If an instruction next to a button says ‘do not push’, some people end up pushing it. Their desire to do the opposite overpowers the fear, if any, of repercussions. Is there any word for such a trait in a person?

  • I would suggest it's the desire to see what the consequences actually are, rather than simply accept a stark instruction. Exploration and discovery are part of the human condition; it's not simply a question of disobeying an instruction. Do you have a better example?
    – Andrew Leach
    Commented Aug 31, 2019 at 16:57
  • I share your view. Some people can’t live without knowing the answer to ‘what if...?’ I think it’s a mix of reckless curiosity and subconscious defiance.
    – user358018
    Commented Aug 31, 2019 at 17:21
  • 1
    I'm voting to reopen because I think there are different nuances in this question than the other one. This one emphasizes the psychological urge to do precisely what you are told not to. The other one is more about how others describe a person doing something even when they are told not to. The answer most upvoted here (reactance) wouldn't be the most suitable answer for the other question.
    – S Conroy
    Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 12:19

4 Answers 4


It is called reactance in psychology. Moreover, the reverse psychology technique relies on the psychological phenomenon of reactance, in which a person chooses the option being advocated against.

When people feel that their freedom to choose an action is threatened, they get an unpleasant feeling called ‘reactance’. This also motivates them to perform the threatened behavior, thus proving that their free will has not been compromised.
Pennebaker and Sanders (1976) put one of two signs on college bathroom walls. One read ‘Do not write on these walls under any circumstances’ whilst the other read ‘Please don’t write on these walls.’ A couple of weeks later, the walls with the ‘Do not write on these walls under any circumstances’ notice had far more graffiti on them.


OED definition and the earliest citation:

Psychology. A response of resistance aroused in a person who feels his or her freedom of choice is threatened or impeded.

1966       J. W. Brehm Theory of Psychol. Reactance i. 2         Since this hypothetical motivational state is in response to the reduction (or threatened reduction) of one's potential for acting, and conceptually may be considered a counterforce, it will be called ‘psychological reactance’.


wilfullness OED

The quality or character of being wilful; disposition to assert one's own will against reason, persuasion, etc.; determination to take one's own way; self-will, perversity, obstinacy, stubbornness.

From the 14th C, the sense of wilfullness is 'nefariously' deliberate, knowingly, and on purpose.


recalcitrant was the first thing which came in my mind*.

(of a person) unwilling to obey orders or to do what should be done, or (of an animal) refusing to be controlled. Cambridge Dictionary

*As that is what my father often calls me...

  • A worthy contender! Please add a definition though, so the meaning is clear and all the information is in the answer. A quote and link from a reputable dictionary should suffice. Commented Sep 1, 2019 at 19:11
  • I wanted to do that, but I had no idea how to make the nice formatting. I'll be honest: I was hoping somebody would fix it up. Ill give it a try...
    – Oldfart
    Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 3:04
  • That's fine, I could have edited it, but now you know yourself :) Commented Sep 2, 2019 at 5:06

The version I'm familiar with is: don't think of pink elephants.

Wikipedia has an article on this called the ironic process theory.

Ironic process theory, ironic rebound, or the white bear problem refers to the psychological process whereby deliberate attempts to suppress certain thoughts make them more likely to surface. An example is how when someone is actively trying not to think of a white bear they may actually be more likely to imagine one.

  • 2
    It’s not exactly what I was looking for, but I have to thank you for sharing this concept with me. It’s truly enriching.
    – user358018
    Commented Aug 31, 2019 at 17:27
  • Yes, I've realized it's not an exact match... not a single word and not a personal trait either...
    – S Conroy
    Commented Aug 31, 2019 at 17:51
  • Here is a case of ironic rebound mixed with reactance: For the next 60 seconds you must not think about purple hippopotamuses no matter what. ... Stop thinking about purple hippos! Stop!
    – O.M.Y.
    Commented Sep 1, 2019 at 21:56

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.