When we were little, our parents often had to remind us to clean up our toys. In most cases, after our frustrated parents left our toy trucks on the floor for two hours, they decided to do something about them.
“Oh, don’t put away your toys. I bet you don’t know how to do it yet. Let your brother help,” Mother said.
As if on cue, we shoved all the toys back into their places.
We were not happy to clear up, but we triumphed over what we were told not to do.
Using reverse psychology, our parents had actually won their battle over us in this classic example of reverse psychology.
What is Reverse Psychology
Reverse psychology is advocating something opposite to the target behavior in order to get a target person to act in the way you want. Also known as strategic self-anticonformimanty (SSA), reverse psychology is an indirect form of influence.1
Through reverse psychology, you can encourage the other individual to engage in acceptable behavior you truly desire by pushing for the exact opposite decision.
Reverse psychology is a form of manipulation.2
For this to work in parenting, the child is unaware of the expected negativity, disagreeableness, or contradiction from them.
Does Reverse Psychology Work
Reverse psychology works because it is based on the following psychological phenomenon.
Agreeableness is a dimension of personality.
It is common for children, and people in general, to be agreeable to varying degrees.3
An agreeable person tends to conform to requests, i.e., conformity. But stubborn people are expected to disagree with requests, i.e., anticonformity.
Strategic self-anticonformity is, therefore, more likely to work when the receiving end of reverse psychology is a less agreeable person.
Reactance theory and Self-determination theory
Another reason this persuasive technique works can be explained by the Reactance Theory by Brehm.
The Reactance Theory suggests that when a person’s freedom is threatened or compromised, they will seek a different action (reactance) to regain it.4
Ryan and Deci’s Self-determination Theory provides a supporting argument. It believes humans have three basic psychological needs – autonomy, competence, and relatedness.5
All people are motivated to receive or maintain these three qualities.
When threatened, as in reverse psychology tactics, people are motivated to act and do the opposite to avoid the purported outcome.
Reverse Psychology Examples
Using reverse psychology on a stubborn person tends to work well.
Parents can also use reverse psychology on a child with a difficult temperament and persuade them to behave a certain way.
Here are some examples of parents using reverse psychology techniques in real life.
You’re not allowed to do homework
In preschoolers who haven’t been introduced to the concept of “homework,” this tactic works very well.
Parents tell children they are not allowed to do homework if they misbehave. They get to do homework with their parents only when they behave well. Parents make homework a game when they work together so the child feels that homework is fun and rewarding.
Doing homework becomes much more appealing when the parent states that the child will not have the autonomy to do it.
There’s a good chance children now want to do it to regain a sense of control.
When children enter grade school, this trick can prevent them from disliking or avoiding homework.
Don’t do your homework
Getting older children to complete their homework is a challenge for many parents.
Punishment is commonly used to get children to comply.
The assumption is that punishment takes away the child’s freedom, and they will comply to regain control.
However, there is another force at play here.
When threatened with punishment, the child also loses the freedom to choose not to do homework.
The child’s compliance now depends on how agreeable they are and whether being free from punishment is more important than the freedom to ignore homework.6
This is why punishment rarely works for parents of strong-willed children.
Reverse psychology is a better solution for less agreeable children.
“Don’t do your homework if you don’t want to. It’s okay with me, but you won’t learn as much and may fail the class.”
Doing homework now becomes a win-win situation that can be what motivates a child. The child regains the autonomy that “don’t do your homework” was trying to remove. Their own choices will also help them pass their class.
Parents will be more likely to get the desired results using this alternative approach than if they use punishment.
Tips for using reverse psychology in child discipline
Here are some parenting tips for parents who want to use some form of reverse psychology to get their children’s compliance.
Use this tactic sparingly
Using it on everything won’t work.
Soon, your child will see through it. Your credibility as a parent will also be damaged.
Argumentative kids only
This technique works better for children who like to argue or disagree with their parents.
An agreeable child, on the other hand, may actually comply with what you ask.
Remind them of the consequence
Remind your child that they have a choice and that there are consequences when they choose one way or another.
Only when you can accept the consequence
Be willing to accept the outcome even if your child doesn’t fall for it. If you don’t, you are blatantly lying and manipulating.
If you say, “Don’t do your homework,” and they don’t, you must accept it. Remind them about the consequences of failing the class, but don’t backtrack on your words.
Therefore, use this strategy wisely, or it will backfire.7
Reverse psychology and gaslighting
Reverse psychology and gaslighting are two distinct psychological tactics. Reverse psychology involves telling someone the opposite of what you want them to do, expecting that they will do what you actually want as a form of rebellion or defiance. It’s often used in a light-hearted or manipulative way to influence behavior.
On the other hand, gaslighting is a serious form of manipulation where one person tries to make another doubt their own perceptions, memories, or feelings. It’s a deceptive and harmful practice that can undermine a person’s confidence and sense of reality. While reverse psychology may be playful or strategic, gaslighting is inherently malicious and damaging.
Final thoughts on using reverse psychology in parenting
Reverse psychology is a manipulation technique that shouldn’t be relied upon entirely to control children.
Your child will respond better to direct requests when you have a good connection with them.
- 1.Hajjat F. Is There Such a Thing as Reverse Psychology? Let’s Get Engaged! Crossing the Threshold of Marketing’s Engagement Era. Published online 2016:721-722. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-11815-4_218
- 2.Rudinow J. Manipulation. Ethics. Published online July 1978:338-347. doi:10.1086/292086
- 3.Verhoeven M, Junger M, Van Aken C, Deković M, Van Aken MAG. Parenting During Toddlerhood. Journal of Family Issues. Published online December 2007:1663-1691. doi:10.1177/0192513×07302098
- 4.Brehm JW. Control, Its Loss, and Psychological Reactance. Control Motivation and Social Cognition. Published online 1993:3-30. doi:10.1007/978-1-4613-8309-3_1
- 5.Deci EL, Ryan RM. Self-Determination. The Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology. Published online January 30, 2010. doi:10.1002/9780470479216.corpsy0834
- 6.Rosenberg BD, Siegel JT. A 50-year review of psychological reactance theory: Do not read this article. Motivation Science. Published online December 2018:281-300. doi:10.1037/mot0000091
- 7.MacDonald G, Nail PR, Harper JR. Do people use reverse psychology? An exploration of strategic self-anticonformity. Social Influence. Published online January 2011:1-14. doi:10.1080/15534510.2010.517282