Reverse psychology is when your true intent differs from what you ask a person to do. This method can be helpful or harmful.
If you’ve ever asked someone to do something that was the opposite of what you actually wanted them to do, there’s a good chance you were using reverse psychology.
When a person responds by doing exactly what you wanted them to do despite that you asked them to do something else, then your strategy was effective.
Similar to passive-aggressive behavior, reverse psychology is an indirect approach to getting what you want.
Even with the best of intentions, reverse psychology can backfire. While reverse psychology can be useful in many situations, it’s important to know when this persuasive technique is potentially harmful to others.
Reverse psychology is a strategy that many people use to influence a situation to achieve their desired outcome.
When your true intent is different from what you ask a person to do, you are using reverse psychology. The result is that the other person behaves the way you would genuinely like them to, even though you didn’t ask them directly.
Psychologists use the term “strategic self-anticonformity” to describe reverse psychology because a person’s communicated request is in direct opposition to their actual desire.
Research from 2010 shows that strategic self-anticonformity is an effective method of persuasion that can also generate a sense of reassurance between individuals.
If you’re on the receiving end of reverse psychology, you will likely experience a psychological phenomenon known as reactance, which is a strong negative or emotional reaction in opposition to how another person is attempting to influence you. The catch is that you’re responding precisely how they wanted you to.
Reverse psychology is a form of manipulation. However, in many cases, the technique can produce a positive effect, especially when used with children who don’t want to listen or comply or people who need help changing certain behaviors.
You can probably recall at least one time when it seemed like someone was trying to get you to do something but was being indirect about it. How did that make you feel?
If it seemed like you were being manipulated to the point that it served the other person’s interests more than your own, it’s helpful to be aware of some of the signs of reverse psychology.
Here are a few questions to consider the next time you find yourself in a potentially manipulative situation:
- Does the person seem more relaxed and open than usual? Is this possibly an attempt to get you to trust them?
- Are they being overly negative about something to get a strong reaction out of you?
- Are they suddenly pressing for you to do something that they are normally against?
- Has their request become so persistent that you feel compelled to do the exact opposite of what you’re being asked to do?
- When weighing how to respond, does one outcome benefit the other person more than yourself?
Reverse psychology can show up in many ways and in many areas of life. Here are some examples:
Reverse psychology is often used as a marketing tactic.
A common example is an outlandish or extravagant sales pitch that sells you on many enticing components that maybe you would be compelled to purchase if only you could afford it.
Instead, you end up buying something less significant from the salesperson, which, if they were using reverse psychology, is exactly what they wanted you to do.
If you’re on a budget and weren’t intending to make any additional purchases this month, then this form of reverse psychology has placed an unwanted strain on your finances.
If a child refuses to get dressed for school in the morning, you could tell them that they don’t have to. You could casually point out that they’ll be the only kid in class wearing their pajamas.
This approach could help persuade the child to change out of their pajamas and into regular clothes since they might realize that they don’t want to be singled out at school.
As a result, the child has been empowered to get dressed for school and may be more likely to continue to do so moving forward.
Using reverse psychology in a relationship can be a slippery slope and should be approached with caution.
For example, your partner insists they don’t want a birthday gift, but in reality, they do. To surprise your partner, you buy them a gift anyway, which, as it turns out, is actually what they really wanted you to do.
However, if your partner continues to tell you that they don’t want a gift at every single birthday, then you might eventually stop buying gifts, which would disappoint your partner since they actually wanted you to get them something.
The misunderstanding that could ensue could lead to anger and resentment, making birthdays a point of contention rather than a cause for celebration.
Another example: Say your partner says they’ll go grocery shopping, when in fact, they don’t have time and don’t really want to, which sends you to the store instead.
While this can work on occasion, if you’re the one who’s always going to the store, you might start to feel taken advantage of — especially if this leads to an imbalance in the distribution of household responsibilities.
When a person is resistant by nature, whether they’re a young child or an older adult, it can be helpful to employ some reverse psychology.
To use reverse psychology on a person who is especially resistant, you can try a strategy known as “reinforcing autonomy.”
Reinforcing autonomy is a key aspect of a counseling technique called motivational interviewing (MI), which is often used to help treat addiction.
Motivational interviewing is a conversational approach to persuasion. The interviewer asks strategic questions to steer the person toward positive solutions. The technique reinforces autonomy since the interviewee feels they have personal agency over their response.
To try motivational interviewing in the context of reverse psychology, you would make a suggestion or ask a question that goes against how you would like the person to answer or what you would like them to do.
For example, you’re worried about the health of a loved one who is resistant to making changes to their diet and getting regular exercise.
Instead of saying “I really think you should start taking care of yourself,” you could try, “Only you know what’s best for you. If you could make changes to your lifestyle that would help you feel better and have more energy, what might those be?”
The result is that you’ve empowered your loved one to make their own choices. You’ve got them thinking about what they think might be good for them and have reinforced their autonomy.
In this instance, a motivational interviewing approach to reverse psychology is more helpful than simply telling a person they should just eat whatever they want and that they don’t need to exercise.
While reverse psychology is effective, it can sometimes cause harm, especially among those with low self-esteem and young children who may be more affected by influence.
Some children might start to pick up on the manipulation tactics of reverse psychology used by adults and use them to exploit or take advantage of other children.
In addition, many people are sensitive to passive-aggressive behavior and indirect communication and might feel like they’re being controlled.
When reverse psychology becomes underhanded, reactance could lead to distrust. Relationships could become damaged if it becomes clear that the influencing person was working in their own interests only.
There are some cases, however, when a person might feel pressured to use reverse psychology, particularly when it could benefit another person.
For example, you are the parent of a college student who is contemplating dropping out.
You might tell them they should just drop out and could probably find a job working minimum wage, move back home, and pay a portion of rent. Your child might decide on their own to just stay in school to avoid moving back home.
While this can be an appropriate scenario for some young people, it may not be the best outcome for others.
Of course, there’s also a chance that your attempt could backfire and your child drops out anyway. As an alternative approach, motivational interviewing might be more effective in this instance. Try to express genuine curiosity and ask your child what they would like to do with their time instead of going to school.
Reverse psychology often gets a bad reputation as a manipulative technique, but there are many scenarios in which this tactic can help guide another person in a positive direction.
Strategic self-anticonformity really only becomes problematic when the influencer is using reverse psychology for their own benefit.
If it seems like someone is coercing you to make a decision that doesn’t actually serve you, their attempt at swaying your decision could go awry and you might be less inclined to trust them in the future.
Confronting a person for being indirect with you can spark an open, honest, and productive dialogue.
Remember that not everyone is aware they’re using reverse psychology, so they may need the help of a trusting individual who can call them out on their behavior.