It’s maddening when people do the opposite of what we tell them to do. Remind your boss to look at a report, and he puts it off longer. Discourage a friend from taking a job, and she accepts it. Nudge a colleague to drink less, and she pours herself another drink. Tell a child not to touch a hot stove, and he immediately reaches for it.
And you’re reading this post, even though the headline demanded the exact opposite. What were you thinking?
The psychology of reverse psychology boils down to three key principles. If you’re not careful, all three can become sources of bias or weapons of influence.
1. Reactance: forbidden fruit tastes so much sweeter
When someone discourages you from doing something, you often feel that your freedom is being threatened, which motivates you to regain choice and control by doing exactly the opposite. Experiments show that children become more interested in a toy after they’re put under severe rather than mild pressure not to play with it, and children and adults become more likely to taste fatty foods when labels explicitly warn against them. One classic study even found support for the Romeo & Juliet effect: the more parents interfered with a romantic relationship, the stronger the feelings of love the couples developed over the next year. As Mark Twain once wrote, “Adam was but human… He did not want the apple for the apple’s sake, he wanted it only because it was forbidden.”
2. Rebound: whatever you do, don’t think about a white bear
When someone tells you not to think about something, your mind has a sneaky way of returning to that very thought. In a brilliant study led by psychologist Daniel Wegner, people were told not to think about a white bear. They spent the next 5 minutes thinking aloud, saying everything that came to mind, and ringing a bell if they spoke or thought of a white bear. They couldn’t escape the white bear: on average, it appeared in their thoughts every minute, and most people accidentally uttered “white bear” out loud once or twice. When the 5-minute suppression period was over, things got even worse: they thought about it more than twice as often as people who had been directly instructed to think about a white bear. When we try to suppress a thought, two things happen. The productive effect is that we consciously search for thoughts that don’t involve white bears. The counterproductive effect is that we unconsciously monitor for failures. In the back of our minds, we’re keeping an eye out for pale furry creatures in case they prove to be of the polar variety.
3. Curiosity: I wonder what’s inside…
When a behaviour is forbidden or discouraged, it’s hard not to become intrigued. As Chip and Dan Heath write in Made to Stick, “it’s like having an itch we need to scratch.” Experiments reveal, for example, that people are more likely to watch violent TV shows and play violent video games when labels warn against them. And there are many examples of books becoming more popular after they’re banned. There’s a mystery to be unravelled: what could be so bad about this? When you started surfing the internet today, chances are that you carried an implicit expectation that a writer would be encouraging you to read his writing. If so, my headline surprised you by violating that expectation. “Why in the world would an author tell me not to read something he wrote? That doesn’t make any sense. Is he out of his mind?”
These principles of reverse psychology can be used against us. In one study, psychologists asked 159 people if they had ever deliberately tried to get people to do something by recommending the opposite. More than two thirds generated a convincing example, and reported using reverse psychology an average of 1-2 times a month, with relatively little difficulty and high effectiveness. One respondent admitted, “One time I said that my friend had a good haircut when she didn’t. Usually, she disagrees with my opinion so she changed it. Which was good.”
Is this ethical? Some might say that in the case of a haircut, the (split) ends justify the means. When people are resistant to us or our ideas, and we have their best interests at heart, it’s acceptable to mislead them for their own good. Others would argue that a meaningful relationship allows, or even requires, transparency. If we can’t be honest with someone about our intentions, how much of a bond do we really have?
Wherever you stand on this spectrum, my hope is that you’ll be more attuned to reverse psychology when it wanders into your interactions. I also you’ll prevent it from biasing your choices. Next time you find yourself opposing a recommendation or warning, it’s worth asking whether it’s genuinely a bad idea. Maybe you’re just trying to fight for your freedom or scratch an itch.
Whatever you do, don’t try not to think about it. To update a classic quote from Descartes, “I think, therefore, I am still trying to get that white bear out of my head.”
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