Reverse Psychology

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Reverse psychology is a technique involving the advocacy of a belief or behavior that is opposite to the one desired, with the expectation that this approach will encourage the subject of the persuasion to do what actually is desired: the opposite of what is suggested. This technique relies on the psychological phenomenon of reactance, in which a person has a negative emotional reaction to being persuaded, and thus chooses the option which is being advocated against. The one being manipulated is usually unaware of what is really going on.

Reverse psychology is often used on children due to their high tendency to respond with reactance, a desire to restore threatened freedom of action (e.g. telling children to stay in the house when you really want them to choose to go outside and play). Questions have however been raised about such an approach when it is more than merely instrumental, in the sense that ‘reverse psychology implies a clever manipulation of the misbehaving child’ and nothing more. With respect to ’emotional intelligence,’ the advice has been given: ‘don’t try to use reverse psychology….such strategies are confusing, manipulative, dishonest, and they rarely work’. In addition, consistently allowing a child to do the opposite of what he/she is being advised, undermines the authority of the parent.

Closely associated with reverse psychology in psychotherapy is the technique of ‘the Paradoxical intervention’ (also called ‘prescribing the symptom’ oe ‘antisuggestion’). Here the technique employed is to frame the therapist’s ‘message so that resistance to it promotes change (i.e. paradoxical prescriptions, reverse psychology)’. Such interventions ‘can have a similar impact as humor in helping clients cast their problems in a new light….By going with, not against, the client’s resistance, the therapist makes the behavior less attractive.’

The technique is also used in marketing. ‘In a world where it is expected that all things should be available…less availability’ has emerged as a new selling point: ‘by engaging in such a restricted anti-marketing ploy the brand has won kudos’ – reverse psychology. The result can be ‘what the Japanese call a secret brand…no regular retail outlets, no catalog, no web presence apart from a few cryptic mentions…people like it because it’s almost impossible to find.’ Sociologists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer characterized the effect of the culture industry (the commodification of cultural goods, e.g. films, music, fashion, etc.) as ‘psychoanalysis in reverse.’ Their analysis began with the dialectic which 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 US 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, using images featuring exceptionally toned models. People compared themselves to these models, which created a sense of competition, and many high school students avoid jogging because of the resultant body shame.

Adorno and Horkheimer described a culture industry that mass-produces standardized material. This would not be dangerous if the material was meaningless, but they contend it frequently offers and reinforces ideals and norms representing implied criticism of those who fail to match up. Empirical studies show that mass culture products can lower confidence and self-esteem, and cause humiliation among men and women whose particular characteristics fall outside the normalized range for appearance, behavior, religion, ethnicity etc. Similarly, advertising frequently seeks to create a need to buy by showing differences between actual and ideal situations. The intention is usually to induce dissatisfaction with the present situation, and to induce expectations of satisfaction through the acquisition of products which will transform the actual reality 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 eventually join the group. Thus, sometimes the process of advocacy for the one outcome really intends to produce the opposite outcome as the motivation for purchase. However, 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 creative the input, the more likely it becomes that roles will be cast in ways which match, rather than challenge, common prejudices which can inadvertently (or quite deliberately) damage the esteem of those in the marginalized groups.

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