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Is there really such a thing as reverse psychology?

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"Reverse psychology" has been featured in everything from political speeches to folk tales. It's been tested, but does it actually work? You decide.

We've heard the old wisdom - tell someone they shouldn't do something and that's all they want to do. What is forbidden is tempting while whatever is offered is taken for granted. But we all know just because something sounds good doesn't mean it is good.

When we use the technique of forbidding a certain goal in order to tempt someone to disobey us, we're using what's commonly known as reverse psychology. Lesser known is the response to this reverse psychology; a person who falls into our trap is displaying reactance. Reactance is the rejection, conscious or unconscious, of a set of imposed limitations on freedom. It's the knee-jerk rebellion that people engage in for no other reason than they don't like you or your rules, man! They gotta be free!


There are plenty of experiments examining reactance. One of the earliest, and simplest, was done in 1987, when psychologists asked people to record their stream-of-consciousness thoughts into a tape recorder. They also asked the subjects to not think of a white bear. Whenever they were thinking of the bear, they were to ring a bell. There was a lot of bell-ringing done in the lab that day.

This might show a subconscious reactance in the participants, but it also seems a poor example of conscious reactance. If anything, the students were enthusiastically cooperating with the scientists, obeying their command to try not to think about white bears. This might be because the participants were issued a kind of mental challenge, like a game. Although the scientists were issuing the challenge, they weren't the subjects' opponents in this particular game, and so the subjects were happy to collaborate.


This dynamic might explain why other examples of deliberate reactance occur. Famously, a study done in the 1970s showed that couples whose parents were trying to keep them apart were more serious about each other and were more likely to be considering marriage than couples whose parents backed off. This might be simple rebellion, a display of reactance. Then again, it might simply be two people finding that they have a common goal and are working against a common opponent. Nothing brings people together like a common enemy. It also might explain why another study showed that students at a school at which a speech about coed dorms was banned were suddenly more in favor of coed dorms. Simply put, there is a difference between simple rebellion and a desire to piss people off.


There's also a difference between simple rebellion and piqued curiosity. It's true that marking a door "Forbidden" is a good way to get a lot of people to test it, but there's probably going to be a sharp drop off in test attempts if the door is marked, "Forbidden: Toilet Overflow." Do people want to rebel, or do they just want to understand the rules?

One experiment had children five rate toys, telling the experimenter which they wanted to play with the most and going down from there. The experimenter then said that the child couldn't play with whichever toy occupied the exact middle spot in the rankings. The experimenter deliberately did not give the child a reason. When the experimenter asked the child to rate the toy again, the forbidden toy zoomed up the list. Although it's possible that the kid was experiencing reactance, it's also possible that the child was feeling the same thing that college kids, in another study, felt when they were shown a book that came with a warning label emphasizing that it was for people 21 and over. The college students were far more interested in a book with the warning label than a book without one.


Both groups of subjects were all about getting their hands on the forbidden object, but were they interested it because the object was forbidden? Or were they interested in ascertaining exactly why the object was forbidden?

There are some experiments that indicate reactance is a psychological force. People who have had their choices limited are more disenchanted with the remaining available choices than they would have if they have been offered a wider selection. Toddlers who see a toy behind a breachable barrier are more likely to go for it than they would be if it were easily obtainable. But do we really have an instinctive need to break any rule that we're given? Or do we just want to know why the rule is set down?


What do you think? Is reverse psychology a thing, and if it is, would it work on you?

[Via Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, General Psychology, Intro Psych.]


Top Image: Minnesota Historical Society.