Reverse psychology is a manipulation technique that involves getting people to do something by prompting them to do the opposite. Reverse psychology can take various forms, such as forbidding the target behavior, questioning the person’s ability to perform the target behavior, and encouraging the opposite of the target behavior.
A parent might use reverse psychology on their child by telling them “you probably won’t be able to eat all this broccoli”, in order to get their child to finish the broccoli.
People use reverse psychology in a wide variety of situations, so it’s important to understand this concept. A simple example of reverse psychology is telling someone that a certain athletics program is hard to get into so they shouldn’t bother applying if you believe that doing so will cause the person to do the opposite and apply.
This and similar forms of reverse psychology are often used by parents on their children, particularly when the child is highly rebellious and tries to do the opposite of what their parents tell them to do. For example, one paper on the topic provides the following example of reverse psychology in parenting:
“Brown’s son has developed a fascination for a particularly annoying melody… which he now hums or whistles frequently. He is also extremely contrary where Brown is concerned, especially in cooperative settings. He seeks wherever possible to do the opposite of what Brown wants him to do and sabotages or refuses to participate in any joint enterprise with Brown. Knowing this, Brown now responds to his son’s annoying humming by cheerfully joining in, with the hoped for result that his son stops humming.”
In this case, the reverse psychology involves encouraging a certain negative behavior, in the hopes that doing so will get the target person to stop engaging in it.
Another example of reverse psychology is when people say negative things about something that they care about, in an attempt to get others to say positive things about it. In particular, people often use this form of reverse psychology by saying bad things about themself, with the goal of prompting others to come to their defense and give them compliments and reassurances. For example, this can involve someone saying “I look bad today”, in an attempt to get someone else to say that that’s not true.
In addition, reverse psychology is also frequently used in business as a marketing and sales tactic. For example, one study on the topic describes several ways in which companies use reverse psychology in marketing, together with relevant examples from past campaigns:
“…marketers have utilized reverse psychology as a way to:
(1) promote a product to the entire market, without deliberatively excluding a specific market segment (e.g. Little Caesar’s “Do not call this number” “Do not visit our website” campaign)…
(2) promote a product to a certain targeted segment while purposefully excluding another (e.g. Dr. Pepper’s “Not for women” campaign)…
(3) promote a certain company or brand image (e.g. Patagonia sustainability initiative “Do not buy this jacket”).”
Finally, a humorous example of reverse psychology appears in a short paper titled “Certificate in Reverse Psychology probably not worth it”, published in a medical journal, which contains the following text:
“After reviewing a large amount of data we have concluded that you probably don’t want to apply for the official certificate in Reverse Psychology, even though the fee is so reasonable that you won’t believe it…
Whatever you do, do not send money to the corresponding author to learn how to apply for this exclusive opportunity today. Your patients do not want you to learn about this simple secret, and it’s probably not worth it.”
While this example is humorous, it nevertheless mirrors many real and serious uses of reverse psychology, in a variety of fields.
HOW REDOES VERSE PSYCHOLOGY WORKS?
The main reason why reverse psychology works is that when people feel pressured to act a certain way, they often prefer to do the opposite in order to assert their autonomy. This is based on Brehm’s reactance theory, which suggests that:
“…an individual who feels a threat to his or her sense of freedom will experience discomfort that motivates re-establishment of that freedom. Such reactance motivation should increase the likelihood of nonconformity to influence attempts. In these situations an influence source may have success by misrepresenting his or her true desires assuming that the target’s proclivity for disagreement will result in the target adopting the position that the source secretly desires.”
REVERSE REVERSE PSYCHOLOGY
Reverse reverse psychology is a manipulation technique that involves prompting people to do exactly what you want them to do, while also causing them to think that you’re using reverse psychology on them and wanted them to do the opposite. Essentially, reverse reverse psychology relies on getting the target person to think that you’re using reverse psychology on them, in order to get them to defy your attempts and do what you originally prompted them to do, which is what you wanted them to do all along.
For example, reverse reverse psychology could involve telling someone rebellious to not do something, in what seems like an attempt to get them to do it through reverse psychology, while in reality you’re trying to push them to not do that thing after all.
As such, reverse reverse psychology is a specific form of reverse psychology. Furthermore, it’s possible to go ‘deeper’ in terms of levels of manipulation, for example by using reverse reverse reverse psychology. However, past a certain point, doing this becomes no different, in practice, than using basic reverse psychology and reverse reverse psychology.
HOW TO USE REVERSE PSYCHOLOGY?
The following is a list of the main ways in which you can use reverse psychology in practice:
- Forbid the target behavior (e.g. “don’t do X”).
- Discourage the target behavior (e.g. “you shouldn’t do X”).
- Say negative things about the target behavior (e.g. “X is so bad, who would want it”).
- Predict that the target person won’t engage in the target behavior (e.g. “you probably won’t do X”).
- Question the target person’s ability to perform the target behavior (e.g. “you probably couldn’t do X well”).
- Encourage the opposite of the target behavior (e.g. “you should do Y, since it’s so much better than X”).
Be careful, when using reverse psychology, you generally want to do so in a matter that’s as subtle as possible given the circumstances, to avoid having the other person notice it. you need to make sure that you’re not acting in a way that could backfire and cause the target person to do what you’re suggesting directly, since that’s the opposite of what you actually want them to do.
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