Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Samuel from Frankiln, WI. Samuel Wonders, “How does reverse psychology work?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Samuel!
We were walking past the Wonderopolis barn the other day when we overheard an interesting conversation between some pigs and some wolves:
Wolf 1: Little pigs, little pigs, let us in!
Pig 1: Sure, why not? You seem like you're scared.
Pig 2: *whispers* Babe, what are you doing? Don't let them in!
Wolf 2: Scared? We're not scared!
Pig 1: Well, if you want to come in and pick on little pigs like us, then you must be too scared to go and pick on someone bigger, like the sheep.
Wolf 1: We're not scared! Come on, Walter, let's go show those sheep a thing or two!
Wolf 2: Yeah! We'll show those sheep who's boss.
Pig 2: Whew! That was a close one. I thought you were really going to let them in.
Pig 1: No way, Wilbur! I was just using a little reverse psychology.
We couldn't stick around to hear the rest of the conversation, but we thought Babe's use of reverse psychology was quite brilliant. Have you ever used reverse psychology?
For example, adults might try to use reverse psychology on children to get them to eat their vegetables or to be nicer to their siblings. They might do so by forbidding an action ("Don't eat the broccoli. It's only for grown-ups.") or expressing doubt about an action ("You probably can't afford to buy your sister a birthday present.")
Although reverse psychology is not a scientific term, it does have a basis in the psychological phenomenon known as reactance. According to reactance theory, people tend to protect their freedoms. When people feel like their freedom is threatened or control is being taken away, they will react against that threat.
So, when someone says you can't do something or expresses doubt that you will do something, some people will feel like their ability to make their own choice is being threatened. And what's the best way to regain that control and freedom? Do the very thing that was forbidden or doubted.
Based upon reactance theory, experts suggest that reverse psychology is most likely to work on those who have a high need for control. Rebellious teenagers who like to do the opposite of what their parents suggest fit perfectly into that category.
While reverse psychology may work from time to time, experts don't recommend using it on a regular basis. For example, it can backfire if the person realizes you are trying to manipulate them. This can lead to trust issues that create other problems down the road.