You have probably heard about Reverse Psychology more than once and you will wonder if it is possible to get people to do something by asking them to do exactly the opposite. It may seem a little crazy but it is true.
In theory, when people feel that someone or something restricts their freedom, they become rebels and this implies that they will go against established norms. Thus, without realizing it, they are restricting themselves their range of possibilities since they would only take into account decisions and behaviors that are radically opposed to the coercive norm. This happens because occurs a change of perception. That is, we underestimate the allowed behaviors and overvalue the prohibited ones.
To explain this effect with a very simple example, it is enough to go back to our childhood and remember how much we were attracted by tv programs prohibited to minors. The basic idea is that when they tell us that we cannot do or have something, this awakens three answers:
1. We wish it even more
2. We rebel to defend our freedom
3. We feel irritated with the person who restricts our freedom
In short, we react as teenagers.
An explanatory concept: The psychological reactance
The psychological reactance is a motivational activation that leads the persons to try to restore their freedom of action. Obviously, it manifests when the person feels that his freedom is threatened.
Hammock and Brehm carried out a series of experiments on this phenomenon and discovered that when we lose the opportunity to obtain something that we could initially achieve or when we receive something that we have not chosen, our interest in the thing itself increases superlatively.
In one of the experiments, a group of children was asked to order sweets according to their preference. Half were told that in the end they could choose between two types and the other half were told that they would receive the treat chosen by the experimenter.
After the children organized the treats, they were given the possibility to choose between the one they had placed in third and fourth place. The curious thing was that in the group where the experimenter decided for them giving them the third treat, when they were asked to order them again according to their preference, they preferred the candy eliminated and underestimated the one they had offered.
When is Reverse Psychology effective?
Obviously, Reverse Psychology works best with people who usually have problems accepting authority and is not very effective with those who normally comply with the rules.
However, although there have been several studies on Reverse Psychology, the truth is that there is still no conclusive evidence that can show when these methods are really effective. Even so, we can determine some factors that increase the psychological reactance:
1. The expectation of freedom: the freer the person feels, the more his psychological reactance will increase.
2. The strength of the threat: the stronger the perceived threat, the more the psychological reactance will increase.
3. The importance given to freedom and involvement with other freedoms. In this case, the more significant the concept of freedom is and the more it affects the restriction to other planes of our action, the more the psychological reactance will increase.
4. The legitimacy of the threat: if the threat comes from an important source of authority, the reactance will be lower since it is usually accepted more easily the laws imposed by people who have a status higher than ours.
Hammock, T. & Brehm, J. W. (1966) The attractiveness of choice alternatives when freedom to choose is eliminated by a social agent. Journal of Personality; 34(4): 546-554.