Broadly, reactance refers to the idea that people become upset when their freedom is threatened or eliminated, so much so that they attempt to reassert their lost freedom. The theory is relevant to the idea that humans are motivated to possess and preserve as many options and choices as possible. When people’s options are restricted, they experience aversive emotional consequences. Reactance is very similar to a layperson’s idea of reverse psychology: Humans will tend to do the opposite of what they are told to. Being ordered to do something by an external person or source implies that someone is trying to reduce one’s freedom. Reactance also refers to the idea that people will want something more if they are told they cannot have it. As a result, humans may act in a manner that will oppose a resistance presented to their freedom.
Reactance Background and History
Psychological reactance theory was first proposed by the social psychologist Jack Brehm in 1966. Reactance theory is still considered to be one of the basic psychological theories; it has withstood decades of testing and can be applied to many aspects of human behavior.
Reactance theory is important because it highlights people’s need for control, freedom of action and choice, as well as people’s desire to preserve as many options as possible. Indeed, the theory was devised during a decade when people were constantly advocating and rallying about freedom of choice and action. Brehm observed that humans react strongly to having options taking away by external forces; they become quite upset and will take action to preserve or regain their lost options.
Many psychologists have noted that humans have a very strong aversion to loss, both in options and choices. Essentially, humans value freedom greatly. They like having options so much that they will incur costs to their own self just to maintain options, even if the options they keep open aren’t that important or profitable. Think about what would happen if you woke up one day and heard on the news that you no longer have the right to vote; most likely you would become very upset—people value the ability to vote in a democratic society. Though this may seem like an extreme example, even people who do not exercise the right to vote would be upset. Indeed, many people would immediately revolt because someone else is trying to infringe on one of their basic freedoms.
Reactance theory highlights the simple, but important, fact that people value their freedom: When this freedom of behavior and choice is threatened, people will engage in motivated behavior, designed to take steps that will reassert and regain that freedom. In the former example, citizens will rally, petition, they may even become aggressive, if necessary, to try and regain freedom or options they feel are jeopardized.
A subtler example can be demonstrated by one of the original studies on reactance. Participants were asked to rate a series of records and then list the three they desired the most. Importantly, participants were promised that they could keep one of the records. After ranking their top three choices, participants were told that their third choice was unavailable. The researchers found that when participants were asked to rate the records again, the choice that was no longer available (their third choice) would then be rated as more attractive than it originally was. Simply because the option was no longer available, people actually valued it more.
Consequences of Reactance
When people react, they become aroused. That is, they become upset, distressed, angry, or emotionally charged. Over the decades, researchers have been able to identify three main ways that people direct this arousal. These are known as the main consequences of psychological reactance.
First, an object, action, or freedom becomes more attractive after it has been eliminated or threatened. That is, the desire for that behavior or object will increase, as seen in the previous example. This consequence also applies to things such as people and behaviors, not just objects. For example, teenagers who are told by their parents that they cannot attend a party on the weekend want to go to that party more than before their parents restricted the teenagers’ behavior. Even if the teenagers originally had no intention of attending the party, once they are told they cannot, they will desire going to the party more than before.
Second, people will engage in behavioral attempts to reassert the threatened or eliminated freedom. That is, a person will try to regain his or her freedom or options. According to reactance theory, when parents forbid teenagers to attend the party, the teenagers will engage in behaviors that they think will increase their chances of regaining their options. For example, they may begin arguing with their parents about the benefits (e.g., social acceptance) and costs (e.g., exclusion, being the only one in the class not attending) of attending the party. Hence, the teenagers will try to regain the ability to attend the party.
Often people will even engage exactly in the same behavior that was threatened or eliminated. Thus, if the teenagers cannot convince their parents to let them go, they may go anyway, either by sneaking out of the house or pretending to do something else, such as going to a respected friend’s house.
Finally, reactance may lead people to feel or act aggressively toward the person who is attempting to restrict their freedom. For example, in times of war, citizens whose country is being occupied may feel intense hatred toward the enemy (occupiers) such that they have aggressive thoughts, and sometimes even aggressive actions, toward the enemy.
Influences on Degree of Reactance
The magnitude of reactance is not exactly the same for each person, nor for each situation. Rather, it depends on several key factors. First, the importance of the action or choice determines the degree of reactance to the loss. That is, when something that is very important to a person is in jeopardy, that person will probably experience stronger reactance (i.e., more arousal, increased attempt to regain). For example, students wishing to enroll in a course would probably value enrolling in it more if it is required to graduate than if it is only an elective. Consequently, if it is required to graduate and they are unable to enroll in it because the course is full, they will react more strongly than if they had wanted to take it simply as an elective. Moreover, the students who value it more will probably try and reassert their ability to take that course by pleading their case to the professor or department, whereas those students who wanted to take it as an elective might just attempt to enroll in the course next semester (though, to be sure, they will probably want to take the course more than before).
If an option or behavior has not been taken away, but has only been threatened to be taken away, the perceived magnitude of the threat (that is, if only a threat exists) will determine the strength of the reactance experienced by the person. If the threat is blatantly strong, then the person will experience stronger psychological reactance in response to the threat.
Importance of Reactance
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. For example, after a couple breaks up, the person who initiated the end of the relationship is better able to cope and often feels a maintained sense of control. The person who did not have control over the termination of the relationship, however, will typically want his or her ex-partner back even more. That person also tends to feel a lack of control over the situation, which can be accompanied by wanting the ex-partner back more, being unable to think about anything else, and taking extreme steps to try and win that person back.
Men who are refused by women they believe they should have the opportunity to sleep with may become angry and coercive, even to the point of raping her. Moreover, sometimes reactance will produce behavior that is opposite of what was intended. This could be one reason why restrictions on violent video games and movies, pornographic material, or unhealthy behaviors such as smoking or drinking underage leads to the opposite of the intended effect. Humans will even use this basic knowledge to their advantage. For example, some parents may try to have their children cooperate by using reverse psychology on them.
- Brehm, J. W., & Brehm, S. S. (1981). Psychological reactance. New York: Wiley.