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Psychological reactance theory

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Psychological reactance is an aversive affective reaction in response to regulations or impositions that impinge on freedom and autonomy (Brehm, 1966, 1972, Brehm & Brehm, 1981;; Wicklund, 1974). This reaction is especially common when individuals feel obliged to adopt a particular opinion or engage in a specific behavior.

Specifically, a perceived diminution in freedom ignites an emotional state, called psychological reactance, that elicits behaviors intended to restore this autonomy (Brehm, 1966, 1972, Brehm & Brehm, 1981 & Wicklund, 1974). Reactance, for example, often encourages individuals to espouse an opinion that opposes the belief or attitude they were encouraged, or even coerced, to adopt. As a consequence, reactance often augments resistance to persuasion (Brehm & Brehm, 1981). Reactance was proposed to explain many common examples of resistance in society, such as the adverse effects of prohibition.

Causes of reactance

Reactance is experienced whenever a free behavior is restricted (Brehm, 1966, 1972, Brehm & Brehm, 1981 & Wicklund, 1974). A free behavior, in this context, is any act or choice that individuals could undertake now or very soon. Free behaviors that are perceive as especially important--that is more important than other free behaviors--evoke appreciable reactance if thwarted. In addition, when a broader range of free behaviors are restricted, reactance rises considerably.

Language and reactance

Research indicates that some linguistic features seem to evoke the perception that free behavior might be curtailed, eliciting psychological reactance. In particular, language that is dogmatic, sometimes referred to as controlling (Miller, Lane, Deatrick, Young, & Potts, 2007) or explicit (Grandpre, Alvaro, Burgoon, Miller, & Hall, 2003), provokes reactance. To illustrate, as shown by Quick and Stephenson (2008), dogmatic messages were perceived as more threatening, which provoked reactance, anger, and unfavorable thoughts. The dogmatric messages include:

In contrast, messages that are less dogmatic do not provoke this sequence of reactions. These messages are more likely to include:

Many other studies have also confirmed that dogmatic language can promote reactance. For example, several studies have shown that dogmatic language, intended to curb alcohol use, provokes reactance (e.g., Rains & Turner, 2007).

Quick and Stephenson (2008) also showed that vivid language, in which perceptual features are described to form a graphic image, can also provoke a sense of threat and thus psychological reactance. Furthermore, for individuals who report elevated levels of trait reactance or sensation seeking, dogmatic language was especially likely to promote reactance when the message was vivid rather than pallid.

Individual differences

Recent studies indicate that sensitivity towards reactance does vary across individuals.

Dowd, Wallbrown, Sanders, and Yesenosky (1994), for example, showed that individuals who embrace autonomy as well as exhibit denial, dominance, independence, and mistrust are more inclined to experience psychological reactance. These findings align with the proposition, formulated by Burgoon, Alvaro, Grandpre, and Voloudakis (2002), that reactance should be more pervasive in individuals who seek autonomy and feel their are competent and informed enough to choose their own courses of action.

Individuals who are not espcecially sensitive to infringements upon their freedom are more receptive to more directive or dogmatic individuals. For example, Karno and Longabaugh (2005) undertake a study on clients seeking support to redress their alcoholism. Clients who exhibited trait reactance were less likely to curb their alcohol consumption when their counsellors were directive-confronting these individuals, initiating topics, imparting facts, interpreting comments, addressing resistance, and asking leading questions-rather than less directive. However, clients who exhibited low levels of trait reactance changed their behavior even when the counsellors were directive.

Physical space

In addition to verbal communication, the physical characteristics of an environment can also provoke a form of reactance, as maintained by Levav and Zhu (2009). For example, when individuals feel their personal space is confined, they seem to demonstrate some manifestations of reactance. In particular, they tend to select unfamiliar or diverse products--selections that, arguably, represent a motive to demonstrate independence. This pursuit of independence might represent a response to reactance.

To illustrate, in the first study conducted by Levav and Zhu (2009), participants walked down either a narrow or wide aisle. At the end of this aisle was six bowls of candy bars, including Snickers, Twix, and Kit Kat. Participants were asked to choose three candy bars.

Participants who walked down the narrow aisle were more likely to choose three different bars. Participants who walked down the wide aisle often chose the same product three times. When physical space is constrained, individuals tends to feel encumbered (e.g., Meyers-Levy & Zhu, 2007). As a consequence, they seek independence, manifested as variety.

In a subsequent study, a confined space increased the likelihood that individuals would donate money to an unfamiliar, rather than renowned, charity. The confined space, in this study, thus encouraged individuals to engage in uncommon acts to seek independence (cf Kim & Drolet, 2007). Furthermore, this effect was mediated by feelings of confinement but not positive or negative affect (Levav & Zhu, 2009).

The third study demonstrated these effects do represent a response to reactance. Specifically, in this study, participants also completed the Hong Psychological Reactance Scale (Hong & Faedda, 1996) to assess the extent to which they are sensitive to reactance. A typical item is "When something is prohibited, I usually think 'That's exactly what I am going to do'". Interestingly, if participants reported a sensitivity to reactance, a confined space was especially likely to broaden the diversity of products they selected (Levav & Zhu, 2009).

In the fourth study, confinement was primed. For example, some participants were asked to unscramble sentences, many of which alluded to confinement (see Sentence unscrambling task). Other participants unscrambled sentences that did not refer to confinement. Allusions to confinement increased the diversity of their choices on a subsequent task.

Other studies also indicate that confined spaces elicit reactance. To illustrate, market researchers often approach consumers in the street, asking whether or not they are willing to answer some questions. When the distance between these individuals diminishes, refusals are more likely (Wicklund, 1974).

These studies present some important practical implications. If organizations want to sell an unfamiliar product, for example, they should attempt to promote these items in a crowded store.

Reminders of money

When the concept of money is salient, people tend to become more resistant to persuasion. That is, they are more likely to demonstrate the hallmarks or characteristics of reactance (Liu, Smeesters, & Vohs, 2012).

Several accounts have been proposed to explain this possibility. First, when people are granted money, they tend to feel more independent rather than reliant. When independent, they value possibilities that reinforce this independence& they are not as likely to seek relationships and collaborations. Consequently, they are more inclined to assert their autonomy and reject the demands of other people, manifesting as reactance.

Alternatively, people may associate money with occasions in which they felt constrained by someone else. After all, to earn money, people often need to suppress their personal needs and fulfill the demands of someone else. Consequently, they suppress their need to seek autonomy. Money, therefore, is associated with an unfulfilled desire for autonomy.

Regardless of the precise mechanisms, Liu, Smeesters, and Vohs (2012) did indeed show that exposure to money elicits the manifestations of meaning. In the first study, participants undertook the sentence unscrambling task, in which they needed to rearrange sets of words to construct sentences. For some participants, to increase the salience of money, synonyms of money were embedded within these sets of words. For other participants, synonyms of money were not embedded within these sets of words.

Next, participants received information about two software programs, and their task was to decide which alternative should be chosen by the university. In one condition, the participants were exposed to some remarks from a professor who recommended one package over the other package. Then, participants completed a task that, actually, assesses the level of threat that participants experienced. In essence, various words, some of which were synonymous with feelings of threat, were flashed quickly. After each word, another list of terms appeared. Participants needed to guess which item in this list corresponded to the word that was flashed. Individuals who feel a sense of threat tend to recognize words that are synonymous with this feeling. Finally, participants indicated which software they would choose.

If money had been primed, the choice of participants tended to oppose the preferences of their professor. In contrast, if money had not been primed, their choice was more likely to align to the preferences of this professor. In addition, if the professor had expressed a preference, participants were more likely to manifest feelings of threat--especially if money had been primed.

Subsequent studies were conducted to substantiate this pattern of findings. As Study 2 showed, even casual comments tend to evoke the same results. If participants had been exposed to money, participants were more inclined to like a drink after someone else expressed disapproval of this product and vice versa. Furthermore, in this study, another technique was utilized to prime money: notes and coins were depicted on the background of a screen. Yet, this picture was sufficient to provoke reactance. Finally, as Study 3 showed, if participants choose an object for someone else, this reactance dissipated, presumably because the need to maintain independence was not as pronounced.

Conflicting or divergent messages

When people request donations, they often refer to one of two motives. First, these requests sometimes refer to altruistic reasons, such as "You can help people who really need this money". Alternatively, these these requests can refer to selfish or egoistic reasons, such as "You will feel realy good about yourself if you donate". Finally, some these requests may refer to both altruistic and selfish reasons.

Nevertheless, as Feiler, Tost, and Grant (2012) showed, references to both altruistic and selfish reasons tend to evoke psychological reactance and, ultimately, limit donations. Specifically, at any time, only one of these two motives tends to be primed or salient. Either the altruistic reasons or the selfish reasons, therefore, will not quite align to the primed motives of individuals. Information that does not align to primed motivations may seem to impede the core values of people, compromising their autonomy and provoking reactance. Alternatively, this information may be processed vigilantly. This cautious mindset might uncover flaws in the reasons?-or might unearth the possibility the message is intended to influence many different audiences. Individuals may feel the message is manipulative, also evoking reactance.

To illustrate, in one of the studies that was conducted by Feiler, Tost, and Grant (2012), alumni of a university received emails, seeking donations. Some of the emails emphasized an altruistic reason: "Giving is your chance to make a difference in the lives of students, faculty, and staff". Other emails emphasized an egoistic or selfish reason: "Alumni report that giving makes them feel good". Finally, some emails emphasized both altruistic and egoistic motivations, the order of which was randomized. Emails that emphasized one, instead of both, of these motivations were two to three times as likely to attract donations. A second study showed the same pattern of results emerged even when all participants were exposed to the same number of reasons.

The third study was similar, except participants were encouraged to donate money to another charity: the Make a Wish foundation, supporting children with conditions that are life threatening. In addition, after they read altruistic reasons, selfish reasons, or both to donate, participants completed questions that assessed the degree to which they were aware they had been persuaded (e.g., "I felt the message was coercive?" and experience a sense of reactance (e.g., "I wanted to resist the attempts of others to influence me"). Both persuasion awareness and psychological reactance mediated the association that related a blend of altruistic and selfish motives to limited intentions to donate, supporting the hypotheses.

Consequences and implications of reactance

As the level of reactance rises, the motivation to reestablish freedom increases accordingly. This response can emerge even if individuals are not aware of this affective state.

Reactance can evoke a series of reactions. First, and perhaps most strikingly, reactance can provoke behaviors that oppose the rules or courses of action that were imposed and encouraged (Buller, Borland, & Burgoon, 1998). Specifically, individuals often show boomerang effects, in which they become more inclined to enact the very behavior that was restricted (Brehm, 1966). Alternatively, they might engage in acts that are similar, but different, to the behavior that has been restricted, such as smoke more often after drugs are prohibited, called related boomerang effects (see Quick & Stephenson, 2007 & Quick & Stephenson, 2008).

Second, other similar individuals can also reestablish this sense of freedom. For example, consider a person who cannot engage in a particular act, such as smoke a cigarette. A close friend who enacts a similar behavior, such as smoke marijuana, partly restores the sense of freedom, diminishing reactance, called indirect restoration (Brehm & Brehm, 1981) or vicarious boomerang effects (see Quick & Stephenson, 2007;; Quick & Stephenson, 2008).

Third, reactance promotes unfavorable attitudes towards the behavior or proposal that has been imposed, such as a prohibition on smoking (see Dillard & Shen, 2005;; Rains & Turner, 2007). For example, prohibitions on smoking might foster adverse attitudes towards these restrictions. Likewise, the message itself might be perceived as flawed or misguided (e.g., Quick & Stephenson, 2007).

Finally, reactance provokes adverse attitudes towards the source of any restriction. That is, individuals who prohibit some free behavior are regarded unfavorably (Miller, Lane, Deatrick, Young, & Potts, 2007).

Therapeutic consequences

In therapeutic contexts, reactance can reduce the efficacy of interventions. For example, interventions to reduce alcoholism tend to be less effective if clients manifest signs of reactance--such as interupt or argue with the clinician (Miller, Lane, Deatrick, Young, & Potts, 2007). Likewise, family therapy is also less likely to be effective, as rated by therapists, when clients manifest signs of reactance (Chamberlain, Patterson, Reid, Kavanagh, & Forgatch, 1984).

Counsellors who are directive-confronting their clients or employees, initiating topics, imparting facts, interpreting comments, addressing resistance, and asking leading questions-are sometimes more likely to provoke reactance, which compromises the efficacy of their interventions (Karno & Longabaugh, 2005). Nevertheless, some clients are less susceptible to reactance& that is, they are more obliging and acquiescent rather than dominant and authoritative in their lives. These individuals do not show appreciable reactance when counsellors are directive, and hence such directive behavior does not compromise the efficacy of interventions (Karno & Longabaugh, 2005).

Self talk

Sometimes, individuals essentially engage in conversations with themselves. They might attempt to motivate themselves, with aphorisms like "I will succeed".

These private conversations may comprise statements, like "I will exercise", or questions, like "Will I exercise?". Statements might promote reactance. That is, individuals might, inadvertently, reject their own aphorisms, especially if these messages seem dogmatic and dictatorial. In contrast, questions are less inclined to promote reactance. These messages are not as dogmatic or dictatorial (Senay, Albarracin, & Noguchi, 2010).

Senay, Albarracin, and Noguchi (2010) conducted some research to verify these assertions. In one study, for example, some participants wrote the phrase "Will I" 20 times. Some other participants wrote the phrase "I will" 20 times. Next, participants completed a task in which they needed to unscramble a series of words, like when and cause, to construct alternative terms, such as hewn and sauce. Relative to participants who wrote "I will" 20 times, participants who wrote "Will I" 20 times solved more of these words. Presumably, the phrase "Will I" evoked less reactance, fostering a sense of enjoyment, promoting persistence, and improving performance on the task.

In a subsequent study, after writing "I will" or "Will I" 20 times, participants were asked to specify the extent to which they plan to exercise next week. In addition, they reported the degree to which they experienced intrinsic motives to exercise rather than pressure or obligation. Participants who wrote the phase "Will I" 20 times intended to exercise more frequently--and this association was mediated by intrinsic motives (Senay, Albarracin, & Noguchi, 2010).

One of the implications of these findings, according to Senay, Albarracin, and Noguchi (2010), is that counselors should often ask their clients whether they plan to engage in some desirable behavior, such as forgive a friend who had acted offensively. Over time, clients might learn to ask questions to themselves, which can promote enjoyment and engagement in their tasks.

Puchalska-Wasyl (2014) clarified this effect of questions. If people encourage themselves with a question and then with a positive answer, their performance on various tasks tends to improve (Puchalska-Wasyl, 2014). For example, after individuals ask themselves something like "Can I complete this task?" and then "Yes I can complete this task", they often perform this activity effectively. In contrast, if individuals do not ask this question first, or follow this question with a negative answer, they do not perform as effectively on this activity.

For example, in one study, participants completed a series of anagrams, in which they needed to unscramble sets of letters to construct words. Before completing this task, however, participants were asked to write a series of words, purportedly to examine their handwriting. They were instructed to write "Will I do it? Yes I will","Will I do it? No I won't", or "I will do it". If participants had been instructed to write "Will I do it? Yes I will", they were more likely to solve many anagrams. They also felt more involved in this task. This pattern of results, however, was observed only when participants felt the prime was directive.

The explanation of these results is not certain. The statement "I will do it" might seem to impinge autonomy, as if imposed by someone else. The question, therefore, might reinstate this autonomy. However, without a positive answer, individuals might experience a sense of uncertainty, and these negative emotions might curb self-efficacy and motivation.

The licencing effect

In some contexts, when individuals are granted an opportunity to perform a desirable act, they subsequently become less inclined to behave appropriately. After individuals are granted an opportunity to express their aversion to sexual discrimination, they become more likely to exhibit prejudice on their next decision. That is, after they act desirably, individuals feel they have established their moral credentials (Monin & Miller, 2001). They do not feel the need to substantiate this identity again, called the licensing effect (see also Sachseva, Iliev, & Medin, 2009).

In a compelling study, conducted by Mazar and Zhong (2010), participants first visited an on-line store. For some participants, the store comprised a large proportion of green products--that is, products that are designed to conserve the environment. For other participants, the store comprised a small proportion of green products.

Participants then evaluated the products. Some participants merely evaluated the aesthetics of these products, however. Other participants evaluated which of these products they would like to purchase. Finally, all participants were granted $6 and told they could distribute a portion to another person.

If participants merely rated the aesthetics of these products, they were more likely to distribute money to another person--and thus act ethically--if they visited the store with many green products. The green products are associated with desirable values& hence, these products might have primed desirable and ethical behavior (Mazar & Zhong, 2010).

In contrast, if participants rated whether they would purchase the products, they were more inclined to distribute money to another person if they visited the store with many green products. In particular, these participants could readily maintain they would purchase many green products. They felt they had established their moral credentials. As a consequence, they no longer felt the need to substantiate their morals (Mazar & Zhong, 2010).

Mazar and Zhong (2010) conducted another study that was similar, except participants were subsequently granted an opportunity to cheat on a task. The same pattern of findings observed: If participants were granted an opportunity to maintain they would purchase many green products, they were more likely to cheat on a subsequent test.

Simarily, after people receive positive feedback about their environmental behavior, they subsequently become less inclined to engage in other environmental behaviors. In particular, this positive feedback fulfills their goal to improve the environment. Hence, this goal is no longer active.

Longoni, Gollwitzer, and Oettingen (2014) conducted a series of studies that vindicate these arguments. In the first study, all the participants were undergraduate students who defined themselves as committed to protecting the environment. Next, participants were encouraged to specify their shopping habits. Purportedly on the basis of these habits, they received positive, neutral, or negative feedback about their environmental behavior. That is, they received high, moderate, or low scores on a variety of attributes associated with the environment, such as sustainability. Finally, participants completed a task that supposedly assessed creativity but actually gauged their tendency to recycle. They received a series of materials, such as colored sheets of paper, and were instructed to construct a hat. The degree to which they later placed these items in recycling bins was assessed. Participants who received positive feedback about their environmental behavior were the least likely to recycle.

Subsequent studies uncovered the reason this positive feedback diminished recycling behavior. In particular, these studies showed that, after they received positive rather than negative feedback, participants did not recognize words associated with the environment as rapidly. In addition, they did not recognize green objects as quickly. Presumably, after people receive positive feedback about their environmental behavior, their goal to engage in these acts is fulfilled. This goal, therefore, is inhibited. Cues associated with this goal, such as words that relate to environmental behavior or green objects, were thus not as likely to be primed.

The effects of direct eye contact

Despite popular opinion, people are not as likely to be persuaded by someone while they sustain eye contact with this person. Direct eye contact may provoke responses that mirror reactance.

In particular, in one study, conducted by Chen, Minson, Schone, and Heinrichs (2013), participants watched videos of speaker who were attempting to disseminate a message. The speakers were facing either directly into the camera or slightly away from the camera. Before and after these videos, participants indicated their attitude towards the issues these speakers discussed, such as nuclear energy, affirmation action, and assisted suicide. The direction of gaze in participants was also monitored.

Participants who tended to initially agree with the speaker's opinion maintained direct eye contact over a longer period. Yet, direct eye contact was negatively associated with the degree to which participants shifted their opinion.

The second study was similar, except some of the features were more tightly controlled. Participants, initially, always disagreed with the speaker. The speaker always faced the camera. Furthermore, the underlying mechanisms were examined in more detail. For example, participants reported the degree to which they felt receptive to the speaker and message. Finally, participants were encouraged to direct their eyes either to the eyes or mouth of the speaker. Direct eye contact was again associated with reduced attitude change, and this relationship was mediated by receptivity.

Presumably, at least in some circumstances or cultures, when individuals feel that someone is staring into their eyes, they feel this person is attempting to establish dominance& the gesture is perceived as a signal of hostility or dominance, especially in settings in which people are trying to persuade one another and thus feel a sense of conflict. In response, individuals tend to become more resistant, similar to reactance, as a means to establish their autonomy.

Measurements of reactance

State reactance

Brehm (1966) felt that state reactance could not be measured. Nevertheless, Dillard and Shen (2005) developed a measure of state reactance. Their measure assumes that reactance is primarily conscious, thus amenable to self report, but entails a blend of emotional and cognitive processes. In particular, they presuppose that reactance entails two main components: anger, aggression, and hostility--often directed to the source of any restriction--and negative thoughts and cogntions (see Rains & Turner, 2007, for further validation of this operationalization).

Quick and Stephenson (2008), however, extended this approach, by also assessing whether or not individuals experience a perceived threat to their freedom, using a scale that comprises four items. That is, they argued the perceived threat should precede the anger and negative cognitions that reflect psychological reactance. Cronbach's alpha for this scale was .92.


Sometimes, direct communication can be more effective, at least over a longer duration, as shown by Overall, Fletcher, Simpson, and Sibley (2008). In their study, romantic partners were videotaped attempting to change each other.

The strategies were coded as positive versus negative and direct versus indirect. For example, positive, direct attempts included rational, logical arguments. Positive, indirect attempts included seeking the perspective of partners, highlighting their qualities, and using humor. Negative direct attempts were more insistent, critical, demanding, and coercive, sometimes involving anger or other adverse emotions. Finally, negative indirect attempts were more subversive, manipulating the partner through guilt or tears, for example.

Initially, the direct strategies were unsuccessful. Over the next 12 months, partners were more likely to change if positive strategies had initially been used. Positive indirect strategies were initially perceived as most successful, but did not correspond to lasting benefits over the 12 month period. When direct communication was applied, individuals were more inclined to engage in the conversation, recognizing the gravity of this issue.


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Last Update: 5/24/2016