Thursday, August 23, 2007

Lecture Essay #2: The Real Reverse Psychology

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"Life Imitates Art"
- Oscar Wilde

The idea that advertising tries to manipulate us is no longer so controversial to most people. Hence the question is no longer academically interesting and it has lost its shock value for the more sophisticated. Even the weight conscious person is aware that Cosmopolitan is trying to play with her sympathies and sell her stuff through supermodel subtlety.

More civic minded people have therefore been telling themselves “If television can tell people what to buy, television should be able to make people be better citizens and children better students, right?” To their credit these people haven’t been lazy in their mass-media preaching. Recall the “Just Say No” campaign of the 90’s, the Flying house bible-adventure theme and compare that with the recent Safeguard animation mini-series.

The really amazing thing about do-gooder ad campaigns like these is that in many cases they are spectacular failures, sometimes backfiring by actually leading to an increase in the behavior they are supposed to get rid of. There was plenty of embarrassment and head-scratching to go around, and the problem remains one of the more annoying facts about behavior that won’t fit neatly into the theories. To their credit, psychologists have not been idle and have even named the phenomenon. And so the concept of “psychological reactance” has entered into the vocabulary of psychology, but just because you’ve named something doesn’t mean you understand it.

What is known so far is that if you try to persuade people sometimes they get the idea that you are trying to control them or limit their freedom. When that happens the tendency is for the person to not just ignore you but for them to do the exact opposite of what you’re trying to make them do. This is psychological reactance. Think of all those government warnings on cigarette packs: Is it possible that by some strange logic they are actually promoting smoking? I’m sure the top bosses at Marlborough find this very amusing. It seems that by trying too hard you could actually turn your audience against you and defeat your purpose, making things worse than if you didn’t try at all.

And so the art of persuasion might not be as straightforward as it seems. A little slight of hand is in order; the problem of how to manipulate people without them knowing that you are doing so. This doesn’t have to sound so nasty and Machiavellian as I might be putting it if you think about the fact that you could use this to convince people to save the environment by driving around less or that condom use can prevent the spread of HIV. We try to persuade people to change their behaviors and attitudes all the time, when asking for more allowance or asking people to sin no more.

Part of the problem might lie in the person trying to persuade you. So far at least one experiment has shown (Chartrand, et al 2006) that if the person making a request (or issuing a command) is close to them and is seen as controlling (think nagging mother-type or annoying supervisor), reactance is more likely. And this can even happen nonconsciously, meaning we are likely not aware that we do it at all, and might especially be true for people who value personal control and freedom.

Which when you think about it means the more someone values their freedom and the more they resent authority the more manipulable through reactance they are. An uneasy thought...

So what’s the trick? Well, maybe if you keep reminding your friends that you are studying psychology and then when you want them to do something why not try telling them to do the opposite. Sneaky, if it works.