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