Why Correcting Others Backfires

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Unsolicited advice is the junk mail of life”

Bern Williams

Do you ever have an irresistible urge to correct someone’s misbehavior?  Did your attempt fail miserably?  Here is an explanation why.        

The righting reflex, also known as the Labyrinthine-righting reflex, is an impulse that corrects the orientation of the body when it is taken out of its normal upright position.  Think of it like dropping a cat upside down.  As the cat flies through the air, it will turn and land on its feet because of the righting  reflex. Screenshot 2015-11-30 19.30.29

Many of us have felt the righting reflex when we feel others are making mistakes. We try to right them, as they are in what appears to us to be free fall.  Unfortunately, our reflexes can the opposite of our intended effect as they vigorously reject our corrections and go the opposite direction.

How Do You Stop Momentum?

When you are driving on ice and begin to swerve, your natural impulse is to slam on the breaks and stop the motion.  Your fear wants control and the action stopped. 

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But as any experienced driver can attest, attempting to stop swerving on ice will lock the wheels and send the vehicle spinning out of control.  The best choice is to turn the steering wheel into the direction of the spin and the car will naturally come out of the roll.   We call turning into the spin, “rolling with resistance.”

Roll With Resistance: Turn Into It

This concept makes sense with physics but it also works in psychology.  For example, suppose an addict comes into my office and is ambivalent about quitting drugs.  If my response is a full brake slamming, “Don’t do drugs, you must quit!” which seems like a reasonable response to my brain, their brain responds, “Well, drugs are not that bad and they begin to argue with my position.

Ignore The Your Natural Impulse

If you suppress the desire to correct, often others will right themselves. By turning into their emotion and go with the direction of their energy, the response can be surprisingly different.  Try saying, “Well, I can understand why drugs seem like a reasonable choice to you.”  If there is true ambivalence in the client’s mind, they will respond, “I need to quit, drugs are harming my life.”

Go With The Mo

Going with their momentum is more powerful because the client is speaking for change.  As they speak, their voice convinces them and does a much better job than your attempts to control.  

Teenagers And Self Will

Parents are often caught off guard when their child enters the teen years and begins to express their own views.  Psychologists call this phase “separation and individualization” but it scares parents to death; they slam on the breaks.  Parents say things like, “My child won’t get bad grades, my child will never miss school, I won’t raise a spoiled brat, etc. and then the pronounce some extreme punishment.  The situation escalates, spins out of control and the child does whatever they want.  Screenshot 2015-11-30 21.19.47

The Superiority Trap

It can be especially challenging to “roll with resistance” when we feel our judgment is superior.  We have the attitude:

·       “I’ll take Over Now, Thank you”: The other person feels inadequate and you come across as superior. Their ego screams out, “Heck NO,” and they become contrary regardless of the compelling evidence you present. 

It seems counter intuitive but research supports the concept of rolling with resistance.  Try it—you may be surprised at the results. 


Camille Curtis Foster, LCSW

Contact Me/ 801.472.7134/1fosterconnect@gmail.com

Please “like” my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/UtahMentalHealthServices/

Other Posts: https://utahmentalhealthservices.com/concerns/child-development/ 



Miller, W. R., & Rollnick. S. (2002).
Motivational interviewing: Preparing people for change). New York: Guilford Press.

MARK DODD, Motivational Interviewing Ideas for Peer Mentor, electronic retrieval, https://www.niatx.net/toolkits/system/IA_MIforPeerMentors.pdf


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