What Is Reverse Psychology?

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What Is Reverse Psychology?

Reverse psychology, also known as strategic self-anticonformity, is a tactic that involves advocating for a behavior that is different than the desired outcome.

The idea is that by pushing for the opposite of what you really want, the other individual will actually choose to engage in the behavior that is truly desired. 

While it can be seen as a way of managing another person's behavior, it can also be used as a form of manipulation. The person who is the subject of this tactic is generally unaware of what is happening and may not be fully aware of what the other person's true motives are. 

Even if you weren't aware of it at the time, chances are that you have used reverse psychology to try to get someone to do something at some point in your life. While it may not always be easy to recognize, understanding what it is and how it works may help you identify it in your own life and understand when it may be best applied.

Signs of Reverse Psychology

Reverse psychology works based on a psychological phenomenon known as reactance. Reactance involves having a strong negative reaction to someone attempting to persuade you.

As a result of this negative reaction, you do the opposite of the thing they are trying to persuade you to do. By choosing the opposite of what has been suggested, people may be making an effort to assert their independence and autonomy.

While reverse psychology can sometimes be subtle, there are some signs that you can look for to help you detect this type of persuasion.

Signs that someone might be engaging in reverse psychology include the following.

  • A person might make overly negative comments that seem to be designed to garner a reaction.
  • You feel like someone wants you to do something but they won't make a direct request.
  • They keep harping on the same idea to the point that you find yourself wanting to do the opposite.
  • They have more to gain if you do the opposite of what they are suggesting.
  • The choice they are arguing in favor of isn't consistent with their past choices.

One sign that someone might be using reverse psychology is that they suddenly begin advocating against a behavior that they would normally prefer.

For example, if you are trying to decide what movie to watch, it would be unusual if your friend who normally loves romantic-comedies suddenly started arguing to watch the latest horror flick. In this case, the friend is suggesting the movie they don’t want to watch hoping you’ll actually pick the one they do want to see.

Examples of Reverse Psychology

There are a number of common examples that can demonstrate how reverse psychology is used in real life. 

  • Marketing and sales strategies often utilize reverse psychology to encourage people to buy goods and services. For example, a salesperson might make a very high sales pitch and pressure the customer to buy something. However, what the salesperson is really trying to do is to get the customer to respond by offering to take a much less costly deal.
  • Parents often use reverse psychology to get their kids to do what they want them to do. For example, a parent might tell their child not to pick up their toys in their room in the hope that the child will actually do the opposite. 
  • In relationships, people also use reverse psychology to get their partner to behave in particular ways. For example, one partner might suggest that they wish their partner would clean up the garage but that they know they probably won't have time to do it. The partner might then react by cleaning the garage to prove their partner wrong.

Research suggests that reverse psychology is a tactic commonly used in the real world—and it can often be quite effective.

How to Practice

If you want to use reverse psychology to try to influence another person, there are a few different tactics you might try. For example:

  • Discourage the desired behavior. ("You shouldn't do that.")
  • Forbid the desired behavior. ("Don’t do that.")
  • Suggest that the person couldn't do the desired behavior. ("I bet you couldn't do that anyways.")
  • Downtalk the desired behavior. ("I would never pick that.")
  • Compare the desired behavior unfavorably to something else. ("You should do this because it's so much better than that.")

It’s important to know when this strategy might be the most effective, however. Reverse psychology tends to work best on people who typically resist conformity. For people who are more compliant, making a direct request is usually much more effective. 

Impact of Reverse Psychology

Reverse psychology has some advantages, but it also has a number of downsides. On the positive side, it can often be a way to get people to engage in behaviors that are in their best interest.

Telling a child not to eat their vegetables, for example, can be a way to encourage them to consume healthy foods in a way that makes them feel like they are the ones making that choice.

When dealing with a person who tends to rebel against norms,  forbidding them to engage in the desired behavior can be a way to encourage more socially acceptable behavior. 

On the other hand, it is a persuasion tactic that can often leave people feeling manipulated. If a person feels like you are always using this technique to get them to do what you want, they may reach a point where they feel that they cannot trust you.

Reverse psychology can also be a poor choice when you are dealing with someone who has low self-esteem. Because these individuals often don't trust their own judgment, they are more likely to give your opinions greater weight. If you are advocating for the opposite of what you really want, you may find that this strategy is likely to backfire.

Tips

If you are thinking about using reverse psychology, there are some things to consider.

  • Only use this tactic sparingly.
  • Don’t use reverse psychology to manipulate people.
  • Know when to use it best, usually with someone who tends to be argumentative or contrarian.
  • Remind the other person that they have a choice.
  • Don’t argue too hard for the thing you don’t actually want.
  • Be willing to suffer the consequences if the other person makes what you think is the wrong choice.
  • Consider other more honest options that can lead to better communication.

If you think that someone else is trying to use reverse psychology on you, there are a few things you can do. First, you can ask them to explain their reasoning for suggesting the choice they are arguing for. Once you realize what they are wanting you to choose, consider your options. You might decide to pick the option they clearly don't want you to pick—or suggest a different solution altogether.

Finally, don't be afraid to call someone out if you think they are trying to use reverse psychology on you. Once that person realizes that you understand what’s happening, they’ll be less likely to try the same tactic again in the future.

Potential Pitfalls

There are a number of pitfalls to consider before you decide to use reverse psychology.

Damage to Your Relationships

If other people feel like you are intentionally trying to manipulate them, it can destroy the trust they have in you. If it becomes a persistent problem, they may always question your motives and not trust your advice.

Because they cannot trust what you are saying, they will always feel that they can never know what you truly want. This can seriously undermine your relationship.

The Potential to Backfire

If the person you are trying to convince values your opinions or tends to be an agreeable person who'd rather go with the flow rather than rock the boat, you may find yourself getting the opposite of what you truly want.

Rather than reacting by choosing the opposite of what you are suggesting, they'll simply agree. At that point, you either have to go along with the thing you didn’t want.

If your attempt to use reverse psychology backfires, you'll either have to admit that you were trying to manipulate them—or find some way to explain your sudden change of mind.

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