The psychology of reverse psychology (you don’t HAVE to read this)


Reverse psychology is a technique involving the advocacy of a belief or behaviour that is opposite to the one desired, with the expectation that this approach will encourage the subject of the persuasion to do what actually is desired: the opposite of what is suggested. This technique relies on the psychological phenomenons of re-establishing autonomy, and reactance, in which a person feels that someone or something is taking away his or her choices or limiting the range of alternatives.

The technique typically works better on people who are worked up in an emotional state or are making an emotionally based decision compared to those thinking more rationally. It is most likely to be successful with those who feel a high need of control. This includes those of narcissistic or even psychopathic qualities.

Reverse psychology is often used on children due to their high tendency to respond with reactance, a desire to restore threatened freedom of action. However, this technique’s use has been criticised as reverse psychology implies a clever manipulation of the misbehaving child. In addition, such strategies are seen as confusing, manipulative, dishonest, and they rarely work. Consistently allowing a child to do the opposite of what he/she is being advised also undermines the authority of the parent.

What the research has to say –

“…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…” (Baumeister and Bushman 2010)

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)

Uses in marketing – Japan’s latest selling strategy is rolling out slogans like ‘In a world where it is expected that all things should be available…less availability’. Marketers believe people like it because ‘it’ (no regular retail outlets, no catalogue, no web presence apart from a few cryptic mentions) is almost impossible to find and therefore appeals to audiences.

Similarly, the “running craze” at the Boston Marathon and in California, dialectically, was the thesis that one did not have to be “Rocky” in a sweaty gym to be physically fit, and that body acceptance was the key to effective aerobic training. The culture industry responded to the thesis with major advertising campaigns from Calvin Klein and others, using images featuring exceptionally toned models. People compared themselves to these models, which created a sense of competition, and many high school students avoid jogging because of the resultant body shame.

This technique worked effectively as the messages portrayed frequently offered and reinforced ideals and norms representing implied criticism of those who fail to match up. Empirical studies show that mass culture products can lower confidence and self-esteem, and cause humiliation among men and women whose particular characteristics fall outside the normalised range for appearance, behaviour, religion, ethnicity etc.

Some examples from popular culture

The SimpsonsHomer’s Brain: Don’t you get it? You’ve gotta use reverse psychology./ Homer: That sounds too complicated./ Homer’s Brain: OK, don’t use reverse psychology./ Homer: All right, I will!

Pop artist Lady Gaga promoted her upcoming album ARTPOP and its lead single “Applause” by releasing a short film urging fans not to buy her music and stating that she was “no longer relevant as an artist”


Chadee (2011), Baumeister and Bushman (2010) in Dean, J. (2012) When Does Reverse Psychology Work? URL: ttp://

Pantalon, M. (2011) Do You Use “Reverse Psychology”? Stop Right Now! URL: