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Does Reverse Psychology Work?

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on September 21, 2021

An example of reverse psychology is when someone says the opposite of what they want, such as “don’t help me,” hoping the other person does the opposite – in this case, helping them. Through reverse psychology, you can encourage someone to do what you want without making them feel pressured or threatened. 

While it may seem like a simple trick, reverse psychology has its limitations. It’s also important to stop and consider why you want to use reverse psychology and if there are downsides to using it.

Why Use Reverse Psychology?

Reverse psychology is best used on people who are emotional, stubborn, or irritated. Usually, people who are grounded, thoughtful, and happy are less susceptible to reverse psychology. 

The idea behind reverse psychology is that when you tell someone they can’t do something, or you doubt their ability to do something, you motivate them to prove you wrong and push back against your rules.

In order to pull off reverse psychology, the action you told them they can’t do must be the action you actually want them to do. That way, when they do the opposite action, it’s a win-win scenario – they get their sense of freedom back and you get the outcome you wanted.    

Using reverse psychology on children. Often, reverse psychology is used by adults on children in situations where the adult may not want the child to know that they want them to do something. 

For example, instead of ordering a child to eat their vegetables, a parent could instead say: “Don’t eat those vegetables”. The child would then eat their vegetables, in reaction to being told what they’re not allowed to do. 

Using reverse psychology on teenagers. Using reverse psychology can be a sneaky way to get another person to rethink a strong position. In addition to kids, it works on teenagers and other rebellious types of personalities. 

Using reverse psychology on consumers. The wider concept of reverse psychology is commonly used in marketing. For example, campaigns that boldly order their audience to not do something or to not buy their product are playing on their customers’ need for independence.

Limitations of Reverse Psychology

A study found that reverse psychology can be an effective marketing tactic. However, the viewer of the marketing materials must have a positive association with the brand for it to work.

The viewer also needs to react with interest and not confusion. The first use of reverse psychology needs to be followed up with information about the product and how to buy the product.

It’s difficult to know the effects of reverse psychology on relationships. Reverse psychology only works if the person you’re using it on fears they lack personal autonomy.

Using reverse psychology can backfire on you. If the person realizes you’re using reverse psychology on them, they may feel you’re manipulating them and get mad at you.

Some of the populations most vulnerable to reverse psychology are:

  • Teenagers
  • Children
  • Type A personalities
  • Narcissists
  • Sociopaths

How to Use Reverse Psychology?

Reverse psychology is only effective if the person genuinely feels they’re making the choice freely. The more they’re resistant to doing something, the better it will work. 

Letting the person know they’re free to do whatever they want but arguing in favor of what you don't want them to do, will make them more likely to do what you wanted them to do in the first place.

The dangers of using reverse psychology. Although it’s possible to use reverse psychology to get the outcome you desire, the better question to ask is: “Why do I want to use reverse psychology?” 

At the end of the day, isn’t it better to have relationships built on honesty and truth rather than manipulation and backward logic?

Outside of a situation in which the other person is susceptible to reverse psychology, they’re likely to figure out what you’re doing and resist you even more than before. If they feel you’ve been manipulating them, this could place a huge strain on your relationship.

WebMD Feature

Sources

SOURCES:

Asian Journal of Empirical Research: “An Empirical Study on Reverse Psychology Applied in Advertising Messages.”

Carnegie Mellon University: “Avoid Reading This Article at All Costs.”

National Center for Families Learning: “How Does Reverse Psychology Work?”

Penn State University: “The Psychology of Reverse Psychology.”

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