Psychological reactance is a phenomenon that involves a hostile motivational reaction to offers, persons, rules, or regulations that are perceived to threaten behavioral freedoms and agency (Steindl et al., 2015).
Reactance may occur when an individual feels that someone or something is attempting to limit or control their choice of response or behavior. This perceived threat to behavioral freedom can elicit an unpleasant or hostile response (Rosenberg & Siegel, 2018).
Reactance is especially likely to occur if an individual feels heavily pressured into accepting a particular view, behavior, or rule.
Reactance can even encourage the individual to adopt attitudes or behaviors contrary to what was intended. This can mean that reactance can increase resistance to persuasion. So, reactance is studied in health messaging, where reactance to important health advice can have significant adverse outcomes (Reynolds-Tylus, 2019).
Psychological Reactance Definition
“Why is it that a child sometimes does the opposite of what he is told? Why would a person sometimes dislike receiving a favor? Why is propaganda frequently ineffective in persuading people? And why would the grass in the adjacent pasture ever appear greener?” (Brehm, 1966, p. 5)
Jack Brehm, Ph.D., introduced the theory of psychological reactance in 1966. This theory was his attempt at explaining the often-observed phenomenon that people are resistant to social influence (Brehm, 1966; Miron & Brehm, 2006).
In other words, researchers who study psychological reactance try to answer the question: Why are some people so resistant to advice, guidelines, or rules?
The phenomenon of psychological reactance is centered around threats to freedom and the motivation to regain them.
When an individual believes their freedom to feel, think, or behave a certain way is being threatened or removed, this can elicit a strong emotional response. Prompted by this emotional response, the individual may be motivated to re-establish their threatened freedom (Steindl et al., 2015).
The strength of the reactance is often matched to the perceived importance of the threatened freedom. If an individual believes an important freedom is being threatened, they are likely to be especially resistant (Brehm & Brehm, 2013).
Similarly, suppose an individual feels that multiple freedoms are threatened. In that case, they may be more resistant than if they felt only one freedom was being threatened.
Social reactance can have important large-scale implications for understanding human behavior, especially in fields like education, public health, and medicine.
Psychological reactance isn’t a guaranteed behavioral response. Additionally, some people are more likely to resist perceived social influence than others.
Causes and Processes of Psychological Reactance
There are four important components to reactance theory: perceived freedom, a threat to freedom, reactance, and restoration of freedom (Brehm & Brehm, 2013; Miron & Brehm, 2006; Steindl et al., 2015).
- Perceived freedom: Reactance can only occur if an individual believes they have control or freedom in the first place.
- Threat to freedom: The threat to that freedom initiates the reactance. Threats to freedom often mean feeling like you can’t engage in certain behaviors. A threat to freedom could also occur if you feel someone is trying to persuade you to engage in a behavior you don’t want to go along with.
- Reactance: Reactance is the motivational arousal response to threatened or limited freedom. It motivates the person to restore perceived freedom.
- Restoration of freedom: A direct restoration of freedom occurs when the threatened individual exhibits or engages in the restricted behavior.
As you can imagine, psychological reactance has big implications for almost anything that involves persuasion. So, what are some tactics to try to avoid reactance?
Suppose you are trying to persuade someone to engage in a behavior. In that case, reverse psychology is one way to try to flip the response or reaction in your favor by influencing someone to choose the opposite behavior of what is being requested.
10 Psychological Reactance Examples
- Reactance and Rules. A high school that previously had a free dress policy adopts a new strict uniform. The students are upset and feel that their freedom to express themselves how they want through their clothing choices is now restricted. So, they resist the uniform by breaking the dress code and making alterations to their uniforms.
- Disobeying signs. If you’ve ever been to an art museum, you’ve likely seen many signs that say, “Do not touch the art.” Museums must employ many security guards and gallery attendants since these signs are so frequently disregarded. Some people may not notice those signs, but others may be experiencing reactance by purposefully touching the art.
- Perceived Freedom: For reactance to occur, people must believe that they have freedom over their behavior or choices in the first place. If people don’t believe they have control over an outcome, they may experience less reactance. However, if you feel you have control over an outcome, like whether or not you use your phone in class, having that freedom threatened may elicit a negative response.
- Reactance and Public Health. One large-scale example of psychological reactance in recent history was the widespread resistance to guidelines around wearing masks during the COVID-19 pandemic. In many countries, large groups protested mask guidelines and mandates because they felt their freedoms were being infringed upon.
- Cigarette smoking is another commonly used example of reactance having significant implications for public health. For example, reactance is a significant indicator of adolescent smoking onset (Miller et al., 2006). This finding has important implications for antismoking messaging. Telling teenagers not to smoke could reverse the intended effect and increase smoking initiation rates.
- Reverse Psychology. Have you ever had a friend that tends to be a bit disagreeable? They may be more prone to reactance, but tactics like reverse psychology could allow you to use that reactance in your favor. For example, let’s say you want to see movie A, but you’re worried that if you suggest it, your friend will want to see movie B. So, you suggest movie B. Your friend might show reactance and choose movie A, the movie of your choice while believing that it was their choice.
- Minimizing Reactance. Besides reverse psychology, undesired outcomes of reactance can be minimized by reducing the number of freedoms an individual feels are threatened and considering how important that perceived freedom is to an individual. For example, suppose you’re setting a rule over a behavior someone doesn’t care about. In that case, they’re much less likely to resist it.
- Reactance and Child Development. Early in life, infants may look to their parents for emotional cues to behave or react in certain situations. However, as children get older and become more aware of their perceived freedoms, reactance may occur. For example, a child may reach for a piece of candy, and their parent responds, “No sugary candy on school nights.” Unfortunately, the child may start sneaking many pieces of candy in response. The child is experiencing reactance because they feel their freedom is being threatened, so they seek to protect it by doing the opposite of what they were told.
- Potential Benefits of Reactance. Reactance can be a beneficial response if someone tries to persuade you or manipulate you into something harmful. For example, displaying resistance may be important to protect your boundaries at work if you have a manager that asks you to do more work than you’re actually paid for.
- Negatives of Reactance. As we’re reviewed, reactance can have significant public health implications. But being too ready to resist social influence can also have personal consequences, like making it harder to get along with others.
Overall, psychological reactance describes why people sometimes have an impulse to resist social influence, persuasion, or new rules and regulations. Reactance is the gut reaction of saying, “Don’t tell me what to do!”
The likelihood of experiencing reactance is influenced by many factors including perceived freedom, a threat to that freedom, the importance of that freedom to the individual, and the number of freedoms being threatened.
Some people are more likely to experience reactance than others, and others may experience reactance even when the persuasion or rule is good for them. So understanding reactance can have significant personal and large-scale implications.
Brehm, J. W. (1966). A theory of psychological reactance (pp. x, 135). Academic Press.
Brehm, S. S., & Brehm, J. W. (2013). Psychological Reactance: A Theory of Freedom and Control. Academic Press.
Miller, C. H., Burgoon, M., Grandpre, J. R., & Alvaro, E. M. (2006). Identifying Principal Risk Factors for the Initiation of Adolescent Smoking Behaviors: The Significance of Psychological Reactance. Health Communication, 19(3), 241–252. https://doi.org/10.1207/s15327027hc1903_6
Miron, A., & Brehm, J. (2006). Reactance Theory—40 Years Later. Zeitschrift Fur Sozialpsychologie – Z SOZPSYCHOL, 37, 9–18. https://doi.org/10.1024/0044-3522.214.171.124
Reynolds-Tylus, T. (2019). Psychological Reactance and Persuasive Health Communication: A Review of the Literature. Frontiers in Communication, 4. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fcomm.2019.00056
Rosenberg, B. D., & Siegel, J. T. (2018). A 50-year review of psychological reactance theory: Do not read this article. Motivation Science, 4, 281–300. https://doi.org/10.1037/mot0000091
Steindl, C., Jonas, E., Sittenthaler, S., Traut-Mattausch, E., & Greenberg, J. (2015). Understanding Psychological Reactance. Zeitschrift Fur Psychologie, 223(4), 205–214. https://doi.org/10.1027/2151-2604/a000222
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]