Home > Attention, Metacognition > Please DON’T read this article, but…

Please DON’T read this article, but…

Obviously, there was nothing special at the arrow, but you must have stared at that arrow for some time.
Source: https://door32.wordpress.com/2009/03/08/reverse-psychology/

… But I know you are going to read more. Isn’t it weird that the author tells you not to read his brainchild? Isn’t it bizarre that I have written an anti-advertisement? Isn’t it interesting that you realize you have almost finished reading the first paragraph? Yes you have.

Also you might have seen the emergency exits labeled “EMERGENCY, DON’T EXIT”. Haven’t you asked yourself why that sign is so paradoxical that you would spend minutes deciding whether to exit? Or you have heard a parent telling a running toddler “I bet you won’t catch me”, and almost immediately the adult was caught by that toddler. For so many times you might have asked why to have that deception. You have probably heard of the famous “smoke a pack per day” slogan in quitting smoking, and if so, aren’t you curious why encouraging smoking actually helps people quit?

The rationale behind these apparently paradoxical situations is actually supported by a psychological phenomenon called “reverse psychology”, or “reactance”. It is thought of as a way to regain threatened or lost freedom, via doing the opposite of advocated message in the request (Brehm, 1966; Worchel & Brehm, 1970). It is explained by the Intertwined Model, which holds that anger and counter-argument work together to form reactance (Dillard & Shen, 2005Rains, 2013). In order to trigger the reactance response, people must figure out the paradox in the request. In the first place, they need to be aware of the presence of a request. Visually, a piece of cake on the table is likely to be unnoticed, as small objects don’t typically arouse much of our attention. However, if next to the cake is a piece of paper, with “DON’T EAT” in red, it is very likely we will be aware of the presence of the cake. This is because the red letters are strong enough stimuli that can draw our attention, and we are thus aware of the presence of the cake. After noticing the notice, we can then make decisions. The mechanism of becoming aware is similar in hearing the requests, as they are usually are usually above auditory attention threshold because of their importance. Processing the request requires decision making, a function of the prefrontal cortex in the human brain. The decision making process requires rational thinking, which is the indication of more developed prefrontal cortex. Decision making has an automatic pathway, only focusing on self needs, and a controlled pathway, which requires the evaluation of situation. We should notice that the population expressing reactance is mostly children, and this is because children don’t have their prefrontal cornices fully developed yet (the prefrontal cortex develops last in the brain).

Smokers have compromised prefrontal cortex activities as well (Xu et al, 2007), so smokers are subjected to reactance as well. In 1990’s, the U.S. government enforced tobacco companies to show anti-smoking ads on television, in the idealist hope of asking people to quit smoking. The attempt backfired, much to the surprise of the government and the companies. The paradox was obvious enough to draw people’s attention, as the tobacco companies were advertising against themselves. Smokers were probably already aware of the harms, and even more so after the enforcement, because the harm was now written explicit on the packs. However, they made the poor decision to continue smoking because of their compromised rational thinking, plus the effects of the Intertwined Model of reactance. Non-smokers, despite more rational thinking, felt their right to become a smoker or not was threatened, so they started smoking as a response to the government’s advertisement (wait a minute, are we really as rational as we think?). Is rational decision failing because reactance is dominant over rationality? It is still under investigation. However, if this is the case, we seem to be able to explain why the best way to quit smoking is the counter-intuitive “smoke a pack per day”. This is because the effect of reactance on this request is to quit, while the effect of irrational thinking is to continue. With reactance being the dominant factor, the overall effect would be quitting smoking.

Similarly, reverse psychology also plays an important role in clinical psychology, primarily as the key to penetrate the client’s defense mechanisms. The defence mechanisms are unconscious mind processes that reduce anxiety from potentially harmful stimuli. Due to the clinical situation, these mechanisms could sometimes lead to outcomes that seem irrational to us. Perhaps you have noticed that reactance, characterized by its irrationality, can be the outcome the defense mechanisms. Therefore, Dowd and Sanders (1994) suggested that  a counselor, when offering interventions to a difficult client, should try to think of how the client make decisions (Dowd & Sanders, 1994). When the counselor suggestions match what the defense mechanisms would offer, the client would trust the counselor more. Trust raises the reactance-triggering threshold of threat, so reactance behaviors would be less likely to occur. Therefore, there are less anger and counter-argument in counseling sessions, making the client less difficult.

However, reactance is not a guaranteed process at all. It is based entirely on the assumption that people will make irrational decisions due to prefrontal cortex compromises or the Intertwined Model, not considering the possibility that people would follow the request. Please don’t read this blog post? But you have read a lot already. What if you did follow that instruction, not realizing that was reverse psychology? Would it then be considered an authorization for one’s further going on the track you don’t want them to be? That’s why teachers are extremely reluctant considering reverse psychology even though a traditional method fails over and over again. For example, teachers would still ask the truant child to come to class, rather than asking them to have a day off, even though they knew the child would not be likely to follow (Cavell, Frentz & Kelley, 1986). For the teachers, the psychology of reactance is not hard to understand, but is difficult to accept and apply. It is very understandable in terms of education, because the teachers understand that think if they do so, their students would encode these reverse methods as a way to solve problem. However, these ways are not at all going to work in the students’ future life because no one typically uses reverse psychology when reasoning.

NEVER use reverse psychology in combat. Soldiers WILL follow instructions. Source: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/reverse-psychology-workplace-do-read-unless-given-special-dave-kipe

Parents are likely to become the victims of abused use of reverse psychology. In his book The Heart of Parenting (1997), John Gottman explicitly pointed out his view against the use of reverse psychology, as it was “confusing, manipulative, dishonest, and rarely work[ing] (p.212)”. Children don’t yet have their prefrontal cortices fully developed, so they don’t have adult-level decision making ability. This means that their reasoning is not always rational, but they are learning to be more rational in their cognitive development. The abuse of reverse psychology exposes children to rational and irrational reasoning at the same time, making them confused about when to make proper decisions. For example, a mother says “play as much as you want” to her son, wanting him to stop playing. She would be super angry when the boy follows her instruction, but he was not wrong in reasoning. So the boy knew to act opposite to mom’s instructions. The next time, the mother says “eat more vegetables” to her son, wanting him to eat more vegetables. The boy, thinking that he should act in the opposite way because mom was angry when he didn’t do the opposite the last time, eats less to try to please the mother. This would surely drive the mother mad again, but in the boy’s rationale, he did not do anything irrational. Therefore, without any idea of what the mother actually means each time, the boy will trust his mother less, and the mother will have less authority in the boy’s world. Without authority, parents would have a really difficult time trying to manage their children’s behavior.

Isn’t it interesting that despite I titled my article as “Please DON’T read this article”, even capitalizing the word “DON’T”, you are still here, at the last paragraph? I bet you were not angry with my not wanting you to read, nor were you thinking of looking for reasons why I suggested you no read. However, you started to read, and probably now you realize what I really want you to do. That’s the power of reverse psychology.

There are some more interesting things about reverse psychology: a song on YouTube, who’s more susceptible, for classical music fans, and for meme addicts.



Brehm, J. W. (1966). A theory of psychological reactance. New York: Academic Press.

Cavell, T. A., Frentz, C. E., Kelley, M. L. (1986). Acceptability of paradoxical interventions: some nonparadoxical findings. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 17, 519-523.

Dowd, E. T., Sanders, D. (1994). Resistance, reactance, and the difficult client. Canadian Journal of Counseling, 28, 13-24

Dillard, J. P., & Shen, L. (2005). On the nature of reactance and its role in persuasive health communication. Communication Monographs, 72, 144–168.

Gottman, J. (1997). The heart of parenting: how to raise an emotionally intelligent child. London: Bloomsbury.

Rains, S. A. (2013). The nature of psychological reactance revisited: a meta-analytic review. Human Communication Research, 39, 47-73.

Worchel, S., & Brehm, J. W. (1970). Effects of threats to attitudinal freedom as a function of agreement with the communicator. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 14, 18–22.

Xu, J., Mendrek, A., Cohen, M. S., Monterosso, J., Simon, S., Jarvik, M., Olmstead, R., Brody, A. L., Ernst, M., & London, E. D. (2007). Effect of cigarette smoking on prefrontal cortical function in nondeprived smokers performing the Stroop Task. Neuropsychopharmacology: Official Publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology32(6), 1421–1428.

  1. May 3rd, 2017 at 18:12 | #1

    This is a really interesting subject and very well written about! I think this bias involves a lot of information we have talked about this semester. For example, one thing I think of is attention and how these words like ‘never’ and ‘don’t’ and their context pushes them above threshold so that we attenuate to them. For example, if we just walked by a box, we wouldn’t think much of it. If we see a sign on the box that says “DON’T PEEK”, why might contextualize peeking to things like excitement and a surprise, which pushes that to direct our attention to the box.
    I found an interesting article looking at how and why people may use reverse psychology in the real world. They looked at different motivations and if using it was successful to their end goal. They found it to be a rather prevalent and successful method! http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15534510.2010.517282

  2. tyao
    May 3rd, 2017 at 21:49 | #2

    @Alexandria Lucas
    Thank you for the reply, and the article on trategic self-anticonformity!

    Yes, the concept of reverse psychology does involve a lot of cognitive processes. Your mentioning attention attenuation seems to be a very clever to me, especially how it pushes the context (i.e., what it wants you to do) above the threshold. And the box example, who doesn’t want to know what’s inside?!! However, attention doesn’t seem to be shifted simply by “never”or “don’t”, but by the paradox of the context itself (e.g. the subway signs with “Jump at your own risk”).

    Paying attention is only the premise of reverse psychology, because it also involves a decision-making process. The “DON’T PEEK” sign on the box draws your attention and makes you interested in what’s in the box, but should you break that rule of no peeking? Here you have to make a decision. Typically we would suppress our desire to peek and walk away, because we know we are not supposed to disobey any rule. However, reactance leads to this apparently irrational decision of opening the box and looking inside.

  3. yzhao
    May 11th, 2017 at 15:32 | #3

    I really enjoy your analysis of both the positive and negative sides of reverse psychology. I have never thought to connect reverse psychology with a defense system against threatened or lost freedom, even though I’m well aware of its prevalence, especially in teenagers. I agree with Alexandria’s hypothesis that words with commanding undertones are more likely to be above our attention threshold therefore attract our attention more easily. Another hypothesis I have is that because the reverse psychology message we encounter is so counterintuitive and out of context, it occupies more cognitive resource to process and, due to the limitation of cognitive resource, replaces other inputs and becomes the focus of attention at the moment.
    I also find the connection you made between reverse psychology and classical conditioning very intriguing. The effectiveness of reverse psychology seems to come at the cost of conditioning against authority. In this sense, messages using reverse psychology serve as unconditioned stimuli which provokes the unconditioned response of anger, whereas authority associated with the messages serves as conditioned stimuli which, eventually through the process of classical conditioning, also provokes anger as a response.

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