An Experiment on Psychological Reactance and Paradoxical Inversion

People generally dislike external restrictions placed on their freedoms. When society, your family, or basically any other person explicitly tells you not to do something, your first instinct is to go against them. You probably wanted to read this because of my clever title. Congratulations, you fell for my trap!

The proverbial ‘forbidden fruit’ might not be so alluring if everyone was ALLOWED to eat it. That dessert you dieters aren’t letting yourself eat becomes so tempting simply because it is off limits. This article is not about dieting, but you can use this principle to help with that area as well. If you are dieting and still allow yourself to eat sweets (or whatever) occasionally, then it is no big deal and the allure wears off.

The secret thrill of potentially getting caught disobeying only adds to the desire to do what you are forbidden to do. Shakespeare must have known about these principles because his characters Romeo and Juliet were so passionate for eachother that they killed themselves when their parents would not allow them to be together. Pay attention parents, because placing restrictions on your kids will usually only cause them to revolt against you. The more you hold down a spring, the more it will come right back at you.

Almost everyone has heard the pop-phrase “reverse psychology”, which is essentially using pyschological reactance to manipulate someone into doing what you want. The “real” term for reverse psychology is Paradoxical Inversion. It works the same way. Basically “the victim” is irresistably compelled to do what they’re told not to do, simply because they are told not to do it!

This is why signs for “NO smoking” are ineffective. Telling people NOT to do something only makes them want to do it more. This is partly because our subconscious mind does not “hear” negatives. So it doesn’t register the words no, not, dont, wont, cant…When you read the sign “No smoking”, you consciously know that it says “no smoking”, but your subconscious is always there lurking, and it reads “smoking”. If you are not a smoker, these signs don’t effect you that much. But you are not immune to reverse psychology either. There are a number of infinite possibilities for you to get caught as well. And knowing about something will not always protect you from its influence.

While we’re on the subject of the subconscious, that level just below conscious awareness, I’m going to prove to you that it exists. Pay attention drivers. Haven’t you ever noticed the tendency for some drivers to just “hang out” at green lights while you are angrily waiting behind them screaming “it’s green, you a-hole!”? This is because green is a CALMING color. Green should really mean STOP, not GO. I’ve been guilty of speeding through yellow/amber lights and on occasion red lights as well. This is because Yellow is the color of excitement, the most energetic color besides red. Red, as you know, is also a vivid and exciting color, so in my opinion, red should mean go. Whoever invented the traffic light had it all backwords. But I digress…

Perhaps young children can’t resist disobeying their parents because they are listening to their subconscious, which tells them “touch that new lamp” instead of “don’t touch that new lamp”. Knowing that kids want to immediately do whatever they are told not to do, many parents try to manipulate their kids with reverse psychology. For example, Billy’s mom tells him “Don’t you dare eat that broccolli, no matter what!” And instead of Billy happily devouring the vegetable, he is now confused and wondering who the hell this lady is who looks just like his mom. Kids are surprisingly adept at knowing when they are being conned, so reverse psychology is not 100% effective (with kids or adults).

If you would state things in the POSITIVE instead of the negative, you can get around this pitfall. For example, instead of putting up a sign that says “no smoking”, how about a sign that says “please enjoy your cigarette SOMEWHERE ELSE.”

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