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What is Reverse Psychology? And is it Damaging Your Relationships?

what is reverse psychology

photo by: Rahabi Khan

by Andrea M. Darcy

Pretend you want what you don’t, in order to get what you do? What is reverse psychology, really, and is it good or bad for our relationships?

What is reverse psychology?

At the heart of the concept is the assumption that most people don’t like being told what to do.

So how does reverse psychology work?

  1. You want a person to act a certain way, or believe a certain thing. 
  2. And have identified they are likely to rebel against being told what to do or think.
  3. So you pretend to want the opposite behaviour or belief from them, essentially pushing them to fit your desires.  

So what is reverse psychology? It’s really a form of manipulation.  

Is it a tactic that works?

In advertising, certainly. Research shows that, even if we are uncomfortable with the manipulation, we end up still interested in the product sold to us with reverse psychology.

In relationships? Perhaps not so much, given the long term losses for the short-term gain. More on that below.

Is it a psychological term?

Despite the word ‘psychology’ being part of it, it’s not a scientific term. The closest relation used by psychologists would be ‘reactance’.

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Reactance theory suggests that if we feel our freedom to behave the way we want is being limited or threatened, we are motivated to regain that freedom.

If you are using reverse psychology on someone, you are playing on their ‘reactance’. You are banking on the fact that they will be motivated to fight what you are pretending to take off the table. 

Don’t we all do it at some point?

It does seem that most of us give it a go at some point or another.

A study that interviewed 159 university students saw 105 come up with a valid example of when they recently used reverse psychology on someone, and most reported doing so at least once a month.

Reverse psychology in love and romance

what is reverse psychology

photo by: Alexis Brown

The classic example of reverse psychology in romance is the advice, “If you like someone, pretend you don’t care, and that will attract them”. And then we have things like:

  • pretend you aren’t jealous when you are and he’ll lose interest in others
  • withhold any sex even if you want it, and he’ll want a long-term relationship
  • say you don’t care about marriage to make him want to marry you. 

A worrying use of reverse manipulation is also found in the ‘Pick Up Artist” movement, which teaches men to manipulate women into having sex. Tactics include things like  the ‘mystery method’, talking to all members of a group of women while ignoring the one who is your target. Or ‘negging’, adding a negative compliment about something you like, such as saying, ‘nice hair, do you ever bother to cut it?”

Are you using it to boost your self-esteem?

“Before an important competition I have said that I am extremely unprepared and unfit to compete at a high standard in hopes of hearing reassuring voices reminding me of how hard I had been working anyhow much I deserved it.”

This quote is from the above study looking at how often university students spoke in opposites to get what they wanted.

The study actually found that the most common use of reverse psychology amongst students was in fact to gain reassurance from others.

The meaning of reverse psychology in relationships

Like any form of manipulation, there are dangers to using this tactic in your relationships.

1. It means your relationship is based on dishonesty.

When we use reverse psychology, we consciously choose to say something we know isn’t true. If it’s a tool you use consistently in your relationship, or used to attract your partner? Then the relationship is essentially founded on lies.

2. It doesn’t build trust.

If you are consistently being dishonest, even over silly things, like what restaurant you want to go to? It can all add up to the other person not trusting you.

Always using reverse psychology also affects your own capacity to trust. It means you never give others the opportunity to communicate directly with you. How can you learn to trust that some people will respect what you need and want, and find a healthy compromise with you? 

3. It can backfire in a highly destructive way.

If the other person realises just how many times you’ve been dishonest to get what you want, they can be very upset. Or potentially decide they no longer want anything to do with you. And there is not really much you can say in defence, given that you consciously chose to manipulate.

4. It’s not viable long term.

Long-term relationships that are healthy and help us grow as a person require trust, honesty, and that we be ourselves.

So while reverse manipulation might ‘get us the girl’ or guy, it’s likely going to be a short-term, shallow relationship

5. You can lose sight of who you are.

If you constantly say the opposite of what you want or feel, and constantly rely on manipulating others to boost your self-esteem? Over time, you risk losing touch with your identity and your inner resources.

6. It can become addictive.

Addictive behaviours happen when something helps us escape emotional pain. If we are using reverse psychology to boost our self-esteem and we start to rely on it to lift our spirits, it could become addictive.

7. You don’t grow as a person.

What does reverse psychology mean for personal growth? We don’t learn healthy communicating, learn to express our wants and needs, or create opportunities to be our authentic selves.

Can reverse psychology ever be a good thing?

Reverse psychology can have its uses. If you must spend time with someone who loves picking fights and upsetting you, like a family member, and you have already had a bad day? Perhaps you choose to pretend you want to see one film in order to avoid seeing a horror film that will scare you. 

But if you constantly pretend with that same person to not mind their constant criticisms in the hopes they’ll stop, for example, not so useful.

So yes, we sometimes need short-term solutions in the name of self-care.  But we also need to think of long-term consequences and ask good questions

  • Will using reverse psychology harm me or the other person?
  • Or have long term consequences on my relationship or sense of self?
  • Is it really necessary in this situation, does it lead to a short-term win I need?
  • Or am I simply avoiding direct communication or setting a needed boundary?
  • Am I playing games here? Or falling into manipulation because I’m feeling scared?

I swear my therapist uses it on me

A highly skilled therapist might play along with you, but it’s not reverse psychology. They do not have an agenda to get something from you. Therapies like person-centred counselling are instead looking for a way to create space for you to see something from a different perspective, and find your own answers that work for you.

For example, if you are convinced that you are never going to find love,  a therapist might say, “Okay, you are never going to find love. Talk me through your reasons.” This opens a doorway for you to see the flaws in your argument for yourself.

Need help to stop manipulating others? Try a talk therapist from our highly rated and well-regarded team of London-based experts. Or use our booking platform to find a registered therapist across the UK. 


Andrea M. Darcy therapy coachAndrea M. Darcy is a health and lifestyles writer who also coaches people on finding the right therapist for them. Find her on Instagram @am_darcy

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Blog Topics: Parenting, Relationships, Self Esteem

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