When They Say Not to Do Something, We Want to Do It Even More

a boomerang stuck in the ground on what appears to be a sandy beach or perhaps a desert
Image by Paleontour / CC BY

Have you ever had someone tell you not to do something — and all of a sudden, you really want to do it?

Maybe it’s something you hadn’t even thought about, at all, before. But now, the minute someone’s telling you not to do something, you’re fighting the urge to rebel and do it.

It isn’t just you. This is a pretty common phenomenon. And it has to do with a little something psychologists call reactance.

Reactance and Boomerang Effect

Simply stated, reactance refers to people’s tendency to rebel or do the opposite when they feel like someone is trying to take away their freedom or limit their choices. Researchers have studied this mechanism extensively. They have also found that it works in the opposite direction, too — attempting to persuade people to do something can actually backfire and make them less likely to do it, resulting in an unintended boomerang effect.

One famous example of this was the difficulty of the earliest public campaigns to persuade people to stop littering.

Studies have found that if the wording on trash receptacles was too strongly coercive (for example, “Don’t You Dare Litter”), people were much less likely to use them.

In some cases, not only did the sign fail to reduce the amount of littering, people actually littered more than if there were no sign at all!

Conversely, prompts that were perceived as less pressuring (for example, “Please recycle”) were much more effective.

People really don’t like being told what to do. Especially if they feel like they are being forced to do it.

Using Reverse Psychology to Deal With Intrapersonal (But Not Interpersonal) Issues

Reactance is why reverse psychology can work sometimes. When we push someone too hard, reactance dictates that the instinct is to rebel and do the exact opposite. Not surprisingly, it’s also true that in some cases it can actually be effective if we’re trying to get someone to do something to insist they do the opposite. To use reverse psychology on them.

That said, I’m not a personal fan of using reverse psychology on other people to resolve interpersonal issues. Perhaps such trickery could work, but at what cost? I find it can easily erode intimacy. I really do prefer to have people in my life that I can interact directly with (and who feel comfortable doing so with me in return).

However, I have found reverse psychology to be extremely helpful for me to use on myself for intrapersonal issues.

Allowing Yourself to Feel Things You’d Rather Not Feel

Specifically, I’ve found a lot of utility in using reverse psychology when I’m experiencing emotions I’d rather not feel, for example, jealousy (although it’s worth noting, jealousy is technically a system of emotions, and not an emotion per se). In the distant past, my instinct was to shame myself and say “stop it, you shouldn’t feel jealous, that’s awful, stop it.” And instead of responding to the shaming, my jealousy response would instead intensify.

What I found far more helpful was to encourage the feelings. To be, frankly, kind of pushy about it. To stop and say, “Please be jealous. Yes, be so jealous. Be as jealous as you can possibly be. Go ahead, do it.”

To essentially give myself permission to have those negative emotional experiences instead of shaming myself for those emotions and ordering myself to stop.

And a curious thing began to happen. The reverse psychology was surprisingly effective. I still had to work on my underlying insecurities but it was much easier to deal with jealousy in a productive way when I wasn’t constantly triggering a boomerang effect.

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This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.

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Books by Page Turner:

A Geek’s Guide to Unicorn Ranching

Poly Land: My Brutally Honest Adventures in Polyamory 

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