What is it about being told something, even politely or for good intentions, that makes us keen to do the opposite, at least on occasion? We all know about reverse psychology, which is perhaps one of the most mainstream and widely observed aspects of human behavior — but what makes us so stubborn about following advice or directions, whether from loved ones or authority figures?
Business Insider highlights three research-backed factors that explain this interestingly widespread practice.
1. Reactance: forbidden fruit tastes so much sweeter
When someone discourages you from doing something, you often feel that your freedom is being threatened, which motivates you to regain choice and control by doing exactly the opposite. Experiments show that children become more interested in a toy after they’re put under severe rather than mild pressure not to play with it, and children and adults become more likely to taste fatty foods when labels explicitly warn against them. One classic study even found support for the Romeo & Juliet effect: the more parents interfered with a romantic relationship, the stronger the feelings of love the couples developed over the next year. As Mark Twain once wrote, “Adam was but human… He did not want the apple for the apple’s sake, he wanted it only because it was forbidden.”
2. Rebound: whatever you do, don’t think about a white bear
When someone tells you not to think about something, your mind has a sneaky way of returning to that very thought. In a brilliant study led by psychologist Daniel Wegner, people were told not to think about a white bear. They spent the next 5 minutes thinking aloud, saying everything that came to mind, and ringing a bell if they spoke or thought of a white bear. They couldn’t escape the white bear: on average, it appeared in their thoughts every minute, and most people accidentally uttered “white bear” out loud once or twice. When the 5-minute suppression period was over, things got even worse: they thought about it more than twice as often as people who had been directly instructed to think about a white bear. When we try to suppress a thought, two things happen. The productive effect is that we consciously search for thoughts that don’t involve white bears. The counterproductive effect is that we unconsciously monitor for failures. In the back of our minds, we’re keeping an eye out for pale furry creatures in case they prove to be of the polar variety.
3. Curiosity: I wonder what’s inside…
When a behavior is forbidden or discouraged, it’s hard not to become intrigued. As Chip and Dan Heath write in Made to Stick, “it’s like having an itch we need to scratch.” Experiments reveal, for example, that people are more likely to watch violent TV shows and play violent video games when labels warn against them. And there are many examples of books becoming more popular after they’re banned. There’s a mystery to be unraveled: what could be so bad about this? When you started surfing the internet today, chances are that you carried an implicit expectation that a writer would be encouraging you to read his writing. If so, my headline surprised you by violating that expectation. “Why in the world would an author tell me not to read something he wrote? That doesn’t make any sense. Is he out of his mind?”
These principles make intuitive sense, especially the one about “forbidden fruit” and the allure of doing something illegal, prohibited, or otherwise authoritatively placed out of our reach. These reasons are important to keep in mind, not only to reign in on this habit, but to avoid the more insidious applications of reverse psychology:
In one study, psychologists asked 159 people if they had ever deliberately tried to get people to do something by recommending the opposite. More than two thirds generated a convincing example, and reported using reverse psychology an average of 1-2 times a month, with relatively little difficulty and high effectiveness. One respondent admitted, “One time I said that my friend had a good haircut when she didn’t. Usually, she disagrees with my opinion so she changed it. Which was good.”
Is this ethical? Some might say that in the case of a haircut, the (split) ends justify the means. When people are resistant to us or our ideas, and we have their best interests at heart, it’s acceptable to mislead them for their own good. Others would argue that a meaningful relationship allows, or even requires, transparency. If we can’t be honest with someone about our intentions, how much of a bond do we really have?
Wherever you stand on this spectrum, my hope is that you’ll be more attuned to reverse psychology when it wanders into your interactions. I also you’ll prevent it from biasing your choices. Next time you find yourself opposing a recommendation or warning, it’s worth asking whether it’s genuinely a bad idea. Maybe you’re just trying to fight for your freedom or scratch an itch.
Granted, like most aspects of human psychology and behavior, it takes a lot of continuous effort and conscientiousness to get the better of this habit. But the results — for both ourselves and those who are trying to help us — are well worth it. And needless to say, recognizing the motivations of our disobedience helps us better determine whether those who tell us what to do or not do mean well or are just trying to manipulate us.