Reverse Psychology

Psychological reactance implies that people will react against anything that impinges on their freedom. This includes commands and opinions and suggestions. So, if you want to get somebody to do something, sometimes it helps to ask for the opposite. This is popularly termed reverse psychology.

What is "reverse psychology"? How did hypnotist Milton Erikson use it?

One of the all-time masters of hypnosis—Milton Erikson—used reactance to gain control over difficult subjects who otherwise could not be hypnotized. Erikson simply suggested that the subjects fight against the hypnosis as hard as they could. This (he claimed) led them to react against the suggestion, making them easier to hypnotize.

How do parents use it?

Parents quickly learn to manipulate children who are going through a negative stage by requesting the opposite of the desired behavior. If a parent says, "Oh, you probably would not like this food..." the child is more likely to try it!

The Suzuki Method of violin instruction makes skillful use of reverse psychology. Suzuki outlined four steps:

How does the Suzuki Method use reverse psychology?

1. Parents should not command their children to play the violin. There is no pressure or bribing or punishment.

2. Parents should provide a home environment that is enriched with good music. A violin might be located in a strategic place, where the child can see it. Ideally, an older sibling or parent might play the violin.

3. The parents should be patient. Sooner or later the child will ask to play the violin.

4. The first time the child asks, the parents should say, "Sorry, no, maybe some other time."

After this, the child will ask and perhaps even beg to play. At this time, the child can be allowed a restricted amount of time to play the violin. Gradually more time is "allowed" as the child's abilities improve (Singer, 1984).

What are the benefits of this approach? Does it work?

Any child who was forced to take music lessons and hated it would understand why this technique is so effective. It cultivates intrinsic motivation and love for the instrument, unlike approaches that pressure children into practicing. This method works very well. It is credited with helping to produce a large number of world class violinists from Japan.

What happens when a book or movie is banned?

Reverse psychology and the forbidden fruit principle work in the marketplace, when certain products are banned as dangerous or undesirable. Some advertising executives say "there is no such thing as bad publicity." If a book gets banned in one area, sales soar in another area. If a movie is criticized as being in bad taste, many people want to see the movie, apparently because they are told not to.

What happens when students are pressured to avoid drugs or sex?

Could the same thing be true of programs to warn teenagers about hazard of drugs and premarital sex? Research shows anti-drug programs in public schools are often followed by an increase in drug use. Brody (1986) reported that sex education programs which conveyed only the message "Don't do it" were followed by higher levels of sexual activity than programs which provided detailed information about sex and contraception.

How did Marjoe use reverse psychology to make a college student "fall down flat" in front of an audience?

Marjoe Gortner toured the country as a childhood preacher and faith healer, advertised as "The World's Youngest Ordained Minister." Later he renounced his claim to special faith healing powers. He made a documentary film (Marjoe ) and lectured to college audiences about the ways a charismatic speaker can manipulate an audience. One of his most dramatic techniques employed reverse psychology.

I lecture in about twenty colleges a year...and I do a faith-healing demonstration—but I always make them ask for it. I tell them that I don't believe in it, that I use a lot of tricks; and the title of the lecture is "Rhetoric and Charisma," so I've already told them how large masses are manipulated by a charismatic figure. I've given them the whole rap explaining how it's done, and they still want to see it. So I throw it all right back at them. I say, "No, you don't really want to see it." And they say, "Oh yes, we do. We do!" And I say, "But you don't believe in it anyway, so I can't do it." And they say, "We believe. We believe!"

So after about twenty minutes of this I ask for a volunteer, and I have a girl come up and I say, "So you want to feel better?" and I say, "You're lying to me! You're just up here for a good time and you want to impress all these people and you want to make an ass out of me and an ass out of this whole thing, so why don't you go back and sit down?" I get really hard on her, and she says, "No, no, I believe!" And I keep going back and forth until she's almost in tears. And then, even though this is in a college crowd and I'm only doing it as a joke, I just say my same old line, In the name of Jesus! and touch them on the head, and wham, they fall down flat every time. (Conway & Siegelman, 1978)


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Copyright © 2007 Russ Dewey