Reverse psychology

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Reverse psychology is a technique involving the advocacy of a belief or behavior 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 phenomenon of reactance, in which a person has a negative emotional reaction to being persuaded, and thus chooses the option which is being advocated against. The one being manipulated is usually unaware of what is really going on.


Reverse psychology is often used on children due to their high tendency to respond with reactance, a desire to restore threatened freedom of action. Some parents feel that the best strategy is sometimes "reverse psychology": telling children to stay in the house when you really want them to choose to go outside and play.[1] Another example is saying "I bet you can't catch me" which results in being pursued by the cunning child; a game many have played as a child.

Questions have however been raised about such an approach when it is more than merely instrumental, in the sense that "reverse psychology implies a clever manipulation of the misbehaving child"[2] and nothing more. With respect to "emotional intelligence... [and] successful fathering", the advice has been given: "don't try to use reverse psychology...such strategies are confusing, manipulative, dishonest, and they rarely work".[3] In addition, consistently allowing a child to do the opposite of what he/she is being advised, undermines the authority of the parent.

Paradoxical intervention[edit]

Closely associated with reverse psychology in psychotherapy is the technique of 'the Paradoxical intervention....This technique has also been called "prescribing the symptom" and "antisuggestion"'.[4] Here the technique employed is to frame the therapist's message so that resistance to it promotes change (i.e. paradoxical prescriptions, reverse psychology)'.[5]

Such interventions 'can have a similar impact as humor in helping clients cast their problems in a new light....By going with, not against, the client's resistance, the therapist makes the behavior less attractive'.[6]

Paradoxical marketing[edit]

"In a world where it is expected that all things should be available ... less availability" has emerged as a new selling point: "by engaging in such a restricted anti-marketing ploy the brand has won kudos"[7] – reverse psychology. The result can be "what the Japanese call a secret brand ... no regular retail outlets, no catalog, no web presence apart from a few cryptic mentions ... people like it because it's almost impossible to find".[8]

Adorno and Horkheimer[edit]

Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer characterized the effect of the culture industry as "psychoanalysis in reverse". Their analysis began with the dialectic which operated in Germany when heirs of the Romantic movement became seekers of "Strength through Joy", only to have their movement co-opted by a combination of the mass media and National Socialism. A modern example begins with the "fitness and jogging" boom in the United States in the 1970s. 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.

The culture industry mass-produces standardized material. This would not be dangerous if the material was meaningless, but it frequently offers and reinforces 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. Similarly, advertising frequently seeks to create a need to buy by showing differences between actual and ideal situations. The intention is usually to induce dissatisfaction with the present situation, and to induce expectations of satisfaction through the acquisition of products which will transform the actual reality into the idealized reality. Hence, if the peer group buys, all those who cannot afford the products will feel additional unhappiness and frustration until they eventually join the group. Thus, sometimes the process of advocacy for the one outcome really intends to produce the opposite outcome as the motivation for purchase.

However, more often than not, the cause and effect is unintended. Marxist logic applied to the culture industry indicates that it is, per se, a dialectic in which declining profit margins and increasing costs make investors anxious for "sure things". Repeating winning formulas and stereotyping create the lowest common denominator products with the lowest costs. But the less creative the input, the more likely it becomes that roles will be cast in ways which match, rather than challenge, common prejudices which can inadvertently (or quite deliberately) damage the esteem of those in the marginalized groups.[9][10]


In popular culture[edit]

A stereotypical joke sign, inviting the user not to press it

Classic examples of reverse psychology in popular culture include a large, bright red button with a sign next to it saying "Do not push", or a sign saying "Jump at your own risk", such as in the computer game Neverhood, where a large drain is accompanied by signs that say "Do not jump in!" and "You will die!", although jumping in the pipe is the only way to achieve game over in the whole game without finishing it. The Looney Tunes are also well known for using such "bright red button" gags. A well-known example of reverse psychology is the Looney Tunes cartoon Rabbit Fire, where Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck are trying to convince Elmer Fudd it's the hunting season for the other species and not their own. After a back-and-forth with Bugs proclaiming "Duck season!" and Daffy "Wabbit [sic] season!", Bugs switches to say "Rabbit season!", to which Daffy begins saying "Duck season!"- even going so far as to exclaim "I say it's duck season, and I say, FIRE!" Daffy is promptly shot and is quite annoyed after noticing he was tricked. Occasionally, humor is derived from reverse psychology backfiring, as in a FoxTrot strip when Jason, faced with punishment, begs his mom to take away his computer rather than make him eat a whole box of Ho-Hos, and she agrees. A similar example appears in Narbonic.

  • In the Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief novel by Rick Riordan, Percy tells Procrustes (Crusty) to sit on a water bed to see if it could hold the giant's weight. Then Percy straps the giant to the bed chopping off his feet and killing him for a while. In Percy Jackson and the Titan's Curse, Percy tells the old man of the sea (Nereus), "not the sea" to trick him into thinking Percy would die in the water. So he jumps off the dock and Percy strengthens, since his father is god of the sea.
  • In one of Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus stories, Brer Rabbit escapes from Brer Fox by repeatedly pleading "Please, Brer Fox, don't fling me in that briar patch". The fox does so, allowing the rabbit to escape.
  • In some episodes of Bugs Bunny, Bugs uses reverse psychology on Daffy by pointing Elmer's gun at himself, saying that it is rabbit season, then Daffy says that it is duck season (instead of rabbit season) and that Elmer should fire.
  • On the ride (Splash Mountain), you can see the robotic versions of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox, with Brer Rabbit hovering over a boiling cauldron. As he is about to fry, Brer Rabbit shouts "Alright, you can boil me! But please don't throw me in dat der Briar Patch!", at which point the riders fall down a 50-foot drop.
  • In the film version of The Neverending Story, Mr. Coreander asks Bastion some rather poignant questions about his love of books, and then offhandly warns him that the book he's reading is "not for you", clearly because he wants Bastion to take it when he leaves the room to answer the phone. Which Bastion does.
  • In the episode "A Twist of Ed" of the television show Ed, Edd, and Eddy, in an attempt to demonstrate reverse psychology, Edd commands Ed not to eat a pile of dirt; therefore, eating a pile of dirt is the first thing Ed does. The three Eds use reverse psychology on their mortal enemies, the Kanker sisters, which backfires when the girls use reverse-reverse psychology on the Eds, similar to double-bluffing.
  • A real-life example of reverse psychology occurred when promoting Bohemian Rhapsody. The song is 5 minutes and 55 seconds long, and many record companies felt that it would be too long to gain public interest. Freddie Mercury gave a copy to Kenny Everett, a London DJ and good friend, with specific direction not to play the song, believing that Everett would be more likely to play it as a result.
  • In the movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Roger is persuaded to drink a shot of Scotch whisky by means of reverse psychology.
  • In an episode of Trick or Treat, a show featuring Derren Brown, a student was challenged not to kill a kitten, by pushing a button. Throughout the show, she was shown to be extremely conflicted, and by the end, she almost pushed the button just as the timer ran down to zero. During this episode, other situations are also explored, such as young children being told not to open a box given to them by the host, all of the subjects ended up opening them.
  • Another real life example of reverse psychology occurred when 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".[11]

In plays and fiction[edit]

There are numerous examples of reverse psychology in fiction, cinema, and cartoons, including William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar where Mark Antony uses reverse psychology to get the town's people to cause a riot.

In one of Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus stories, Br'er Rabbit escapes from Br'er Fox by repeatedly pleading "Please, Br'er Fox, don't fling me in that briar patch." The fox does so, allowing the rabbit to escape: 'the Rabbit uses "reverse psychology" to outsmart the Fox'.[12]

In "Mary Poppins" the titular character sings "Stay Awake" to the Banks children in a successful bid to use reverse psychology to get them to go to bed.

Reverse psychology occurs several times on The Simpsons. In the third season episode "Saturdays of Thunder", Homer has a conversation with his brain after reading a passage in Bill Cosby's parental-advice book Fatherhood:

Homer 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!

'In The Ghost Writer (1979), the Master - E. E. Lonoff - is "countersuggestible"; one manipulates him via reverse psychology in much the same manner as, say, Poe's cerebral detectives match their wits against master criminals'.[13] Similarly in Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado", Montresor uses reverse psychology to persuade Fortunato to enter his vaults. He says that Fortunato is too tired and should get some rest, and that he should find someone else to help him with his problem. Montresor knew that Fortunato would disagree and insist on entering the vault.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Eliot R. Smith/Diane M.Mackie, Social Psychology (Hove 2007) p. 380
  2. ^ R. J. Delaney/K. R Kunstal, Troubled Transplants (2000) p. 81
  3. ^ John Gottman, The Heart of Parenting (London 1997) p. 21, p. 179 and p. 212
  4. ^ Gerald Corey, Theory and Practice of Counselling and Psychotherapy (1991) p. 155
  5. ^ R. F. Baumeister/B. J. Bushman, Social Psychology and Human Nature <2007) p. 467
  6. ^ Corey, p. 385 and p. 155
  7. ^ Indrajit Sinha/Thomas Foscht, Reverse Psychology Marketing (2007) p. 156
  8. ^ William Gibson, Zero History (London 2010) p. 45-6 and p 72
  9. ^ Adorno, Theodor W. Negative Dialectics Continuum International Publishing Group; Reprint (1983) ISBN 0-8264-0132-5 (Reference for entire section Adorno and Horkheimer)
  10. ^ Horkheimer, Max, Adorno, Theodor W. & Cumming, John the (Translator) Dialectic of Enlightenment (Reference for entire section Adorno and Horkheimer)
  11. ^
  12. ^ Madelyn Jablon, Black Metafiction (1999) p. 100
  13. ^ Sanford Pinsker, Bearing the Bad News (1990) p. 141

Further reading[edit]

  • Gerald R. Weeks, Promoting Change through Paradoxical Therapy (1991)