology is to present two options. The first option may be a high-end product with many features but at a high price. Then, they’ll offer a more affordable alternative with fewer features. This tactic can encourage consumers to choose the cheaper version while still feeling like they’re getting a better value for their money.

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Reverse psychology in parenting

Parenting is undoubtedly one of the most challenging tasks in life. As a parent, you may need to find ways to influence your child’s behavior without stunting their ability to mature into independent adults. Often, a child’s idea of what is right may conflict with their best interests. When that happens, there may be tension between the parent and child.

Some parents resolve this tension by using reverse psychology to prompt their children to choose the best for them. An example is when a child doesn’t want to eat healthy foods. The parent could demand that they eat carrots, but the child may feel reactance at being forced to do something they don’t want to do. However, if the parent tells them the carrots in the fridge are for the parents and children can’t eat them, they may eat them gladly, feeling no reactance.

Reverse psychology in teaching

Teachers may use reverse psychology to engage students in complex subjects. For instance, instead of directly recommending a book, a teacher could insinuate that it's too challenging or above their grade level. Students may feel compelled to read the book to prove the teacher wrong. Students may become interested in the subject material using reverse psychology.

Reverse psychology in relationships

Using reverse psychology in relationships can be problematic as it may come across as manipulative, sacrificing your partner's well-being to get what you want. For instance, instead of directly asking your partner to go to the store, you could comment how you don’t think they could handle driving in traffic to the store. This statement may make your partner feel obligated to go just to prove you wrong. 

Using this strategy frequently may erode your partner's trust and trigger their anger, perceiving it as manipulation. Using reverse psychology in relationships may lead to unintended consequences. They might believe your words about driving in traffic, which could erode their confidence over time.

Does reverse psychology work?

Many factors must come into play for reverse psychology to be effective. You must know the other person’s psychology well enough to predict how they will react and consider the situation's context. They must think you want them to do something before they respond oppositely and not realize you're using reverse psychology. If they understand what you're doing, it won't work. Certain people are more susceptible to reverse psychology than others.

Who is most influenced by reverse psychology?

People who frequently experience reactance are more likely to be persuaded by reverse psychology. It often includes strong-willed people who desire control and children or teenagers who often act out and try to defy authority. 

What are the drawbacks of reverse psychology?

Using reverse psychology too often can lead to distrust, hinder authentic communication in close relationships, and deny others the chance to have a voice in important decisions. Relying on evasive methods like reverse psychology may prevent direct and effective communication over time.

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Online therapy for mental health concerns

If your relationships are based on strategies like reverse psychology rather than honest communication, you may need help to improve those connections. 

With an online therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can recognize how strategies like reverse psychology affect you and those you care about. Then, you can learn how to communicate your needs and desires effectively and openly. Having the necessary resources and skills can help you decide whether reverse psychology might be helpful or more detrimental from situation to situation. Online treatment might also be preferable if you have a busy schedule and find it challenging to make time for therapy.

Research has shown that online therapy platforms like BetterHelp can be as effective overall as face-to-face therapy and, in some cases, even more effective. In a study published in 2019, researchers demonstrated how adults who participated in online psychotherapy through BetterHelp experienced a significant decrease in depression symptom severity after engaging in sessions.

Continue reading below to find reviews of some of our therapists from people seeking help with communicating effectively.

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Takeaway

In many cases, people use reverse psychology without harming anyone. But it can also be used as a manipulative tactic. It is essential to be aware of the potential outcomes and possible repercussions. Online therapists like those at BetterHelp can provide advice and guidance in creating and maintaining successful, fulfilling relationships with others without having to rely on strategies such as reverse psychology.

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