Skip to main content

Streisand Effect, or Why Sometimes It’s Best Just to Scroll On To the Next Thing

·679 words·4 mins
Psyched for the Weekend

Once upon a time, in the magical age of 2003, singer Barbra Streisand was very upset about something. That specific something was the fact that photographs of her Malibu house were on the Internet.

It didn’t matter that the original context of the photograph wasn’t even sensationalistic. Streisand’s home was instead simply one image in a collection of 12,000 photographs of the California coastline as part of the California Coastal Records Project, which was intended to document erosion and drive home to politicians and others who could effect change that it was an important issue.

But Streisand wasn’t having it. She angrily declared it a violation of her privacy. She sued the photographer and the website who posted the image.

Before she filed the suit, it’s reported that the image of Streisand’s home had only been downloaded six times. But after the suit was filed, the public became aware of the photo and over 400,000 people visited the website the following month. Ultimately, the suit was dismissed and Streisand was ordered to pay the photographer’s legal fees.

This phenomenon is now known as the Streisand Effect, which occurs when attempts to get a piece of information censored or removed actually backfires, causing that information to become wildly more popular.

Reactance Is a Hell of a Force

The Streisand effect is intimately linked with a principle known as reactance, which I covered in a past installment of this series:

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.

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.

When You Criticize Someone (Especially in Public) You’re Also Advertising For Them

It’s been interesting to watch the same patterns play out over and over again in the Internet age.

Often the posts and ideas that go viral are controversial, with a number of supporters, sure, but often an equal — or even greater — number of detractors.

And part of this is that provocative posts draw criticism… and any form of attention will elevate a post’s profile. This means that critics end up inadvertently advertising for what they’re arguing about.

And a lot of the viral content farms are well keyed into this. And the implications of it can be quite pervasive.

For example, research on Internet marketing has shown that memes that have spelling or grammatical errors in them get more comments.

People just cannot resist pointing out the mistakes. And typically over and over again.

Apparently this is something that certain meme makers/social media post writers actually do on purpose, place strategic mistakes in their content, in order to lure people into making more comments on it.

Essentially, the misspellings/grammatical errors can be bids for attention.

That is, when they’re not honest errors or adaptations to fit limited space requirements (e.g., on Twitter).

Just something to think about as you traipse about the Internet.


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.


My new book is out!

Dealing with Difficult Metamours, the first book devoted solely to metamour relationships, full of strategies to help you get along better with your partners’ other partner(s).


Ben Franklin Effect, Cognitive Dissonance, and the Subtle Art of Asking for a Favor
·1049 words·5 mins
Psyched for the Weekend
When They Say Not to Do Something, We Want to Do It Even More
·651 words·4 mins
Psyched for the Weekend
They Like You. They Really, Really Like You.
·384 words·2 mins
Psyched for the Weekend