Reverse psychology

Reverse psychology

Reverse psychology is a persuasion technique that involves the false advocacy of a belief or behavior contrary to the belief or behavior that is actually being advocated. This technique relies on the psychological phenomenon of reactance, in which a person has a (typically negative) emotional response in reaction to being persuaded, and thus chooses the option that is being advocated against.

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 that 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 that used images exploiting excessively toned models. People compared themselves to these models which created a sense of competition, and many high school students now avoid jogging because of body shame.

The culture industry mass produces standardized material. This would not be dangerous if the material was value-free, but it frequently offers and reinforces ideals and norms that represent implied criticism of those who fail to match up. Empirical studies show that mass culture products can lower self-confidence and self-esteem, and cause humiliation among men and women whose particular characteristics are outside the normalised range for appearance, behaviour, religion, ethnicity, etc. Similarly, advertising frequently seeks to create a need to buy by showing a difference between actual situation and ideal situation. The intention is to induce dissatisfaction with the present situation and to induce expectations of satisfaction through the acquisition of products that will effect the transformation 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 join the group. Thus, sometimes the process of advocacy for the one intends to produce the opposite outcome as the motivation for purchase.

But, 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 the creative input, the more likely it becomes that roles will be cast in ways that match rather than challenge common prejudices which can inadvertently damage the esteem of those in the marginalized groups.

Examples in popular culture

In one of Joel Chandler Harris's Uncle Remus stories, Brer Rabbit escapes from Brer Fox by repeatedly pleading "Please, Brer Fox, don't fling me in that briar patch." The fox does so, allowing the rabbit to escape. And on the ride (Splash Mountain) you can see the robotic versions of Brer Rabbit and Brer Fox, with Brer Rabbit hovering over a boiling cauldron. As he is about to fry, Brer Rabbit shouts "Alright, you can boil me! But please don't throw me in dat der Briar Patch!", at which point the riders fall down a 50 feet drop.

In the episode "A Twist of Ed" of the television show Ed, Edd, and Eddy, in an attempt to demonstrate reverse psychology, Edd commands Ed not to eat a pile of dirt, so, naturally, that is the first thing he does. The three Eds use reverse psychology on their mortal enemies, the Kanker sisters, which backfires when the girls use reverse-reverse psychology on the Eds.

Reverse psychology occurs several times on The Simpsons. In the season 3 episode Saturdays of Thunder, Homer has a conversation with his brain after reading a passage in Bill Cosby's parental-advice book Fatherhood:

Homer's 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!

Reverse psychology also occurs on How I Met Your Mother, when a waitress warns Lily not to touch a hot cup of coffee. Lily, of course, promptly does.

In Edgar Allan 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 was going to say no, that he was okay, and would insist on entering the vault.

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", such as in the computer game Neverhood, where a large drain is accompanied by signs that say "Do not jump in!" and "You will die!", although jumping in the pipe is the only way to achieve game over in the whole game without finishing it. The Looney Tunes are also well known for using such 'bright red button' gags.

Occasionally, humor is derived from reverse psychology backfiring, as in a FoxTrot strip when Jason, faced with punishment, begs his mom to take away his computer rather than make him eat a whole box of Ho-Hos, and she agrees. A similar example appears in Narbonic.

A real life example of reverse psychology was used in promoting Bohemian Rhapsody. The song is 5 minutes and 55 seconds long, and many record companies felt that would be too long to gain public interest. Freddie Mercury gave a copy to Kenny Everett, a London DJ and good friend, with specific direction not to play the song, knowing that Everett would do just the opposite.

In the movie, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Roger is persuaded to drink a shot of Scotch whisky by means of reverse psychology.

From the Old Testament, King Solomon, when confronted with two mothers claiming a baby as belonging to each, commanded (threatened) to have the baby cut in half. Through the response of the mother and lying non-mother, Solomon discerned the truth.

In an episode of Trick or Treat, a show featuring Derren Brown, a student was challenged not to kill a kitten, by pushing a button. Throughout the show, she was shown to be extremely conflicted, and by the end, she almost pushed the button just as the timer ran down to zero. During this episode other situations are also explored, such as young children being told not to open a box given to them by the host, all of the subjects ended up opening them.


  • Adorno, Theodor W. Negative Dialectics Continuum International Publishing Group; Reprint (1983) ISBN 0-8264-0132-5
  • Horkheimer, Max, Adorno, Theodor W. & Cumming, John the (Translator) Dialectic of Enlightenment

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