The Romeo and Juliet Effect

Coercion is counterproductive

May 09, 2021

Today, I’ve asked Robert Cialdini to share his tip of the week. 

If you really want to get something done, you’ve got three options: Do it yourself, pay top dollar—or forbid your teenager to do it. 

You probably recognize the truth of that adage from your own teenage years. Imposing authority can be counterproductive because teenagers tend to resist such attempts at control.

Nothing illustrates the boomerang quality of parental pressure on adolescent behavior quite as clearly as a phenomenon known as the “Romeo and Juliet effect.” 

The term refers to Romeo Montague and Juliet Capulet, the ill-fated teen characters who defied, with tragic consequences, all parental attempts to keep them apart. But does this happen in real life? In research done with 140 Colorado teenage couples, parental interference made the pairs feel greater love and desire for marriage. As the interference intensified, so did the love experience. When the interference weakened, romantic feelings cooled.

The Romeo and Juliet effect should not be interpreted as a recommendation to always accept teenagers’ romantic choices. New players at this delicate game often benefit from the direction of an adult with greater perspective and experience.

In providing guidance, parents should recognize that teenagers, who see themselves as young adults, will not respond well to being treated like children. 

Don’t rule your family with an iron fist. Prohibition and punishment are the least artful means of influence.

Do ask teens what they think is the right thing to do. Listen intently. Then ask: “What would you advise a friend to do in the same situation?” or “What are the pros and cons of each option?” When you show respect and curiosity about their perspective, they will be more likely to do the same when you offer yours.   

With flexibility and gratitude,

This piece was adapted in part from Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (Harper Business, 2021).

About the author

Robert Cialdini is a persuasion scientist and author of the newly expanded Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, out this month.