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When Does Reverse Psychology Work?

Please don’t
“We want to be free! We want to be free to do what we want to do!” ~Heavenly Blues in the film ‘The Wild Angels

You’re probably familiar with reverse psychology: it’s when you try to get someone to do something by telling them to do the opposite.

In theory people don’t like to have their freedom restricted so they rebel. But what does the psychological research tell us? Do people really react to restrictions on their freedom by wanting the restricted object more?

Under some circumstances, the answer is yes, as these two experiments demonstrate:

“…two-year-olds who are told not to play with a particular toy suddenly find that toy more appealing. […] Students who are told they have their choice of five posters, but then are told one of them is not available suddenly like that one more…” (from the excellent textbook Social Psychology and Human Nature)

Warning labels can have the same perverse effect:

“…warning labels on violent television programs across five age groups (ranging from 9 to 21 years and over) were more likely to attract persons in these groups to the violent program than information labels and no label.” (Chadee, 2011)

The idea is that when you are told you can’t have or do something, the following three things happen:

  • You want it more.
  • You rebel by reasserting your freedom.
  • You feel angry at the person restricting your freedom.

In other words you are immediately turned back into an irritating teenager.

Forbidden fruit

Reverse psychology works best with people who are contrary or resistant. In contrast agreeable people are likely to go along with you anyway so you don’t need to use it.

Watch out, though, people hate being manipulated. If they sense you are trying to get them to do something by telling them to do the opposite, a form of reverse reverse psychology may operate. So they end up doing what you tell them, just to spite your attempts to control them.

Reverse psychology is a tricky customer both in real life and in the psych lab. Researchers have found it difficult to pin down exactly when reverse psychology works and when it doesn’t. Here are a few factors likely to increase psychological reactance:

  • The more attractive and important the option that’s being restricted, the greater the psychological reactance.
  • The greater the restriction of freedom, the greater the psychological reactance.
  • Arbitrary threats produce high reactance because they don’t make sense, which makes people more rebellious.

In real life reverse psychology likely works best when used subtly and sparingly on people who are resistant to direct requests.

About the author

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.

He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks:

Dr Dean’s bio, Twitter, Facebook and how to contact him.

Image credit: David Rabbit Wallace