Understanding Psychological Reactance

Christina Steindl, University of Salzburg, Department of Psychology, Social Psychology, Hellbrunnerstraße 34, 5020 Salzburg, Austria, Tel. +43(0) 662 8044-5164, Fax +43(0) 662 8044-5126, E-mail ta.ca.gbs@2ldniets.anitsirhc
Distributed under the Hogrefe OpenMind License [http://dx.doi.org/10.1027/a000001]

Abstract. Since Brehm first proposed reactance theory in 1966, many studies have explored the remarkable psychological phenomenon of reactance, which Miron and Brehm reviewed in 2006. We present an overview of research that has been done since then. A variety of studies have provided interesting new insights into the theory, adding to what is known about the phenomenon of reactance and the processes activated when people are confronted with threats to their freedom. Nevertheless, many issues that have not been clarified remain to be examined. We therefore close with proposing some suggestions for future research.

“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. v).

Almost 60 years have passed since Brehm presented a theory of psychological reactance as an answer to these questions. Reactance – the motivation to regain a freedom after it has been lost or threatened – leads people to resist the social influence of others. Since Brehm’s first publication on reactance in 1966, the phenomenon has attracted attention in basic as well as applied research in areas such as health, marketing, politics, and education, and a wealth of reactance studies have been published. Forty years after Brehm’s first publication, Miron and Brehm (2006) reviewed those areas they found especially relevant and pointed to several gaps in the research. Inspired by their review paper, we set out to explore the research addressing these gaps. About 50 years after the theory was first proposed, it is much clearer what reactance is and what role it plays when freedoms are threatened. However, there are still unanswered but important questions for psychology to clarify.

With the questions Miron and Brehm (2006) asked and the research they reviewed as a starting point, we set out to consider more recent advances. Here, we present our review of research on the measurement of reactance, the role of culture and self, vicarious reactance, determinants of reactance in the context of persuasion, and the crucial role of motivation in reactance processes. We review studies indicating different reactance processes – some of them showing that specific freedom threats arouse an intermingled state of affect and cognition and some of them showing that specific freedom threats arouse an immediate, emotional reaction while others arouse a cognitive and a delayed emotional reaction. We conclude by discussing remaining issues and future research directions.

In summary, recent research suggests that reactance can indeed be measured. It is possible to assess people’s experience of a threatening situation, the cognitive and affective processes that are activated by it, and the physiological arousal and activity in the brain that accompany the attempt to restore freedom. However, the extent to which people are affected by threats to their freedom and the resulting motivation to restore their freedom strongly depend on a person’s self being involved in the reactance process.

Further evidence illustrating the motivational character of reactance comes from Laurin, Kay, and Fitzsimons (2012). They explained the contradictory effect that some people may endorse a decision even though they are not in favor of it. Two factors determining the reaction to restrictions are the absoluteness of a restriction and self-relevance. If the threat is absolute, that is, sure to come into effect, people rationalize it. If it is nonabsolute, that is, it may not come into effect, people respond with reactance. Both effects, rationalization and reactance, were strongest if the restriction was self-relevant.

The differences in reactance processes that are due to one’s self being involved in the threat raise the issue of vicarious reactance, in which a person experiences reactance to a threat to another individual or group, even if the threat does not have any implications for the person’s own freedom of choice (Miron & Brehm, 2006). Is it possible to experience reactance on behalf of another person? What happens when people observe the restriction of another person?

In a nutshell, research in the cultural context has shown that reactance is a state that (a) is influenced by people’s cultural self-construal and (b) can also be experienced vicariously. Only if the freedom threat affects aspects that are important to the self do people show reactance. This illuminates that reactance is motivational in nature. The motivational nature of reactance also becomes evident in the different reactance processes we described before – people’s responses to self-experienced and illegitimate threats appear to be more impulsive, whereas the responses to vicarious and legitimate threats seem to be more reflective. Similar different processes can also be found in the persuasion context.

However, this is not always the case. Kray, Reb, Galinsky, and Thompson (2004) found in a study on stereotype threat and negotiation that only an explicit expectation of behavior led to the exact opposite behavior. While an implicit activation of the stereotype that men are better in negotiating led to lower performance in women, an explicit activation led to higher performance in women.

Furthermore, how do cognition and affect combine in different types of freedom threats? Is there a difference between restricting a freedom versus imposing an alternative, and if so, how does this difference affect emotional experience, cognition, motivation, and physiological arousal? Although it is difficult to explore these processes in real-world phenomena, it would be enormously enriching for reactance research.

As people are often threatened by other people, reactance plays a crucial role in interaction processes. In any social interaction, one person’s reaction influences the other person’s experience, behavior, and cognition, which in turn affects the first person, and so on (Steindl & Jonas, in press). Freedom threats are probably common in many social interactions. Customers may feel restricted by salespeople. Service providers may feel controlled by those they serve. Patients may feel constrained by doctors and therapists. Marital partners may perceive threats to their freedoms from their spouses. Future research might consider the dynamics of these reactance processes in a wide range of social contexts, to reach an understanding of how people’s reactions to freedom threats mutually affect each other. The papers in the present volume hopefully both address these new questions and will serve to stimulate further efforts to do so.

The first author of this article was financially supported by the Doctoral College “Imaging the Mind” of the Austrian Science Fund (FWF-W1233).

1On a 5-point response scale participants responded to the items “The message threatened my freedom to choose”; “The message tried to make a decision for me”; “The message tried to manipulate me”; and “The message tried to pressure me.”

2This experience of reactance scale consisted of the items “How reasonable would a favor like that appear to you?”; “How restricted would you feel in your freedom of choice?”; “How legitimate would a favor like that appear to you?”; “How much would you feel under pressure by being told you are the only one that can provide her this favor?”; “How much would a favor like that bother you?”; and “How irritated would you probably feel by a request like that?”

3In a second study, this result was moderated by dispositional reactance: Participants high in dispositional reactance solved fewer anagrams correctly if they were primed with the person who wanted them to work hard than if they were primed with the person who wanted them to relax. Interestingly, participants low in dispositional reactance showed the best performance if they were primed to work hard.