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How To Use Reverse Psychology On Someone

Want to know what is reverse psychology?
How to use reverse psychology?
And what are some reverse psychology examples?

Reverse psychology is defined as trying to get someone to do something by suggesting to them to do the exact opposite. For example, if I was to tell you to stop reading this paragraph – what would you do? 

More than likely you your eyes would have moved down to this paragraph to continue reading to see what was written here that I was trying to stop you from reading. So now that we know reverse psychology works, how can you implement it on someone in a real life example where you want to get them to do something which you know they might be otherwise reluctant to do? 

Firstly it’s important to point out that reverse psychology should only be used for good purposes. Leon F Seltzer Ph.D. author of "Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy" says reverse psychology techniques “aren’t simply about something you want others to do, it's about something they should do, something that would in fact be good for them.”. He goes on to say that reverse psychology should not be about “"outsmarting" someone, or ingeniously imposing your will on them”. Thinking this will ultimately only damage your relationship with the person as we will discuss later.

Secondly, reverse psychology does not work on everyone. Check out my article “Which types of people is reverse psychology most effective on?” to see who reverse psychology does and doesn’t work on. There is a separate technique (covered in that article) you should apply on people who are not suitable for reverse psychology. 

The Reverse Psychology Technique

If you are sure the person you have in mind would be responsive to reverse psychology, let’s now look at how to go about successfully implementing it on them. I’ve outlined 4 steps here but the exact number of these steps you implement will depend on the specific situation you have in mind (which will of course vary significantly from person to person). Afterwards we will look at an example of these 4 steps in action:

  1. Implement Cloaking: Reverse psychology is most effective on a person if they are not aware you are using it on them (otherwise they would just think you are trying to manipulate them and so would refuse to give in to your reverse psychology). So you need to disguise what you are trying to do. Psychologists call this “cloaking”. The best way to implement cloaking in a reverse psychology situation is to make it seem like you don’t really care what decision the other person makes. If you don’t care about the final outcome, then the reverse psychology you are attempting to implement will bypass their conscious filters and go straight to their subconscious mind.
  2. Reframe The Situation: If you want someone to do something which they’ve previously refused to do, it’s a good idea to reframe the situation. The famous psychiatrist Milton Erickson was a master at this. One such example was where his wife had failed to get their son to eat an asparagus using every means possible she could throw at him. Milton stepped in and changed the situation by reframing the whole thing as a challenge. Milton told his son that of course he shouldn’t eat the asparagus because as he told his son “You’re not old enough”. The previously resistant child immediately began eating the asparagus to prove that he was old enough to eat such an “advanced” vegetable as an asparagus. Reframing a situation can help instil motivation in a person where they previously felt no motivation.
  3. Introduce A Third Party: Casually mentioning to the person that someone else thinks the person can’t do a certain task ups the situation even further. If lots of people think we can’t do something, it has a tendency to motivate us even more to want to prove them all wrong. It all comes down to control. If everyone is trying to take our control away, it makes us all the more eager to want to take that control back. 
  4. Give Push Back: Once the person begins to respond to the reverse psychology, give a little push back by being slightly argumentative. If you push back on the idea, a naturally resistant person will likely push for it even more. In addition, this point further reinforces point 1 above – cloaking. If you give a little push back, it confirms in the persons mind that you are not trying to manipulate them.

Ok, so how would the above points work in a real-life situation. Let’s take an example of where a wife is upset her husband has given up running and is starting to put on a lot of weight which could in the long term affect his health. She’s tried talking to him about the situation but he seems resistant to the idea of taking up running again or exercising in general to lose weight. A possible way to use reverse psychology on him might go something like this…

Mary: Hey I saw one of those treadmills you were talking about years ago on sale at the local gym. You’re probably not interested anymore but I just said I’d tell you. (Cloaking)

John: Oh right. Ah, I don’t think I could be bothered anymore. 

Mary: Yeah, I was thinking that, you’ve stopped running a good while now, I bet you’d never be able to run a 10,000km at this stage. (Reframing – She’s reframed the situation in the form of a challenge)

John: I wouldn’t go that far. 10,000km would be within my reach.

Mary: Being out of running as long as you’ve been - I don’t know. Susan at work said you couldn’t run a 10,000km at this stage so I just assumed you couldn’t. (Introducing a third party)

John: Susan said that? She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. I could still run a 10,000km. Of course I could still run one. 

Mary: Well maybe you could, but I wouldn’t want you running one of those. You could injure yourself attempting one a 10,000km having been out of running for so long. Then I’d be left with all the house chores. (Push back)

John: I’m not that far gone. I can still do one. Susan doesn’t know what she’s talking about. How much was the treadmill on sale for?  Do they have a catalogue where I can see it?

When done correctly, you can not only get a person to do something once, but as Leon F Seltzer says, “the recipients of paradoxical messages can be prompted to alter both their viewpoint and behavior”. In other words, you can actually get the person to change their long-term behaviour. In the above example, this can create a situation where John takes better care of his health and weight through running again.  

But Be Careful

Reverse psychology is like ice cream. It’s good every once in a while (for certain situations) but if you use it too much, it can backfire on you. This is especially true of reverse psychology in relationships. While reverse psychology can be useful in a situation like the above where Mary wanted the best for her husband by helping him to lose weight, reverse psychology is at the end of the day a subtle form of manipulation. 

And manipulation in a relationship is not a good thing …especially habitual manipulation. If a person feels the other is constantly manipulating them, it can lead to a build-up of resentment. Resentment kills love in a relationship. Check out my article “4 Ways A Controlling Personality Silently Erodes A Relationship” on how too much control and manipulation destroys a relationship.

Reverse psychology always needs to be implemented with caution because it ultimately rides on how good an actor you are. If the person sees through what your doing, and sees it as reverse psychology, they're not likely to think well of you afterwards. No one likes having someone trying to manipulate them. This is why it should only be used sparingly and in cases where you are trying to effect a genuinely positive outcome for the person as in the case of Mary trying to get John back exercising ...or Milton Erickson trying to get his son to eat vegetables :-)