Come on, whom are we kidding? Who even likes to be told what to do or what to feel, or even when/how to do things?
Maybe you were going to be a helping hand at home and do the dishes. At that very moment, your mother asks you to do the dishes and suddenly you don’t want to do it anymore. Or maybe you had planned on solving some Math problems for your homework. But going out for a game seems more attractive of the choices because your father insists you sit down for some math practice.
We all know this phenomenon of psychological reactance, although we probably didn’t know it by its’ name. Usually, we think of children behaving in this manner, but this phenomenon is also observed in adults. Psychological reactance is related to the layperson’s notion of reverse psychology: tell someone to do something, and they will do the opposite. However, it’s not always that easy.
At first glance, reactance may seem shortsighted and reactionary. While it seems to be a common phenomenon in any situation irrespective of age, where there’s a change in circumstances or rules. Reactance has both a mental and a behavioral component. The mental component involves assessing one’s options for any given choice, while the behavioral component is the part of the process observable from the outside.
Arguing against the threat to freedom
Telling people to quit smoking = fail.
This can activate psychological reactance and make someone want to smoke even more. But the consequences?
When people react, they become aroused. They become upset, distressed, angry, or emotionally charged. As a result, the object, action, or freedom becomes more attractive after it has been eliminated or threatened. The desire for that behavior or object will increase. This consequence also applies to things such as people and behaviors, not just objects. Eventually, people will engage in behavioral attempts to reassert the threatened or eliminated freedom. A person will try to regain his or her freedom or options. Often people will even engage exactly in the same behavior that was threatened or eliminated. Finally, reactance may lead people to feel or act aggressively toward the person who is attempting to restrict their freedom.
Of course, nudging is a powerful way to change behavior. But it’s important not to push people too hard. It might end up making them do the very opposite of what was intended to be done.
This forbidden fruit principle seems to work its magic in the marketplace. For instance: when a product is banned, it ends up being more popular. Awareness of psychological reactance can be effective for persuasive strategies, to encourage a certain behavior or reaction from customers or to avoid being subject to a boomerang effect.
Having control over their actions and behavior is one of human beings’ most important and valued needs. Indeed, people become distressed, angry, and even aggressive to actual loss of freedom, even perceived infringement on freedom. The magnitude of reactance is not exactly the same for each person, nor for each situation.
The reactance theory
Reactance theory is a social psychological theory developed by Jack Brehm.
(Brehm 1966, 1972; Brehm, Stires, Sensenig and Shaban 1966; Hammock and Brehm 1966).
The strength of reactance was hypothesized by Brehm (1966) and can be demonstrated in the positive relationship between the degree of threat to behavior and the perceived importance of the behavior.
They believed the strength of reactance is determined by:
- the perceived importance of the free behaviors to the individual,
- the proportion of free behaviors threatened, and
- the magnitude of the threat.
If the perceived difficulty of exercising one’s freedom has been increased by a certain threat, the strength of reactance one experiences would rise. Thus resulting in various freedom-regaining responses toward the threat such as denying the current message to engaging in counter-behavior against the suggested behavior.
If psychological reactance can make forbidden fruit more attractive, it might have the opposite effect on a freely offered fruit. It might make it less attractive.
Reference: Brehm, J. W. (1966). A theory of psychological reactance. New York: Academic Press.