The Basic Idea
Teenage years are infamously known as the most difficult and frustrating time for parents. Teenagers are known to not listen to anyone, be reckless, and do stupid things. Some of the most popular films and TV shows are about teenage rebellion – Rebel Without a Cause, West Side Story, Footloose. Even Shakespeare’s good old Romeo and Juliet features two teenagers rebelling against their families’ desires. “Teenage” has become a cultural phenomenon of its own.
However, it isn’t just teenagers who do the opposite of what they’re told. If you tell a heavy drinker to stop drinking, they may respond by drinking even more. If a sign for a museum exhibit says “do not touch,” we suddenly have the urge to touch the exhibit. When the government told people to wear face masks to protect others from COVID-19, protests ensued, as some viewed wearing a mask as an impingement upon their freedom.
This causeless rebellion against advice or instruction can be explained by reactance theory. Proposed by Jack W. Brehm in 1966, this theory posits that when an individual feels that their freedom or control is being threatened by advice, they are motivated to protect their autonomy.1 In this situation, the “forbidden fruit” becomes more desirable, and the individual tries to acquire it by any means.1 More often than not, this results in someone doing the opposite of what they are told. This is why people rebel without any particular cause – they want to restore their threatened freedom and regain control.
Psychological reactance revolves around the concept of freedom. Thus, our perception of freedom influences the extent to which we may show reactance. There are four basic principles implicated by the theory:
- In a given situation, reactance can only occur when an individual believes they have control or freedom over the outcome.
- Reactance to a threat will only be as great as the perceived importance of the freedom. If the freedom being threatened is very important, reactance to it will also be great.
- The greater number of freedoms threatened, the greater will be the reactance aroused. For instance, if a person is asked to stop drinking alcohol altogether, the reactance to this may be greater than if they are asked to drink in moderate amounts.
- Reactance to a threat may increase when there are implications of other threats. For instance, if a professor asks a student not to eat in class, the student may infer that this also means not to drink coffee or have water. The reactance will thus increase.1
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Cognitive Dissonance Theory: When individuals find their attitudes, values, or beliefs conflicting with their behaviours, they are motivated to act in ways that align attitudes and behaviours, which reduces any discomfort arising from this dissonance.3 For instance, if a socially aware person who invests in fast fashion learns about the underpaid workers who produce it, they may attempt to diminish the value of this new information by explaining it away.
Trait Reactance: A person’s inherent tendencies consistently perceive situations as threats to their freedom.2 No matter how a message, request, or piece of advice might be framed, they will perceive it as a threat to their freedom, resulting in reactance.
Reverse Psychology: The mainstream term for “strategic self-anticonformity,” reverse psychology is a tactic used when an individual expects a target to disagree with them, and indicates a false position which is the opposite of their true desire.5 As expected, the target disagrees and is manipulated into agreeing with the individual’s true position. For example, if you want to eat at restaurant A, but know your friend to be disagreeable, you may indicate that you prefer to eat at restaurant B. With their freedom being threatened, your friend would show reactance and choose restaurant A – the place of your choice – while believing that it was their choice.
Prospect Theory: Also known as “loss-aversion theory,” this theory suggests that since people are more sensitive to losses than gains, they would take more risks to avoid losses than acquire equivalent gains.14
Jack W. Brehm first proposed the psychological reactance theory in his seminal 1966 paper. The theory stemmed from cognitive dissonance theory, proposed by Brehm’s dissertation advisor, Leon Festinger, in 1957.2 According to cognitive dissonance theory, people feel a sense of discomfort when their values or beliefs are in conflict with their behaviour. Motivated to maintain consistency between attitudes and behaviours, they try to resolve this dissonance, often by making changes in their attitudes.3 Like cognitive dissonance theory, reactance theory involves reducing discrepancy between attitudes and behaviours, specifically focusing on perceptions of freedom and subsequent behaviours.2
In 1981, Sharon S. Brehm and Jack W. Brehm expanded the theory to include the term “trait reactance.”2 Trait reactance occurs when an individual has a dispositional tendency to consistently perceive threats to their freedom, and thus is motivated to regain it.2 This wave of research has been especially useful in clinical psychology and improving relations between therapists and clients.
In 1991, research on reactance theory was expanded into the realm of communication and message framing by Lillian Southwick Bensley and Rui Wu, who studied how college students reacted to differently framed anti-drinking messages.2 They discovered that strongly worded messages often induced reactance. Furthermore, they found that messages were most effective when people are reminded of their freedom, if the message is novel, uses a narrative, or forewarns people of potential threats to their freedom.2
After ample research was done studying methods to measure reactance, the final wave returned reactance theory research to motivational psychology.2 Brehm had originally proposed the theory as a motivational construct, and from 2006 onwards researchers paired the theory with other motivational frameworks, like self-determination theory.2 This return has solidified reactance theory’s position within the area of motivational psychology.
Jack W. Brehm
Born in 1928, Jack W. Brehm is one of the world’s most influential motivational psychologists. After graduating from Harvard, he completed his PhD dissertation at the University of Minnesota. Working under Leon Festinger, his dissertation was the first cognitive dissonance study to be published, which later formed the foundation for his cornerstone theory: psychological reactance theory. His contributions, however, did not end there. In his later years, Brehm studied desire extensively, formulating two more theories: the theory of motivational intensity and the theory of emotion intensity.4
One of the most common ways we see reactance theory in play is reverse psychology. An individual may use this strategy to trick a target into complying with their wishes by stating the opposite of their true position on a subject.5 For instance, if a mother wants her rebellious teenager to read a certain book, she may tell them not to read it. As the teenager feels as if their freedom of choice is being threatened, they may read the book. The mother’s intended purpose would be achieved, while the teenager would believe that it was their own choice to read the book.
While pop culture likes to use the term “reverse psychology” fairly often, it is debated if the concept holds any scientific validity. A study by MacDonals, Nail and Harper showed that 72% of the participants were able to recall a time when they used reverse psychology to get reassurance from a person, while 38% recalled a time when they used it to persuade someone to do something.5 Whether effective or not, reverse psychology is surely an commonly used persuasion tactic, especially prevalent when individuals need reassurance about their own actions.
Another area of research that has drawn intensively from psychological reactance theory is message framing and prospect theory. Prospect theory suggests that people are more likely to take risks when messages are framed in terms of gains, and less likely to do so when they are framed in terms of losses.6 In a 2015 study, it was postulated that prospect theory may be an indirect consequence of reactance theory. Researchers found that messages framed in terms of loss can arouse guilt, which is positively associated with perceptions of threatened freedom, thus eliciting behaviours related to the reactance theory.6 The researchers concluded that using gain-frame messaging may be more effective, since it is associated with happiness arousal and less reactance-related behaviour.6
Studies on message framing have become especially useful in health communication and persuasion. Over the years, researchers have identified several message characteristics – other than gain-frame messaging – that can reduce reactance and increase compliance with messages. For instance, explicit messages which detail actions that people should take are often perceived as freedom threatening.7 Including a restorative postscript, reminding people that it is finally their choice to follow or not follow the advice, reduces the threat to freedom.7 Providing others with choices can also reduce reactance. Messages that elicit empathy from readers are also effective in mitigating reactance and increasing persuasion.7
Finally, consumer behaviour has gained some remarkable insights from reactance theory. Several studies have shown that when products are unavailable or choices are eliminated, the unavailable products become more desirable. In a 1973 field experiment, Mazis, Settle and Leslie compared opinions of residents in Miami, where phosphate detergents were banned, and those in Tampa, where phosphate detergents weren’t banned. It was found that Miami residents favoured the phosphate detergents more than Tampa residents.8 Further, customers are less likely to buy products when promotional offers place tight restrictions on the number of items they can buy.8 It is important for consumers to feel as though their freedom of choice is intact while making buying decisions.
Some interpretations of psychological reactance have misunderstood what is meant by “freedom.” For example, in a 1975 paper, Dowd argues that ideas such as kinship or maintaining reciprocal relationships are less prevalent among educated, high income, middle class societies than in working class ones because “abstract considerations” of personal freedom are more valued in middle classes.9 In essence, social norms dictate that a person who has received a favour should also return the favour. However, by being obligated to return a favour, a middle class individual may feel their freedom threatened, and may end up not giving back. Thus, middle class societies may exhibit more reactance, while working class societies may exhibit less as they are more inclined to maintain friendship, loyalty, and kinship.9
Unfortunately, Dowd’s analysis, like a few other critical works, does not grasp at the intended meaning of “freedom.” Brehm asserts that his theory is not based on the assumption of general freedoms, like freedom of choice or independence, but rather on specific freedoms, like a choice between one film and another.10 This specific freedom does not threaten other specific freedoms, it may be more or less important than other freedoms, it may be connected to other specific freedoms, and its magnitude may be measured.10 Hence, “freedom” is treated more as a countable noun, rather than an abstract concept. This is an important clarification to consider with regards to psychological reactance.
Child Development and Psychological Reactance
People say that it takes a village to raise a child. After all, taking care of their needs, making sure they don’t get hurt, and allowing them to grow and become their own person are difficult and time consuming tasks. To achieve these goals, parents must exercise a certain degree of control over their children. However, there are multiple dimensions to parental control, some of which can be detrimental to children, including psychological control, pressure, coercion, or intrusion. 11 It is important to understand how parental authority may be exercised for a positive, rather than negative end, especially with adolescents who want to have their freedom and may respond to control with psychological reactance.
In 2015, Van Petegem and colleagues did a study on how parenting styles impact teenage rebelliousness. Over 200 teenage adolescents were given hypothetical vignettes in which parents requested them to study harder.11 This request was framed either in a controlling, neutral, or autonomy-supportive style. Results highlighted that when requests were asked in a controlling manner, teenagers expressed more frustration, pressure, and reactance. Consequently, they acted in a manner opposite to what was asked and did not study.11 In addition to this, they also tested for trait reactance, and found that teenagers who were more reactance oriented were more likely to interpret parental requests as threats to their freedom regardless of how the requests were conveyed. As would be expected, they were more likely to act in an oppositional manner.11
These results were consistent across the adolescent ages, gender, community, and other parental dimensions. This means that, more often than not, controlling parental styles result in pressure on teenagers. Furthermore, reactance was also found to be associated with externalizing behaviours, like attentional problems, aggression, hyperactivity, as well as internalizing behaviours, like social withdrawal, anxiety, and depression.12 A style more conducive to healthy child development is an autonomy-supportive style, where children are more involved in making decisions for themselves, while simultaneously having the support of the parent.13
Therapy and Psychological Reactance
Psychological reactance has been studied in the context of clinical psychology for years. In 1973, Devine and Ferland conducted one of the first studies on effects of voice on treatment, where. They recruited students who were extremely afraid of snakes. They divided them into three groups, each of which would receive therapeutic treatment for their crippling fear.1 Two-thirds of the students were shown videos of four different types of therapy and were asked to mark their preference for each type. Half of this group was assigned to the therapy they most preferred, whereas the other half was assigned to the one they least preferred. The remaining third was randomly assigned to a therapy.1
After receiving two 1-hour sessions of therapy, each participant’s level of fear was assessed. Those who were assigned to their preferred therapy showed substantial improvement with their snake fear compared to those who were randomly assigned or assigned to their least preferred one. This may be because everyone was first asked to state their preference, those in the least-preferred condition may have experienced a threat to their freedom of choice, leading to potential frustration and reactance to therapy.1 These findings emphasize the impact of providing clients with the freedom to choose their form of therapy. However, despite these results replicated in other studies, they should be taken with a grain of salt due to lack of proper baseline measures present in most studies.
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- Brehm, S. S., & Brehm, J. W. (2013). Psychological reactance: A theory of freedom and control. Academic Press.
- Rosenberg, B. D., & Siegel, J. T. (2018). A 50-year review of psychological reactance theory: Do not read this article. Motivation Science, 4(4), 281.
- Cherry, K. (2020). Cognitive Dissonance and Ways to Resolve It. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-cognitive-dissonance-2795012.
- Society for Personality and Social Psychology. (n.d.). Jack W. Brehm. SPSP. https://spsp.org/awards/heritage-wall-of-fame/brehm.
- MacDonald, G., Nail, P. R., & Harper, J. R. (2011). Do people use reverse psychology? An exploration of strategic self-anticonformity. Social Influence, 6(1), 1-14.
- Quick, B. L., Kam, J. A., Morgan, S. E., Montero Liberona, C. A., & Smith, R. A. (2015). Prospect theory, discrete emotions, and freedom threats: An extension of psychological reactance theory. Journal of Communication, 65(1), 40-61.
- Reynolds-Tylus, T. (2019). Psychological reactance and persuasive health communication: a review of the literature. Frontiers in Communication, 4, 56.
- Lessne, G., & Venkatesan, M. (1989). Reactance theory in consumer research: the past, present and future. ACR North American Advances.
- Dowd, J. J. (1975). Distributive Justice and Psychological Reactance: A Convergence of Homans and Brehm. Pacific Sociological Review, 18(4), 421-441.
- Brehm, J. W. (1989). Psychological reactance: Theory and applications. ACR North American Advances.
- Van Petegem, S., Soenens, B., Vansteenkiste, M., & Beyers, W. (2015). Rebels with a cause? Adolescent defiance from the perspective of reactance theory and self‐determination theory. Child Development, 86(3), 903-918.
- Willner, C. J., Gatzke-Kopp, L. M., & Bray, B. C. (2016). The dynamics of internalizing and externalizing comorbidity across the early school years. Development and psychopathology, 28(4pt1), 1033-1052.
- Shenfield, T. (2019, September 19). What is Autonomy Supportive Parenting and How to Practice it. Child Psychology Resources by Dr. Tali Shenfield. https://www.psy-ed.com/wpblog/autonomy-supportive-parenting/.
- Prospect theory. BehavioralEconomics.com | The BE Hub. (2020, October 14). https://www.behavioraleconomics.com/resources/mini-encyclopedia-of-be/prospect-theory/.