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Do You Use "Reverse Psychology?" Stop Right Now!

Reversing your strategy with resistant people.

Did reading the title of this blog post make you want to use "reverse psychology?"

Many studies say it probably did — or at least it made you want to resist my admonition (e.g., "Who are you to tell me what to do?"). That's because the strong statement that told you to stop using it was itself a form of reverse psychology (sorry!). And yes, it's the very same sneaky little tactic social psychologists taught us decades ago and the one that has been memorialized in tons of sitcoms and cartoons.

Technically, you are using reverse psychology when you intentionally and strongly argue in favor of a decision or behavior while secretly wanting the recipient of your argument to endorse the opposite decision or behavior. It works because none of us like to be told what to do — so much so, that we often do the opposite of what we're being pressured to do, simply to re-establish our freedom or what psychologists call "autonomy," which is perhaps the most powerful non-survival-based motivator.

But how often do you use any form of reverse psychology?

In the January 2011 issue of the journal, Social Influence, researchers from the Universities of Toronto, Central Arkansas (Conway) and Western Ontario surveyed over 200 college students around their use of reverse psychology and several other influence strategies. They started with an example of reverse psychology so that participants would know what they meant by the term.

An example of reverse psychology

Let's imagine you and a friend are deciding what movie you are going to see together. The choice is between "The King's Speech" and "The Social Network," and your true desire is to see "The Social Network." Would you ever intentionally and emphatically tell your friend that you really wanted to see "The King's Speech," in an effort to get them to argue in favor of the other? If you have, you've used reverse psychology.

The results revealed that more than two-thirds of the participants reported using reverse psychology and that on average, they used it almost monthly and found it to be highly effective. They also found that participants used reverse psychology as frequently and found it as effective as more direct, traditional influence tactics that are often referred to as part of the "compliance paradigm" (e.g., "Foot-in-the door," "Door-in-the-face").

The good and bad news about influence strategies

The good news is that, if you need to influence someone, you have a number of doable and effective strategies at your disposal, and based on this study, reverse psychology is frequently one of the choices. The bad news, however, is that most people don't know how to pick the right strategy for a given situation.

In general, compliant people respond best to direct requests. Those with some hesitancy to comply with requests generally respond better to one of the compliance strategies described above.

But for people who are resistant to change, simple requests and compliance strategies generally don't work and can even backfire. This is where reverse psychology comes in especially handy. However, you will need to modify the strategy a bit, because simply saying to, let's say Charlie Sheen, "You totally don't need rehab; you're completely fine!" might lead him to wholeheartedly agree because his desire to prove his very public statements that he is totally ok and in fact great is stronger than the effects of the simplistic version of reverse psychology.

Using reverse psychology with resistant people

In order to harness the power of reverse psychology with resistant people, we need to use it to do what is referred to as "reinforcing autonomy," which is a critical component of Motivational Interviewing (developed by Drs. William Miller & Stephen Rollnick in 1991), the only scientifically-supported, conversation-based approach to motivating a wide variety of resistant people, from the emergency room to the board room, and which is the basis of my research and new book, Instant Influence.

In order to reinforce autonomy in a reverse psychology format, you argue against the influencer (you) vs. the thing you would like the influencee (e.g., Mr. Sheen) to do (in Mr. Sheen's case, go to rehab). Instead of telling Charlie Sheen that he doesn't need to go to rehab, you tell him that you cannot make him do anything that he doesn't want to do, even if you feel you have evidence to back up your advice, and that only he can decide what's best for him.

Now you are arguing against yourself as the influencer and reverse that to say that he (Charlie Sheen) is in the driver's seat, free and autonomous to decide for himself. Based on reverse psychology as well as my own nearly 20 years of experience working with addicted people and resistant employees and managers, this immediately makes the person argue in favor of your expertise and the validity of your advice.

The bottom line

If you decide to use reverse psychology — and it is totally up to you; you don't have to — refer to the person's autonomy or freedom of choice. Instead of saying, "You have to do x, y or z!" (which you now know will make her do the exact opposite), say, "Whether or not you do x, y or z, is totally up to you; it's your choice. I really can't force you to."

And then pause. Give it a few seconds to work. Instead of arguing against what you would like them to do, they almost always argue in favor of it! You may be worried about what will happen if he doesn't do it and the consequences that may follow, but that's a topic for a separate conversation.

If you start with reinforcing autonomy, whatever comes next, whether it's the rest of my Instant Influence approach, which you can learn more about at here, or a frank discussion about consequences, your success at influencing key people in your life will be instantly transformed.