Reverse Psychology: What Is It, And Does It Work?

Updated February 04, 2021

Medically Reviewed By: Avia James

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Reverse psychology is a common way for people to get what they want or accomplish their goals. Even if you haven't used it before, you've probably seen someone else use it. It's not always easy to recognize reverse psychology when it happens. It can, therefore, be helpful to understand exactly what it is,how it's used,and how and why it works.

What Is Reverse Psychology?

The definition of reverse psychology may seem a bit confusing at first glance, but it makes sense when more closely examined. According to 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, 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?

Reactance is a psychological term that refers to the uncomfortable feeling you get when you feel as though your freedom is being threatened. The natural response, when experiencing reactance, is to do the opposite of what is demanded as a means of expressing your personal independence.

If you've had freedom in the past and it's suddenly taken away, you'll likely experience reactance. For example, if a parent tells a child that he or she is not allowed to play video games after school after the child has been doing it for a while, the child may feel intense reactance. When that happens, the child will likely try to find a way to play them despite their parent’s request.

Reactance is at the heart of reverse psychology. The goal of the strategy is to make someone feel this sense of reactance so that they push back against your stated demands. If you've demanded what you don't want, they'll likely do what you want via reactance.

Examples Of Reverse Psychology

Nearly everyone has a story of how they've used reverse psychology on someone or had it used on them. They may not use the term "reverse psychology," but the meaning is clear. Scientists have studied reverse psychology, as well, and found several ways it can be used. In sales and marketing, it's used quite intentionally and liberally.

Reverse Psychology In Sales

Several well-known sales techniques are based on reverse psychology. One is the “door in the face” technique. This technique starts when the salesperson makes an outrageous sales pitch. At this point, the consumer may feel pressured to purchase whatever good or service is being sold. However, this is often not the sale the salesperson is intending to make. Instead, they are trying to provoke the prospective consumer to push back, to present a smaller offer, to which the consumer is likely to feel less reactance and more comfortable in taking.

For example, perhaps the salesman starts off with a pitch about a top-of-the-line vacuum. They go on and on about all of its bells and whistles, but then mention that the price is several thousand dollars. When you balk at this, they offer a more modest vacuum, which now seems like a more reasonable buy to you. This cheaper vacuum is the product they were trying to sell all along.

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Reverse Psychology In Marketing

Reverse psychology in marketing has been growing in popularity among high-end stores. In the book Reverse Psychology Marketing: The Death of Traditional Marketing and the Rise of the New 'Pull' Game, Sinha T. Foscht describes one reverse psychology example, referencing the way a Prada store in Manhattan is set up.

The store has no outdoor signage. There's nothing that indicates that it's even a store, let alone a prestigious Prada store. This creates the illusion that they aren't trying to sell to just anyone who walks in off the street. You have to know it's there, or you might miss it. This enhances its mysterious feel and sense of exclusivity. Consumers, who may feel uncomfortable with being excluded, will be more likely to visit the store and make a purchase.

Reverse Psychology In Parenting

Parenting is undoubtedly one of the most difficult tasks in life. As a parent, you 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 a struggle between the parent and child.

One way some parents resolve this struggle is by using reverse psychology to prompt the child to choose what is best for them. An example of this is when a childdoesn'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, the child may eat them gladly, feeling no reactance whatsoever.

Reverse Psychology In Teaching

Teachers often use reverse psychology to get their students interested in difficult subjects. This can have very positive outcomes if used correctly. For example, a teacher who wants their students to read a difficult book that isn't required reading may have better luck by hinting that the book is too difficult for theirstudents or rated at a higher grade level. To prove their teacher wrong, the students may try to find that book and read it. Yet, if the teacher merely suggested that they should read it, few would probably do so.

Reverse Psychology In Relationships

Reverse psychology in relationships can prove to be a problem. It can come across as a manipulative way to get what you want at the expense of your partner. Here's an example; suppose you wanted your spouse to go to the store for you. Then, instead of just asking them directly, you tell them that they probably can't handle the traffic. If they believe you feel that way, they might do it just to prove you wrong.

There are a few problems with this scenario. First, if you use this strategy often, your partner may start losing faith in your words and become angry if they believe that you're trying to manipulate them. Alternatively, using reverse psychology in relationships could backfire. Instead of fighting back, they may believe what you say. They may stop driving in traffic and eventually become dependent on you for all of their transportation, losing faith in their own abilities after a while.

Does Reverse Psychology Work?

Reverse psychology can work. In fact, in two studies, researchers concluded that in some cases, reverse psychology can accomplish its goal. In other cases, however, reverse psychology doesn't work. Many factors must come into playfor reverse psychology to work; the target person must believe the ruse. They must believe that you want them to do something before they react by doing the opposite. They also must not realize you're using reverse psychology. Finally, certain people are more susceptible to reverse psychology than others.

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Which People "Fall For" Reverse Psychology?

People who have a laid-back, relaxed personality are often less likely to fall for reverse psychology, simply because they're less likely to feel reactance. So, who does feel reactance and respond by doing the opposite of what is demanded? Typically, people who are irritable, stubborn, or overly emotional are more likely to be persuaded by reverse psychology.

Furthermore, because the cognitive development of children is less advanced than adults, they may not be able to pick up on clues that someone is using reverse psychology on them. Teens may have the cognitive ability to recognize what’s going on, but because they're so focused on asserting their independence, their reactance may be so strong that they still do the opposite of what is demanded.

How To Use Reverse Psychology

Knowing the steps of how to use reverse psychology is simple. All you have to do is demand something that's the opposite of what you want.

However, there are things you can do to make it work better. Here are a few tips:

  • Make sure the person knows about the option you want.
  • Argue against the option you want.
  • Use nonverbal cues to back up your words about what you say you want.

What Are The Drawbacks Of Reverse Psychology?

Reverse psychology can have some nasty side-effects. If you use it too often, it can lead others to distrust you. If you use it in a close relationship, you may miss the opportunity to share your life authentically. If you use it for important decisions, you may rob the other person of the chance to have a voice in something that matters to them. Additionally, if used too much, it may rob you, over time, of the ability to communicate directly and effectively as you rely more and more on evasive communication methods like reverse psychology.

Is There A Better Option?

What is reverse psychology worth to you? Is it a technique that will get you what you want, or is it a strategy that will lead you to have less-satisfying relationships? In many cases, reverse psychology can be used successfully and without harming anyone.

It's important to recognize that reverse psychology is a strategy and is not considered authentic communication. To have a satisfying relationship, you need to share who you are and express what you need and want in more direct ways.

If you find that your relationships are entirely based on strategies like reverse psychology rather than honest communication, you may find it hard to improve those relationships. If so, a counselor can help you learn healthy communications. With therapy, you can learn to share who you are while respecting the needs, wants, and boundaries of others.

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You can talk to a licensed counselor at BetterHelp.com for online therapy to discover the best ways to address your own needs directly and honestly. Through counseling, you can learn how these strategies are affecting you and those you care about. Then, you can learn how to communicate your needs and wishes without playing games or manipulating others. Only when you have these skills can you truly understand whether it's best to use reverse psychology or just play it straight, in whatever situation you are in.

Online therapy platforms like BetterHelp have been found to be just as effective overall as face-to-face therapy, and in some cases can be more effective. A study conducted by the Berkeley Well-Being Institute found that 98% of BetterHelp users have made significant progress in their mental health journeys, 100% rated it as convenient, and 96% said they prefer it to other forms of therapy. This is compared to 74%, 80%, and just 60% of face-to-face therapy users, respectively.

Additionally, since BetterHelp is conducted either online or via the phone, it’s often more affordable than traditional therapy, as you don’t need to commute or secure transportation to sessions, and our therapists don’t have to raise prices to account for paying for office space. Online therapy is also incredibly convenient and accessible, particularly to those living in more rural areas who may have difficulty getting to a physical therapy office, and those who have very busy schedules.

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

Counselor Reviews

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