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. 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" 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". In addition, consistently allowing a child to do the opposite of what he/she is being advised, undermines the authority of the parent.
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"'. Here the technique employed is to frame the therapist's message so that resistance to it promotes change (i.e. paradoxical prescriptions, reverse psychology)'.
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'.
"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" – 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".
Adorno and Horkheimer
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.
In popular culture
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".
In plays and fiction
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'.
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'. 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.
- Eliot R. Smith/Diane M.Mackie, Social Psychology (Hove 2007) p. 380
- R. J. Delaney/K. R Kunstal, Troubled Transplants (2000) p. 81
- John Gottman, The Heart of Parenting (London 1997) p. 21, p. 179 and p. 212
- Gerald Corey, Theory and Practice of Counselling and Psychotherapy (1991) p. 155
- R. F. Baumeister/B. J. Bushman, Social Psychology and Human Nature <2007) p. 467
- Corey, p. 385 and p. 155
- Indrajit Sinha/Thomas Foscht, Reverse Psychology Marketing (2007) p. 156
- William Gibson, Zero History (London 2010) p. 45-6 and p 72
- Adorno, Theodor W. Negative Dialectics Continuum International Publishing Group; Reprint (1983) ISBN 0-8264-0132-5 (Reference for entire section Adorno and Horkheimer)
- Horkheimer, Max, Adorno, Theodor W. & Cumming, John the (Translator) Dialectic of Enlightenment (Reference for entire section Adorno and Horkheimer)
- Madelyn Jablon, Black Metafiction (1999) p. 100
- Sanford Pinsker, Bearing the Bad News (1990) p. 141
- Gerald R. Weeks, Promoting Change through Paradoxical Therapy (1991)