Reactance Theory
But I Wanted That One!

If you are around a bunch of toddlers someday and are feeling like a social scientist, you can try this experiment.  All you need is some time and a large piece of plexiglass.  First, observe the children in a play setting and determine each child’s preference for toys.  Ultimately you must find for each child two toys that are about equally liked.

The second thing you need to do is select one child, the child’s two toys, and the large sheet of plexiglass.  Then put the two toys in front of the child about three or four feet apart.  Now, put the large piece of plex in front of one toy such that the child can easily see the toy, but because of the plexiglass, cannot get to it.  Now let the kid pick a toy.

What happens?

Of course, the child immediately toddles over to the toy with the plexiglass barrier and starts wailing.  He will plow into the glass like a little robot.  He will pound on the plex.  He will try to crawl over it like a Marine in boot camp.  He will do everything but go after the other toy that is freely and easily available to him.  He wants THAT one!

Children are so silly, aren’t they?  And a perfect illustration of reactance.  According to this theory of reactance, whenever we perceive a threat to our freedom of action, we experience a state of reactance.  We get angry.  We are being unfairly put upon.  We pound on the plex.  We want THAT one!

Kids provide daily examples of reactance.  But so do adults.

Tide logoDid you hear about the Great Detergent Riots?  This one is amazing.  In the 1960s a city in Florida banned the sale of detergents that contained phosphates.  You could not own Tide or Cheer or Whisk if it had phosphates in it.  Now, it is important to note that phosphates have no impact whatsoever on the cleaning effectiveness of the detergent.  The phosphates were banned for environmental reasons.

Here’s the amazing part.  In the weeks before the ban went into effect, stores reported a run on phosphate-containing detergents.  Not the “clean” detergents.  Just the ones with phosphates.  And, after the ban when into effect, stores in the city limits reported a drop in the sale of their detergents.  Instead, stores outside the city limits reported increases in the sales of their phosphate-laden detergents!

Process Of The Theory

Reactance Theory is really quite simple.  It operates in three simple steps that are sequentially connected.  Pay close attention to the first step because it is the key and defining feature of Reactance Theory.

Step 1.  People perceive an unfair restriction on their actions.

The key word here is, “unfair.”  People can accept restrictions, but they must feel that the restriction is reasonable, equal, and just.  For a toddler, the unfair restriction is the plexiglass panel.  For adults, the unfair restriction is the banned phosphates.  Something is denied and that denial is unreasonable, unjust, and maybe even unAmerican.

Another classic example concerns teen-age dating.  Take a case where a daughter brings home a young man who is totally unacceptable to her father.  If the father were to “ban” dating that boy, he would run the risk of eliciting reactance from the daughter.  Indeed, this is almost a cliché and everyone knows of an instance where a hardheaded parent literally drove a child into the arms of an undesirable partner.

When the restriction is unfair (they don’t know why it was applied, or it only applies for some people, or it is too tough), the next stage occurs.  It may sound familiar.

Step 2.  A state of reactance is activated.

Reactance is an intense motivational state.  A person with reactance is emotional, single-minded, and somewhat irrational.  It arises because we have been wronged and we aren’t gonna take it anymore.  Reactance is important to understand because it has strong motivational properties and leads to the final stage.

Step 3.  The person must act to remove the reactance.

The motivational qualities of reactance are so strong that the person must do something about it.  The reactance cannot be ignored or put aside.  In particular the person is motivated to either “right the wrong” or to get around the restriction.  In other words, people with reactance will try to get the unfair restriction removed or they will try to subvert the restriction.

Another consequence of reactance at Step Three is that people will tend to overvalue the action that was unfairly restricted.  In the study on detergents, housewives rated the phosphate-based detergent as a better cleaning product than the one without phosphates even though phosphates have no real chemical impact on cleaning.

If you think about reactance, you realize that it operates a lot like dissonance.  Both reactance and dissonance are powerful motivating agents.  Reactance, while very similar, has one distinctive feature.  People experience reactance when someone else does something to them (the unfair restriction).  Dissonance, by contrast, is experienced when people themselves do some thing inconsistent.

Research Demonstrations

Let’s consider quickly several different experiments that have been done testing the scope and range of reactance.  It has been tested in a surprisingly wide variety of contexts.

Reactance Warning LabelThink about Warning Labels. Ostensibly, a warning label informs receivers about a risk or threat from the product.  To make the threat stand out, warning labels typically provide more than just a mere listing of ingredients because just listing requires receivers to figure out the risk for themselves.  Helpful persuasion sources want to provide more assistance than just the ingredients.

Bushman and Stack tested the impact of such warning labels on adolescents and their interest in “banned” TV programing that contained violence.  Let me quote from their abstract:

In Experiment 1, it was found that warning labels increased interest in violent programs, especially when the label source was authoritative. In Experiment 2, it was found that high-reactance individuals were especially interested in viewing violent programs with warning labels. In Experiment 3, it was found that warning labels increased interest in violent programs more than did information labels. These results are consistent with forbidden fruit theory.

So, reactance demonstrates how a common sense approach to help others can actually backfire.  Now, of course this study was done with teens and violence and of course youth are more reactant than adults.  Right?

Well, that killjoy Professor Bushman did another warning label study, this time on – get ready, Center for Science in the Public Interest – high fat warning labels on food with college adults.  Again, I’ll quote from the abstract.

Participants in a taste test study were randomly assigned to 1 of 3 groups: warning label (e.g., “In this product, 90% of the calories come from fat. Warning: The U.S. Surgeon General has determined that eating high fat food increases your risk of heart disease.”), information label (e.g., “In this product, 90% of the calories come from fat.”), and no label. Participants rated how much they wanted to taste full-, reduced-, and no-fat cream cheeses, and they chose 1 type to eat. People in the warning- and no-label groups wanted to taste the full-fat product more than those in the information-label group. People in the warning- and information-label groups were less likely to eat the full-fat product than those in the no-label group. People reacted to the warning label but avoided the full-fat product. For products with credible and familiar risks, information labels may be more effective than warning labels because they don’t arouse reactance.

How about that?  Warning labels can actually serve to make the dangerous thing more attractive.  When the label implies a restriction on freedom of choice, people may find the label a challenge and thus motivate the very action the label maker sought to avoid.

Sexual Violence. Researcher have looked at men who have a propensity towards using force to gain sex.  Reactance, if you think about it, could play a motivational role.  For some men, a woman’s refusal to have sex can function as a perceived unfair restriction on the man’s behavior.

To summarize our theory simply: When a man desires sex with a woman and she refuses his advances, either explicitly or implicitly, he encounters a choice point. He may press forward for sex despite her disinterest, or he may accept her refusal and cease all efforts. Reactance gives rise to impulses to force the issue and press more for sex. Narcissistic tendencies increase the likelihood that the man will experience reactance in the first place (upon the woman’s refusal) and increase his tendency to resort to coercive force instead of accepting her refusal.

Professor Baumeister tested these propositions in a lab study.  Of course you cannot create a situation where someone could actually get attacked, so you must set back from reality and look at indicators, precursors, or correlates.  Here’s how Baumeister handled it.

In Study 3, we sought to experimentally assess how high and low narcissists reacted when a woman denied them something sexual in nature. For obvious reasons, we used analog procedures that fell short of full-fledged date rape. That is, we sought to create a situation that was analogous in theoretical terms to events that might occur in a date rape situation. Male participants believed they were involved in a study assessing perceptions of pornographic material. We told them a female actor would read them a piece of pornographic prose (thereby leading them to expect a form of sexual stimulation), which they would later evaluate. The female actor stopped reading the sexual prose at the same point for all participants. For some participants, however, the female was very reluctant to read the prose, and eventually she refused to read any more, leading the male participants to believe that they had been denied access to the sexual material. For other participants, the female actor read the entire passage without stopping and without prodding from the experimenter.

Do you think some guys would get reactant with this?

After this manipulation all the men were asked several questions about the woman actor, specifically:  Would you want to participate in another study with this women; how much should this woman be paid for her work in the study; and whether she should be hired for new work.  Men who both scored high on narcissism and faced the “reluctant reader” responded negatively to her at moderate to large Windowpane effects (e.g. 35/65 to 25/75).  All other men in the other conditions reported positive evaluations.  It was only the reactant narcissists.

Pangs of Helpfulness.  Ever feel a slight twinge of resentment when somebody you like asks for help?  Leonard Berkowitz reviewed a series of experiments on helping behavior in a wide variety of contexts, both in lab and field settings.  His take on it is summarized nicely here:

A demand, explicit or implicit, to help someone, and even a felt obligation to do this, is often resented because the demand or Reactance Donationobligation is a bothersome threat to the individual’s freedom of action.  Evidence is cited in accord with Brehm’s reactance theory indicating that increased pressure to aid a person in need at times reduces the individual’s willingness to help the person who is dependent upon him.  Experiments demonstrate that this “reactance effect” is lessened when the individual is in a good mood, and is increased when he is self-concerned and when the help request seems improper or unwarranted.

Thus, even when we know that helping is the “right thing” to do, we may experience a negative response if we feel the request for help unfairly restricts our choices.  Prosocial virtues make backfire on us.

Blog Post:  The Wall Street Journal ran a great article that expressed exactly this line of research based on the author’s recent shopping experiences over the Christmas holidays.  Check out the post and the article for a first-person account of this experimental demonstrated effect.

Reactance Brussel SproutsMake ‘Em Like Brussel Sprouts.  Reactance can function in that common sense notion of “reverse psychology.”  If you deny people access to something, it elicits reactance, and motivates a stronger desire for that denied thing.  But even if that thing is Brussel Sprouts?  A couple of experimental studies have demonstrated how you can motivate positive behavior towards a previously disliked object.

Wilson and Lassiter conducted an experiment with children to use reactance to motivate desire for an unattractive toy.  The experimenters identified a toy that children did not use in free play, then ran an experiment with two conditions.  In control, kids were allowed to play with any toy, including the unused one.  In treatment, kids were told they could NOT play with THAT toy.  Later, both groups of kids were given chances to play with the toy.  Control kids spent an average of 47 seconds with it while kids who were denied it in the earlier session played with it twice as long, 103 seconds.

West used reactance with college women to change their attitude towards – get ready – dorm food!  He pretested a small group of 27 women to determine that they really didn’t like the cafeteria food (who wudda guessed!).  A few days later each woman was contacted with one of three messages:  one message told them they could not use the cafeteria for two weeks; the second told them they could not get soda pop in the cafeteria for two weeks; and the third merely announced a coming movie presentation to be held in the cafeteria.  Shortly after receiving the message, each women completed another survey that included their attitude toward cafeteria food.  Only women receiving the message denying them access to the cafeteria changed their evaluation, in a moderately more favorable direction!

Vicarious Reactance.  By now, you’re getting a sense of how reactance operates and how to elicit it.  You just do something that immediately restricts or promises to restrict a person’s freedom of choice.  But what happens if you merely see it happen to someone else.  Can you vicariously experience reactance even though there’s no direct threat or restriction to you? Andreoli, Worchel, and Folger conducted a baroque lab experiment to test this intriguing proposition.  They employed a cover story with a script right out of a Danny Ocean heist movie that involved a of of acting, careful timing, and elaborate warren of rooms and offices.  Participants watched as confederates carefully played different reactance scripts not realizing that they were actually the ones in the experiment.  Participant in the strong reactance condition showed the greatest amount of predicted change even though they only observed restrictions on other people.

Real Life Implications

Reactance clearly operates in many surprising and unexpected ways.  Sure, the “reverse psychology” implication is pretty obvious and most of us pick up on this without working very hard.  But the other implications with aggression, favorable attitude change, resentment at help requests, and boomer-ranging warning labels makes this theory more subtle and more widely useful.  Whenever people sense that their autonomy, independence, and self control is threatened they will react.  What’s interesting here is the realization that such issues operate in many situations we do not expect.

I find the research on warning labels to be most compelling.  Here you are trying to do a good deed by explaining a risk to people that may be harmed, yet within this do-gooder deed lies the seeds of its own destruction as some people perceive the label as a threat to their own autonomy and good sense.  It’s a real trick to provide enough “neutral” information to people so that they quickly size up a threat, yet not cast the information in a way that threatens their freedom of choice and action.  Everyone who works in health and safety regulations should read everything they can get their hands on with reactance theory!

Also consider the interesting and deadly combination of narcissism and reactance in some men in sexual situations.  Either one factor would not be sufficient to create aggression, but combined they motivate antisocial behavior.  Thus, something that is understandable and perhaps even justified – the reactant response to unfair restriction – can produce unacceptable and unjustified action.

I think you need to know about Reactance for another reason.  Virtually everyone has some power to create and enforce rules, procedures, events, etc.  You decide what will happen, when it will happen, in what order, and by whom.  You need to realize that if you use that power in a way that is perceived as an unfair restriction on your target’s freedom, they will be unhappy campers.  And the reason this occurs is reactance.

Everyone has had the bewildering and enraging experience of giving a “lawful order” and then seeing people erupt in defiance and rebellion.  What this theory suggests is that we somehow or another managed to present the order in a way that pushed the Reactance button.

When this happens, nothing good follows and people usually don’t like each other, too.  Instead of dealing with the problem the new order was supposed to fix, you are dealing with the problems caused by giving the order.  This is not effective.

Worse still, some of us do not respond well when our targets question our authority.  We then get defensive and strike back at this unbelievable display of insolent aggression and put them in their place.  We’ll show ‘em this time.  Lob in a couple of nukes.  This, too, is not effective.

Remember, reactance is not a logical or reasonable response.  It is the reaction of a highly motivated, emotional person who believes that a serious injustice has been perpetrated.  It does no good to ignore the reactance, nor is it a good idea to fight the reactance.  Fighting the reactance throws more fuel on the fire, giving the person an even stronger motivation to rebel, to resist, to deny.

So, what does it all mean?

First, when you sense that your targets are responding with reactance, take a step back.  The situation is telling you that you probably need to take a few minutes to understand what is going on and to try and understand how everyone is reacting.  This is a great moment to apply all your effective communication skills.  What you are trying to find is the “unfair restriction.”

Second, when you are making rules, present them in a way that is likely to minimize Reactance.  Remember, Reactance comes from perceived unfairness, not from the rule itself.  People do not tend to object to rules, but rather how those rules are developed, presented, or interpreted.  Several tactics are effective here.

Provide a rationale or explanation, then present the rules.  If everyone first understand the “problem,” they are more likely to accept the “solution” without Reactance.

Involve the targets in making the rules.  Certainly there are some situations where your targets cannot make all the rules, but there must be areas you think they can handle this responsibility.  If people participate in the rule-making, it is almost impossible for reactance to occur.  The process is inherently fair and reasonable if everyone is involved in it (taxation with representation, right?).

Accept feedback on the rules and modify them appropriately.  If during your presentation of rules, a person has a good suggestion, use it.  Change a rule.  Maybe even throw one out.  And if you want to be a Serious Influence Agent, you might even put in a rule or two that you know is outrageous so that you can trade it off when your targets object (look at the Page on the Two Step with door-in-the-face).

I’ll close with another consideration of reactance and warning labels. It is an article of faith in the medical and safety community that big, ugly warning labels that scare the Other Guys are among the most effective persuasion plays they can use. They are wrong. Warning labels often produce perverse persuasion effects, making things worse in some cases. You need only look at the work on Calorie Counts on Menus. Anytime you hear somebody shouting for warning labels, smile. You’ve got a fish in the barrel.

References And Recommended Readings

Andreoli, V., Worchel, S., & Folger, R. (1974).  Implied threat to behavioral freedom.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30, 765-771.

Baumeister, R. F., Catanese, K. R., & Wallace, H. M. (2002). Conquest by force: A narcissistic reactance theory of rape and sexual coercion. Review of General Psychology, 6, 92-135.

Berkowitz, L. (1973). Reactance and the unwillingness to help others. Psychological Bulletin, 79, 310-317.

Brehm, J. (1966). A theory of psychological reactance.  New York: Academic Press.

Brehm, J., & Weintraub, M. (1977). Physical barriers and psychological reactance: 2-year-olds response to threats to freedom.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 35, 830-836.

Bushman, B. J. (1998). Effects of warning and information labels on consumption of full-fat, reduced-fat, and no-fat products. Journal of Applied Psychology, 83, 97-101.

Bushman, B. J., Bonacci, A. M., van Dijk, M., & Baumeister, R. F. (2003). Narcissism, sexual refusal, and aggression: Testing a narcissistic reactance model of sexual coercion. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84, 1027-1040.

Bushman, B. J., & Stack, A. D. (1996). Forbidden fruit versus tainted fruit: Effects of warning labels on attraction to television violence. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Applied, 2, 207-226.

West, S. (1975).  Increasing the Attractiveness of College Cafeteria Food: A Reactance Theory Perspective.  Journal of Applied Psychology, 60, 656-658.

Wilson, T. & Lassiter, G. (1982).  Increasing intrinsic interest with superfluous extrinsic constraints. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 42, 811-819.