Resisting Persuasion

Resisting Persuasion Definition

Resistance is central to persuasion. Without resistance, persuasion is not necessary. Resistance to persuasion can be desirable, for example, when non-smokers repeatedly resist advertisements and peer pressure encouraging them to smoke. But resistance can also be an undesirable characteristic, as when smokers resist the many strong messages encouraging them to stop smoking and prolong their lives.

Resisting PersuasionEffective resistance can be used to ward off unwanted persuasion, but inappropriate resistance can close a person off to meaningful changes. Skepticism, reactance, and inertia are three kinds of resistance that work in different way to limit persuasion. People can do many things to increase or to decrease their own or other people’s resistance to persuasion.

Three Kinds of Persuasion Resistance

Resistance to persuasion is not just one single thing. One encounters three kinds of resistance: skepticism, reactance, and inertia.

Skepticism is resistance to the content of the message. Skepticism focuses on the logic and evidence of the arguments in the message, and produces a desire to critically evaluate and refute those arguments.

Reactance refers to the negative reaction people have to someone else telling them what to think or do. Reactance is resistance to the influence attempt itself. The contrariness produced by reactance leads people to counter the persuasion, no matter what it advocates, and to reestablish their freedom to think by choosing the opposite.

Inertia is an objection to change itself, no matter which change is advocated. With inertia, people don’t pay attention to the message. They aren’t interested in the change. They just want to keep things the way they are.

Increasing Resistance to Persuasion

Sometimes it is advisable to increase one’s own resistance or someone else’s resistance to unwanted persuasion. Skepticism can be strengthened by (a) increasing a person’s motivation to examine the message and (b) assembling information and tools to effectively evaluate a message. Realizing that persuasion is coming will energize both aspects of skepticism. Also, considering the ways this topic is personally important will increase the energy available to critically and carefully think through a message or proposal.

Reactance can be increased by focusing on how the persuasion is manipulative and aimed at limiting freedom. Reactance is stronger when the unwanted influence is directed toward more important values and actions, and when the unwanted influence is more intrusive and offensive. Thoughts that emphasize these aspects of the influence increase the reactance form of resistance.

Inertial resistance can be strengthened by focusing on the current situation, particularly on what is liked about the present situation, and how difficult it would be to change. The nonsmoker who makes a mental list of the top five things to like about being a nonsmoker is bolstering inertia.

Decreasing Resistance to Persuasion

There are times when a person meets resistance, even his or her own resistance to a proposal, and feels that it is baseless and that it prevents a recommendation or change from being realistically considered. In these cases, it may be useful for the person to think of ways to minimize or reduce resistance. Most people think first to overwhelm resistance with debate, explaining why resistance is unreasonable or unnecessary. This tactic rarely works, and most often creates reactance. But some more subtle and effective ways do allow resistance to be minimized.

Skepticism is usually a good quality, but it can be overused and get in the way of making good decisions. A subtle way to diminish skepticism is to provide a guarantee, which eliminates the need for skepticism and scrutiny by assuring that a bad outcome will be repaired. When a guarantee is not feasible, asking the person (or yourself) to consider the proposal for the future—for example, “What if next year at this time you were a nonsmoker?”—can reduce skepticism. Assessing a proposal for the future (next week, next month, next year) diminishes the influence of the costs and allows the benefits to be considered more clearly.

Framing proposals differently can also greatly affect how the request is considered. Listen to these two ways of framing a request and their respective result: Pat asked her father if she could watch TV while she did homework, and he said “Certainly not!” Pat’s sister asked her father if she could do homework while she watched TV, and he said, “That would be great!” Framing this case as a request about changing TV watching was much more effective than framing it as a request about how one does homework.

Reactance can be lessened by minimizing the pushiness or offensiveness of the request. This can be done by making a smaller request, which might be followed later by a larger one. Reactance can also be diminished by making the request politely. Saying, “I know that you might not want to, but would you… ” rather than simply saying “Would you… ” increases persuasion dramatically. Another way to minimize reactance is to put the message into a story about someone who acted in a certain way and achieved a certain result. A story sidesteps reactance because the message is not, “you should…,” but “Jesse did and it worked for her.” With stories, people are interested in what happened next, without analyzing or contesting what happened they way they would with a direct message.

The interesting problem with inertia is that this form of resistance is unresponsive to persuasion. It is the tuning out of persuasive messages. So, to reduce inertia, one has to do something to make the person tune in to the message. Many television ads are designed on the principle that they first have to capture the audience members’ attention before they can hear the message. Bright lights, loud sounds, humor, confusing beginnings, and unexpected events are all ways that advertisements use to overcome inertia.


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