Don’t read this article, because you’re probably not intelligent enough to understand it. See what I did there? That was a simple example of a complex phenomenon called reverse psychology.
Reverse psychology is a persuasion technique during which an individual will be motivated to act in your favor, because you intentionally advocated for the opposite of what you desired.
Generally speaking, humans tend to do the opposite of what they’re told to do. You’re not the only one who broke your mother’s rules as a child, or climbed on the structure that said “KEEP OFF” at that construction site near your family home.
It’s not just about being told what to do, though. Humans also tend to find an option more desirable once they find out it’s no longer available, or might be unavailable soon.
We want what we can’t have.
That’s why playing hard to get works so well in dating.
Why Does Reverse Psychology Work in So Many Different Scenarios?
Reverse psychology works in everyday life, in a variety of ways. It’s used by therapists who have resistant patients. Prosecutors use it to extract confessions from criminals. Parents use it to get their children to follow household rules. Husbands and wives use it to get their spouse to do what they want. And, salespeople use reverse psychology to close deals faster.
Reverse psychology is a technique involving the encouragement of a particular action, or declaration of a particular belief, that is the opposite of what you want.
It works on many people – especially people who like to be in control, or are resistant by nature. There is a plethora of content out there about how reverse psychology is unethical and manipulative. But we’ll discuss the ethics later. There is a way to use it in a manner that is not unethical.
In fact, with reverse psychology comes the allure of authenticity. When someone doesn’t feel like they’re being told what to do, the interaction feels more enjoyable and authentic.
Most people hate being sold to, or told to obey a certain rule. That’s why reverse psychology works. The technique of reverse psychology relies on the predictable psychological phenomenon of reactance.
What is Reactance, and Why Does Reverse Psychology Rely on It?
Reactance is a negative emotional reaction of being ‘sold to’ or persuaded, that stems from the natural resistance humans have to being controlled or manipulated. Reactance occurs in human beings who feel that their freedom of choice is being taken away, or their options are being limited.
For example, reactance could occur because a pushy salesman is trying to get you to choose a certain action. Reactance can also transpire if a particular rule or regulation that limits your freedom is being enforced. Why do you think people love breaking rules so much?
When national parks have areas sectioned off with a sign that says “Do Not Enter”, it only makes visitors want to enter the forbidden area.
Social psychologist Jack Brehm introduced the Reactance Theory back in 1966. To this day, it applies to many aspects of human behavior. His well-researched theory indicates people’s desire for control, freedom, options and choices.
Depending on how someone was raised, they’ll naturally be compliant or resistant. You probably won’t need to use reverse psychology on a very agreeable or compliant person, as they’ll be more inclined to agree to your requests or welcome your suggestions.
Companies often use reverse psychology to sell their products. They’ll make their products seem exclusive, limited edition , low in stock or currently unavailable. This leads consumers to desire the product even more.
Common Examples of Reverse Psychology in Everyday Life
Picture a mother, trying to get her young son to finish his broccoli. She can easily succeed by saying to her son, “I was going to give you ice cream for dessert, but only if you finished eating your broccoli. I don’t think you’re going to be able to finish your broccoli, though.”
Suddenly, her son is on a mission to finish his broccoli, because he was told that he can’t do it.
Imagine you’re a college student trying to decide which courses you want to take. Any course that is already full and has a wait-list will automatically seem more appealing. The psychology behind this falls in line with the fear of missing out, colloquially known as FOMO.
Speaking of students, do you remember high school? Do you remember that if your friends told you that you’re probably too goody two-shoes to do something, it made you want to do it?
Reverse psychology is also commonly used by personal trainers or sports coaches to get athletes to step up their game. Statements such as, “You’ll need to train every day if you want to win this race, and I don’t think you have the self-discipline to do it”, makes the athlete want to train every day.
Similarly, when an athlete is told, “You’re probably not going to win this race”, they become even more motivated to secure the win.
The most common examples of reverse psychology in everyday life are instances of using it in dating and relationships. You’ve probably seen plenty of evidence that playing hard to get works in dating. Don’t forget that playing hard to get is at its core, reverse psychology.
Reverse Psychology in Dating and Relationships
We’ve all heard the story of the man who proposed to his girlfriend because she suddenly seemed nonchalant about whether or not he’d commit. We’ve also heard the story about the girl who got her ex-boyfriend back by pretending she had moved on and wasn’t interested in reconnecting.
Nagging in relationships never works, because most people don’t like being told what to do.
The man being badgered by his girlfriend about not cheating is more likely to cheat than the man who never hears a peep of concern about cheating from his girlfriend. I recently heard a story about a woman who got her boyfriend to stop cheating by suggesting an open relationship where he could be with as many women as he wanted. Suddenly, being with other women lost its appeal.
And what about the psychology behind being too available when you’re dating someone? The reason why someone being too available in the early stages of a relationship is unattractive, is the same reason why you’re not attracted to the product of a salesman who seems desperate to make the sale.
People are more attracted to things they have to work for, rather than things that come to them easily or things they’re pushed into doing.
Giving your partner the silent treatment, the cold shoulder, or playing hard to get are also examples of reverse psychology. If your partner is treating you badly, this type of reverse psychology can motivate them to treat you better.
Famous Examples of Reverse Psychology
In the classic ’90s Disney film Aladdin, Aladdin uses reverse psychology to trick the Genie into helping him escape the Cave of Wonders, without using one of his three wishes. He insinuates that the Genie probably doesn’t have the power to get them out of the cave. This of course prompts the Genie to prove Aladdin wrong. So, Aladdin gets what he wants – he gets Genie to help him escape the cage without using one of his wishes.
In another famous Disney movie, The Lion King, Scar tells Simba that only the bravest lions dare visit the elephant graveyard. Scar knew that Simba’s ego would motivate him to visit the graveyard.
In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Umbridge’s decree that outlaws The Quibbler only provokes more curiosity. Hermione points out that the outlaw will only make people want to read it.
Reverse Psychology in Advertising
Reverse psychology, pull marketing or anti-marketing are becoming more and more popular in the digital advertising space. Why? Because it works.
A few months ago, I saw a Facebook ad that said a restaurant in my city was saying farewell. It said the restaurant would be closing its doors and going out of business at the end of the month.
Suddenly, everyone wanted to make a reservation to eat dinner at this restaurant. If this was a marketing ploy using reverse psychology, it worked. Suspiciously, this restaurant’s doors are still open, and it didn’t go out of business.
I’ve seen billboard ads that say things like, “Don’t Buy Our Product” and I have to admit, they catch my eye.
A famous advertisement from the outerwear brand Patagonia used reverse psychology, using the headline, “Don’t Buy This Jacket”. The ad encouraged online shoppers to only buy what they actually need, with sustainability in mind. This type of ad made Patagonia seem like an ethical, environmentally-friendly company, which only made their products more desirable.
Ethical Use of Reverse Psychology
If I told you that you probably can’t do something, in order to motivate you to prove me wrong, is that unethical? No. This type of reverse psychology is not unethical. Why? Because if someone is motivated to prove me wrong, they’ll perform better. They’ll also become better versions of themselves by summoning more drive and self-motivation.
Similarly, in sales, when you reinforce the prospect’s autonomy by letting them know that the choice is theirs to make, that’s ethical reverse psychology. When you say something like, “Whatever you decide is fine, it’s your choice”, they’re more likely to want to work with you because you’re not being pushy.
Reverse psychology doesn’t need to be used on everyone, because some people are naturally more compliant or agreeable in nature.
In relationships, an example of ethical reverse psychology is to tell your junk-food addicted partner that they can eat as much junk food as they want. That’s right – you no longer care if they ruin their health.
Saying this to someone who has been resistant to change, when nagging hasn’t worked, is an example of using reverse psychology for the greater good. This statement from you will prompt introspection, where your partner will reflect on their poor eating habits and want to change.
“Positive Manipulation” in Therapy with Resistant Patients
A therapist using reverse psychology to help their patients change their unhealthy habits is another example of ethical use.
In his book, Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. describes certain scenarios of reverse psychology as “positive manipulation”. He is a clinical psychologist who has experience motivating highly resistant clients to alter their dysfunctional behaviors, using such methods.
A therapist could ethically use the method of reverse psychology by telling someone who procrastinates too much to schedule time each week to procrastinate all they want.
Similarly, a patient with crippling anxiety and worrisome thoughts could be told to schedule 30 minutes each day from 8:00pm – 8:30pm to allow themselves to have anxious thoughts for those 30 minutes. What often ends up happening is that the patient instead thinks about positive things during those 30 minutes.
Unethical Use of Reverse Psychology
If reverse psychology works on you, and you later feel resentful that you were tricked, it can feel slimy or unethical.
For example, a common trick used by online eCommerce stores is to have a huge 40% off sale, with a countdown that says “Only 2 hours left!” If, after let’s say 10 hours, you visit the online retailer using an incognito browser, you’ll probably find that that the sale is still on. You’ll find out that the pseudo “countdown” stating that time is “running out” was a ruse.
This type of trick is unethical and can leave consumers with a bad taste in their mouths for the brand. What if you cancelled very important dinner plans to finish your online shopping, because you thought this two hour time limit was legitimate?
Another example of unethical use of reverse psychology are when major threats are involved. For example, you shouldn’t threaten to break up with your partner just to get him or her to do something you want.
If you don’t actually intend on breaking up with them, then this is highly manipulative, and a prime example of unethical reverse psychology. You can’t just let your partner sweat, knowing full well that your intention is to stay together.
Reverse Psychology is Ethical When it Challenges People or Companies to Do Better
In many instances, reverse psychology is not only ethical, but also leads to a person’s positive transformation.
If I used reverse psychology on you by telling you that you probably can’t do something, causing you to stop at nothing to prove me wrong, would you resent me for using reverse psychology on you? Would you think I was manipulative? Probably not. The truth is that if what I said challenged you to do better and be better, you’d probably be grateful. You’d feel grateful that I was smart enough to use reverse psychology on you.
Are you easily motivated? Or do you need reverse psychology to get motivated? If the latter sounds like you, then reverse psychology is a good thing.
The simple truth is that reverse psychology works on a lot of us, whether we like it or not, and it pushes us to do better. In other words, when we aren’t feeling pushed by someone else, we decide to push ourselves.
Similarly, a company being told they can’t take it to the next level, suddenly is motivated to boost their brand awareness and become more well-known.
Reverse Psychology in Sales: How Reverse Psychology Can Help You Close Resistant Clients
Part of being a great closer is understanding the different personalities you’ll deal with in sales meetings. It’s important to be able to recognize each personality type. Even more important, is knowing how to best communicate with each type.
Reverse psychology, for example, works great on prospects of a certain personality type. Which personality types respond best to it? Resistant people, those who hate being told what to do, and those who want to win. It works on anyone who doesn’t like losing control. Reverse psychology generally works on people who fear and resist change, but want to win and be number one.
In sales, resistant prospects are often problem clients. They need a dose of reverse psychology so that they can feel like they’re the ones controlling the sales call. And, so that they feel like the decision to buy is their idea.
You might have wondered how to convince people to buy your product or service. Well, it often turns out that reverse psychology is more persuasive than persuasion itself.
Not Interested? Not a Problem
Traditional, slimy, and high-pressure sales tactics don’t work because humans tend to be resistant to attempts of persuasion. By telling your prospect that there’s no pressure, and saying something like, “If now is not a good time for you to start ramping up your business, that’s completely fine” or, “Not interested right now? That’s no problem”, you’re using the magic of reverse psychology.
Even a simple line such as, “It’s your decision” is a subtle sales technique, because you’re reinforcing your prospect’s autonomy.
By removing the pressure – and seemingly removing the ‘sell’ or the persuasion – you’re going to intrigue your prospect. They’ll feel like they’re in control when they don’t feel pressured. This empowers them to make a decision to buy your product or service.
Use the Fear of Missing Out
Reverse psychology is often used during a sales call in the form of FOMO. If you recall, awhile back, the psychology behind FOMO – Fear of Missing Out – was widely discussed.
Today, many salespeople are using the fear of missing out, to help them close a sale. If a prospect is on the fence, for example, you can let them know that your services are in demand. Let them know that you have several interested companies. Tell them that you may not be available for much longer.
If your prospect feels that they could potentially miss out on an opportunity to secure your services in the future, it will compel them to commit today.
How Body Language and Tone of Voice Play a Role in Reverse Psychology
How does body language play into reverse psychology? By leaning back and appearing calm and uneager, your prospect will lean in. Let them come to you. Similarly, ensure that your tone of voice sounds calm – not desperate.
Since people don’t like being sold to, persuaded, or told what to do, you can’t seem desperate or overly excited
Reverse Psychology in High-Ticket Closing
High-Ticket Closing is closing a high-priced offer. Yet another way reverse psychology works in sales is by presenting your clients with affordable packages, and glossing over the more expensive, premier packages that you offer.
You can use reverse psychology in High-Ticket Closing by acting like the prospect probably can’t afford your deluxe package, even though you know they can. You’ll make them consider buying the most expensive package you have when you doubt their purchasing power. You’re not pushing them into buying your most expensive package. You’re giving them the room to come to that decision themselves.
On a sales call or in a sales meeting, you can also close the sale by insinuating that perhaps your prospect isn’t ready to move forward with a decision that will improve their business.
You could say something like, “Perhaps you’re happy with the stage your company is currently at, and you’re not looking to achieve any kind of major growth”, or “You have to be prepared for growth, and maybe you’re not ready to take your business to the next level yet.”
Similarly, you could try saying, “Maybe your vision for your company is not to be number one, and that’s fine.” You’ll quickly find out if they actually do want to be number one, you’ll motivate them to take action, and that could mean closing a high-ticket offer.
Reverse psychology is ethical when used to motivate people to make a decision that’s good for themselves or their company. When it’s used to challenge someone to do better, or used to help people come to the right decision, it’s not considered an unethical method.
Reverse psychology is a tool and it’s often used only when nothing else works. In a marriage, for example, a wife might notice an unhealthy behavior her husband is often engaging in, such as heavy drinking or unhealthy heating.
Because she cares about her husband, she wants him to stop. She might use every tool in her toolbox – every idea she can think of to convince him to stop. These ideas might include bartering and the use of rewards as motivation. With no avail, reverse psychology might be the last tool she tries which ultimately is what works.
In sales, however, reverse psychology might be the first method a salesperson uses if they know their prospect is a control-freak, is motivated by seeds of doubt, or is the resistant personality type.
The practice of reverse psychology is not meant to be used on every personality type. The key is to not only know how to use it, but also to know when to use it.
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