The Secret To Reverse Psychology | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Noah Baum WRITTEN BY: Caitlin Johnson
We've probably all seen reverse psychology at one time or another... Either we've been dishing it out, or we've been on the receiving end. But, how does reverse psychology actually work? In this video, Unveiled takes a deep dive into the human mind to discover why we we are so easily manipulated. What do you think... does reverse psychology work on you??

The Secret to Reverse Psychology

We all want to be able to make our own choices. But sometimes we can be so determined in our desire for freedom and independence that the ability to make a choice becomes more important than the consequences it could bring. And, even then, without us realising it, our decisions may have actually been influenced by other people…

This is Unveiled, and today we’re uncovering the extraordinary secrets to reverse psychology?

Today, “reverse psychology” is a popular term, widely used and sometimes applied more broadly to many different manipulation tactics. Often, it relates to any attempt to coerce or encourage someone to act in a certain way. At its simplest, though, “reverse psychology” is the tricking of somebody into doing something by telling them to do the opposite.

Reverse psychology works because of “reactance”, which is a psychological motivation that occurs when someone feels like their freedom is being threatened. Reactance is what makes a person want to wrestle that freedom back by doing the opposite of what they’re told, making them more susceptible to reverse psychology methods. Some people are more prone to reactance than others… while some are naturally more compliant; more willing to do what they’re told right away, making them less likely to be influenced by reverse psychology. While neither reactance nor compliancy is an innately negative trait, both can be in certain situations.

In professional circles, “reverse psychology” isn’t even called “reverse psychology” at all - that term was coined by the media. Instead, it’s called “paradoxical intervention” and is even reportedly (and controversially) used by some therapists to help clients break bad habits. There’s ongoing debate about whether paradoxical intervention as therapy is ethical, but the process is actually quite straightforward: By telling someone to focus on (or even participate in) a behaviour they actually want to avoid, it forces them to think about and analyse why they’re doing it in the first place… then, when they eventually rebel - via reactance and out of their desire for freedom - they will have achieved the goal they originally set out with; they’ll have kicked the habit. The ethical concerns with this particular technique are clear, though… because what if the behaviour that a client wants to get rid of is in any way distressing or dangerous? It’s why the use of paradoxical intervention has to be determined on a case-by-case basis.

But of course, reverse psychology isn’t only a clinical approach. We see and experience it all the time, in our everyday lives. It’s even a key theme (although accidentally) in Christianity. When God told Adam and Eve not to eat from the tree of knowledge, it’s not widely thought that it was because He secretly wanted them to do so… But, regardless, Eve was persuaded to take a bite, thanks partly to her being told that she couldn’t… aaand humanity gets cast out of the Garden of Eden.

For a more contemporary (and less biblical) example of how reverse psychology can unintentionally work toward negative results, we have unrealistic advertising campaigns for gym and exercise products. In some cases the use of models and actors exhibiting exceptional levels of fitness - the levels that anyone, supposedly, can achieve - has actually been shown to “put off” the general public. Rather than selling sport and exercise as something which viewers can and want to participate in, the reverse happens and people feel alienated from the start - the opposite effect is achieved to what was intended.

On the other hand, reverse psychology has also been purposefully employed as a marketing tool on plenty of occasions, and to great effect. One example is through the invention of “secret brands”, which are brands and products that don’t advertise at all, relying only on word of mouth to generate sales. When it’s used successfully, it means that because a particular product isn’t actively advertised it automatically seems more exclusive and desirable. It’s for this reason that increasing numbers of bars and restaurants, for example, open up completely “off the grid” - certainly without a social media presence, but sometimes without so much as a sign out front to tell you that they’re even there. The first step toward drinking or dining at these places is, of course, knowing that they exist… but after that, their success (and often high prices) are at least partly built on customers’ unwillingness to conform - on their reactance.

It’s a tactic used in sales in other ways, too… A salesperson for any product might “avoid” showing a customer the more expensive options available, pretending to be under the assumption that they couldn’t afford them. But, if (or when) that customer learns of that assumption, the reverse psychology at play means that they might go ahead and make the pricier purchase, anyway. In proving that they “can afford it, actually!”, they again display their reactance.

The “secret” to reverse psychology so far, then, seems to be subtlety. The salesperson has a pitch, but it’s what they’re not saying that really hits home; the therapist has a process, but it’s vital that the client doesn’t recognise it. But then, sometimes, it’s much more about what’s right in front of our eyes - for good or for bad.

Warning labels definitely aren’t designed as exercises in reverse psychology. They’re almost always meant to clearly dissuade you against doing something that is potentially harmful. And yet, plenty of people still choose to completely ignore them - by diving into a “no dive” zone of the pool, for example. So, what gives? Well, warning labels are actually quite a complex field, with various psychological studies suggesting that they can really, in practice, encourage people to enact whatever specific behaviours they warn against. Here’s where reverse psychology can really cause problems: On the one hand potential hazards need to be flagged, but on the other those “flags” draw more attention to what a person’s “not allowed to do” - and people don’t like that. In some cases, it doesn’t matter how blatantly someone knows that doing a particular thing is a bad idea, if they’re prone to reactance they might just do it anyway.

In some cases, though, the reactance is more fuelled by perceived injustice. Much further back in history, one enormous and particularly infamous example of reverse psychology at work happed during Prohibition in the United States. In 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment to the US Constitution prohibited the sale, manufacturing, and transportation of “intoxicating liquors” across America… and the Volstead Act of 1920 further defined those liquors as any drink with an alcohol content higher than 0.5%.

Famously, Prohibition didn’t work. There was no way to effectively enforce it, with only around 1,500 federal agents dedicated to upholding the anti-alcohol laws across the entire country. Instead, prohibition led to a boom in organised crime, with mobsters across the US smuggling in liquor, brewing moonshine and opening speakeasies. And there was definitely a market for it! In fact, during Prohibition, there were reportedly more drinking establishments in New York City than there ever had been before alcohol was made illegal - with an estimated 5,000 in Manhattan alone. In short, the US government telling people that they couldn’t have alcohol anymore resulted in a marked and drastic increase in its consumption, until the ban was repealed in 1933. This large-scale reactance came in spite of the fact that Prohibition did have many avid supporters at the time, and America had a huge Temperance movement concerned with real problems like alcohol abuse and domestic violence. Nevertheless, thousands and thousands of people rebelled against the legislation every single day.

In these cases, warning signs and product bans, the psychological kickback is much clearer to see. In neither example is reverse psychology an intended result - warning signs and labels really do mean to warn whoever sees them, and the 1920s US government really did mean to outlaw alcohol - but reactance is still at play. In this way, though, reverse psychology is often associated with parents trying to make their children behave as they’d like them to – by making them eat all their greens, for example – because it’s thought that children often don’t understand when they’re being manipulated, so it doesn’t really matter if the reverse psychology tactics are clumsy.

It’s not usually the same for adults, though. We know that subtlety is important to some degree and that there’s a human tendency to break rules, both of which provide a base for reverse psychology… but for the most blatant examples there’s also one final outcome; reverse reverse psychology. This is when someone actually does what you tell them to because they know (or believe they know) which alternative outcome you’re really trying to achieve. In this case, the person attempting to manipulate is at a loss; and the “psychological boot” is on the other foot. For example, say you really wanted somebody to watch a certain movie, but you also knew that they didn’t want to watch it. You might suggest that the movie was too complicated for them to understand, and in standard reverse psychology they’d U-turn and watch the movie just to prove that they did understand it. But, in “reverse reverse psychology”, they’d only get more annoyed with you, identifying the tactics you were trying to play, and refusing to play along. Their reaction is reactance, but twofold… the movie remains unwatched, and you the manipulator become the manipulated!

Humans have a natural desire for freedom and independence, and it often shows itself in a tendency toward rebellion (or reactance) whenever we feel that that freedom is being compromised. So, by making people think that they’re making a decision for themselves, you can arguably convince them of, well, anything. Unless, of course, they’re one step ahead of you in this psychological game of cat and mouse…

So, if you’ve ever encountered reverse psychology then why not let us know about it..? Or, actually, don’t let us know about it! Yeah, that’s the one.