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Psychological reactance

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Reactance is an emotional reaction in direct contradiction to rules or regulations that threaten or eliminate specific behavioral freedoms. It can occur when someone is heavily pressured to accept a certain view or attitude. Reactance can cause the person to adopt or strengthen a view or attitude that is contrary to what was intended and also increases resistance to persuasion. Mild examples are a boy being all the more interested in a girl playing "hard to get", or teenagers drinking to excess in an environment of prohibition when they would not do so in a less restrictive culture. People using "reverse psychology" are playing on at least an informal awareness of reactance, attempting to influence someone to choose the opposite of what they request. This is a frequent method used in fraudulent or unethical sales pitches, manipulating a consumer into choosing an option they would not necessarily have chosen logically.


Psychological reactance occurs in response to threats to perceived behavioral freedoms [1] [2]. One's freedom to select when and how to conduct one's behavior, and the level one is aware of the relevant freedom -- and is able to determine behaviors necessary to satisfy that freedom -- affects the generation of psychological reactance. It is assumed that if a person's behavioral freedom is threatened or reduced, he or she will become motivationally aroused. The fear of loss of further freedoms can spark this arousal and motivate reestablishing the threatened freedom. Because this motivational state is a result of the perceived reduction of one's freedom of action, it is considered a counterforce, and thus is called "psychological reactance."

There are four important elements to reactance theory: perceived freedom, threat to freedom, reactance, and restoration of freedom. Freedom is not an abstract consideration, but rather a feeling associated with real behaviors. Free behaviors include actions in addition to emotions and attitudes.


The theory assumes there are "free behaviors" individuals perceive of and can take part in at any given moment. For a behavior to be free, the individual must have the relevant physical and psychological abilities to partake in it, and must know that he or she can engage in it at the moment or in the near future. "Behavior" includes any imaginable act. More specifically, behaviors may be explained as "what one does (or doesn't)," "how one does something," or "when one does something." It is not always clear, to an observer, or the individuals themselves, if they hold a particular freedom to engage in a given behavior. When a person has such a free behavior, he or she is likely to experience reactance whenever that behaviors is restricted, eliminated or threatened with elimination.

There are several rules associated with free behaviors and reactance:

1. When certain free behaviors are threatened or removed, the more important a free behavior is to a certain individual the more the magnitude of the reactance.
1a. The level of reactance has a direct relationship to the importance of eliminated or threatened behavioral freedom in relationship to the importance of other freedoms at the time.
2. With a given set of individual's free behaviors, the more the proportion threatened or eliminated, the greater will be the total level of reactance.
3. When an important free behavior has been threatened with cancellation, the greater the threat, the greater will be the level of reactance.
3a. When there is a loss of a single free behavior there may be by implication a related threat of removable of other free behaviors now or in the future.
3b. Because a free behavior may threatened or eliminated by virtue of elimination or threat of another free behavior. Therefore a free behavior may be threatened by the relation of elimination of or threat of another person's free behavior.

Another core concept of the theory is Justification and Legitimacy. A possible effect of justification is a limitation of the threat to a specific behavior or set of behaviors. For example, if Mr. Doe states that he is interfering with Mrs. Smith's expectations because of an emergency, this also allows Mrs. Smith to imagine that Mr. Doe will interfere in future occasions as well. Likewise, legitimacy may point to a set of behaviors threatened since there will be a general assumption that an illegitimate interference with a person's freedom is less likely to occur. With legitimacy there is an additional implication that a person's freedom is equivocal.

Effects of reactanceEdit

In the phenomenology of reactance there is no assumption that a person will be aware of reactance. When he is, he will feel a higher level of self-direction in relationship to his own behavior. In other words, he will feel that he is able to do what he wants, then he does not have to do what he does not want. In this case when the freedom is in question, he alone is the director of his own behavior. When considering the direct reestablishment of freedom, the greater the magnitude of reactance the more the individual will try to reestablish the freedom that has been lost or threatened. When a freedom is threatened by a social pressure then reactance will lead a person to resist that pressure. Also when there are restraints against a direct reestablishment of freedom, there can be attempts at reestablishment by implication whenever possible. Freedom can and may be reestablished by a social implication. When an individual has lost a free behavior because of a social threat, then the participation in a like free behavior by another person similar to himself will allow him to reestablish his own freedom. In summary the definition of psychological reactance is a motivational state that is aimed at reestablishment of a threatened or eliminated freedom. A short explanation of the concept is that the level of reactance has a direct relationship between the importance of a freedom which is eliminated or threatened and a proportion of free behaviors eliminated or threatened.

Empirical evidenceEdit

Psychological Reactance and the Attractiveness of Unobtainable Objects: Sex Differences in Children's Responses to an Elimination of Freedom

This study examined the differences in sex and age in a child's view of the attractiveness of obtained and unobtainable objects. The study reviewed how well children respond in these situations. The study determined if the children being observed thought that the grass was greener on the other side. It also determined how well the child made peace with the world if he or she devalues what he or she could not have. This body of work concluded when a child cannot have what heor she wants they will experience emotional consequences of not getting it. In this study the results were duplicated from a previous study by Hammock and Brehm. The male subjects wanted what they could not obtain, however the female subjects did not conform to the theory of reactance. Although their freedom to choose was taken away it had no overall effect on them.

Deflecting Reactance: The Role of Similarity in Increasing Compliance and Reducing Resistance [3]

This study concludes that one way to increase the activity of a threatened freedom is to censor it or provide a threatening message toward the activity. In turn a "boomerang effect" occurs of which one chooses forbidden decision alternatives. This study also shows that social influence has better results when it does not threaten one's core freedoms. Two concepts revealed in this study are that a communicator may be able to increase the positive force toward compliance by increasing his or her credibility. Also increasing positive force and decreasing the negative communication force simultaneously should increase compliance.

Identifying Principal Risk Factors for the Initiation of Adolescent Smoking Behaviors: The Significance of Psychological Reactance [4]

Psychological reactance is an important indicator in adolescent smoking initiation. Peer intimacy, peer individuation, and intergenerational individuation are strong predictors of psychological reactance. The overall results of the study indicate that children think that they are capable of making their own decisions although they are not aware of their own limitations. This is an indicator that adolescents will experience reactance to authoritative control especially the proscriptions and prescriptions of adult behaviors that they view as hedonically relevant.

Measurement of reactanceEdit

On the Nature of Reactance and its Role in Persuasive Health Communication

James Dillard and Lijiang Shen provided evidence that psychological reactance could be measured[5] (despite the contrary opinion of Jack Brehm, who developed the theory). In their work they measured the impact of psychological reactance with two parallel studies: one advocating flossing and the other urging students to limit their alcohol intake.

They formed four conclusions about reactance. First reactance is mostly cognitive. This allows reactance to be measurable by self-report techniques. Also, in support of previous research, they conclude reactance is in part very much related to an anger response. This verifies Brehm's description that during the reactance experience one tends to have hostile or aggressive feelings, often aimed more at the source of a threatening message than at the message itself. Finally, within reactance, both cognition and affect are intertwined. Dillard and Shen suggest they are so intertwined that there effects on persuasion cannot be distinguished from each other.

Dillard and Shen's research indicates reactance can effectively be studied using established self-report methods. Furthermore, it provided a better understanding of reactance theory and its relationship to persuasive health communication.

Psychological Reactance and Promotional Health Messages: The Effects of Controlling Language, Lexical Concreteness, and the Restoration of Freedom[6]

This research was conducted by Miller et al. at the University of Oklahoma. Their primary goal was to measure the effects of controlling language in promotional health messages. Their research revisited the notion of restoring freedom by examining the use of a short postscripted message tagged on the end of a promotional health appeal. Results of the study indicated that more concrete messages generate greater attention than less concrete (more abstract) messages. Also, the source of concrete messages can be seen as more credible than the source of abstract messages. They concluded that the use of more concrete, low-controlling language, and the restoration of freedom through inclusion of a choice emphasizing postscript may offer the best solution to reducing ambiguity and reactance created by overtly persuasive health appeals.

See alsoEdit


  1. Brehm, J. W. (1966). A theory of psychological reactance. Academic Press.
  2. Brehm, S. S., & Brehm, J. W. (1981). Psychological Reactance: A Theory of Freedom and Control. Academic Press.
  3. Silvia, P. J. (2005). Deflecting reactance: The role of similarity in increasing compliance and reducing resistance. Basic and Applied Social Psychology, 27, 227–284.
  4. *Miller, C. H., Burgoon, M., Grandpre, J., & Alvaro, E. (2006). Identifying principal risk factors for the initiation of adolescent smoking behaviors: The significance of psychological reactance. Health Communication 19, 241-252.
  5. Dillard, J., & Shen, L. (2005). On the nature of reactance and its role in persuasive health communication. Communication Monographs, 72, 144-168.
  6. Miller, C. H., Lane, L. T., Deatrick, L. M., Young, A. M. & Potts, K. A. (2007). Psychological reactance and promotional health messages: The effects of controlling language, lexical concreteness, and the restoration of freedom. Human Communication Research, 33, 219-240.
  • Baron, R. A., et al. (2006). Social psychology, Pearson

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