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

Updated October 03, 2018

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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. Reverse psychology isn't always easy to recognize while it's happening. It helps to understand exactly what it is, how it's used, and most importantly, how and why it works.

What Is Reverse Psychology?

A reverse psychology definition can seem confusing, but it makes sense if you think about it carefully. The Cambridge English Dictionary defines it this way: 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 what you don't want. Scientists call it strategic self-anticonformity. The term self-anticonformity is used 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 what you don't want. When you use reverse psychology, you use words that indicate what someone must do, even though you want them to do the opposite. So, reverse psychology not honest and authentic communication.

What Is Reactance?

Reactance is a psychological term that refers to that uncomfortable feeling you get when you feel your freedom being threatened. The natural response to reactance is to do the opposite of what is demanded.

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 who is used to playing video games after school that they aren't allowed to play them anymore under any circumstances, they may feel intense reactance. If they do, they will find a way to play them.

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 accomplish that by doing what you want.

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 is used. In sales and marketing, it's used quite intentionally.

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. If the strategy works, the consumer believes they want them to make this huge purchase.

However, that wasn't what the salesperson wanted at all. Instead, they wanted the consumer to push back on the large demand. Then, when they suggest a smaller purchase, the consumer feels much less reactance than they would if the salesperson had suggested this smaller purchase first.

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Reverse Psychology In Marketing

Reverse psychology in marketing has been used before, but it's currently become very popular with 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 as the way a Prada store in Manhattan is set up.

The store has no outdoor signage. There's nothing to indicate it's even a store, much less 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 mystique and air of exclusivity. Consumers, feeling uncomfortable with being excluded, are more likely to buy.

Reverse Psychology In Parenting

Parenting is arguably the most difficult job on the planet. As a parent, you need to find ways to influence your child's behavior while at the same time helping them 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 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, 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 her students. To prove their teacher wrong, the students may seek out that book and read it. Yet, if the teacher merely suggested that they should read it, few would 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, 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 get wise to it. They lose faith in your words and become angry that you're trying to manipulate them. On the other hand, this reverse psychology 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 their transportation.

Does Reverse Psychology Work?

Reverse psychology can work. In fact, in two studies, researchers concluded that people do use reverse psychology and it does accomplish its goals. Reverse psychology doesn't always work, however. Many factors come into play. For 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 don't fall for reverse psychology. The reason is that 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 fooled by reverse psychology.

Also, because children's cognitive development 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, 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 in effect rob the other person of the chance to have a voice in something that matters to them.

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 not 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 them. If so, a counselor can help you learn healthy communications. With therapy, you can learn to share who you are while respecting the needs and wants of others at the same time.

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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 in each situation whether it's best to use reverse psychology or just play it straight.


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