In general, people don’t like to be told what to do. When we feel pressured to hold a particular opinion or behave in a certain way, we don’t respond that well. Instead, we respond by trying to reassert the freedom that feels threatened, thereby resisting persuasion. This feeling of frustration-meets-resistance is called psychological reactance.
To give you a clear example, think about health messages. The tricky goal of a health advocate is to say “listen, you’re doing something that will hurt yourself and others, and you need to stop.” The problem, of course, is that this kind of message is threatening. It can come across as saying “you’re no longer free to do this thing that you enjoy doing.” For example, campaigns designed to get young people to avoid drinking alcohol may be doomed to fail from the start for this very reason.
Resistance to Persuasion from Feeling Coerced
According to some theories of reactance, when you make it seem like someone else can’t exercise their individual freedom, there are a few things that can happen. The first and most commonly studied is the “boomerang effect.” This is when people actually engage in the very behavior that someone else told them not to. In other words, the more we are told we can’t do something, the more we want to do it.
Another outcome is the “vicarious boomerang,” which is when people respond not by engaging in the behavior itself but by associating themselves with other people who engage in the restricted behavior. Think about teens who feel restricted when their parents forbid them from smoking cigarettes. Although they might not pick up smoking because of it, they might start to hang out with peers who smoke.
Finally, there is the “related boomerang,” which is when people respond not by engaging in the behavior itself but by engaging in a related behavior. As an example, imagine someone is told that he’s not allowed to consume any alcohol. That person might respond by instead engaging more in other unhealthy behaviors like eating high fat foods or engaging more in other risky behaviors like motorcycling.
How Persuasive Messages Can Create Reactance
To give you an idea of how experimenters are able to create the feeling of reactance, consider the following introduction to a brief essay arguing for the inclusion of an advertising major at a particular university: “Here are my reasons for wanting a major in advertising at UNCG. They’re good reasons, so I know you completely agree with all of them. Because when you think about it you are really forced to agree with me because this is a universal student issue” (source).
This is a great example of “dogmatic language.” It’s the kind of message that includes phrases like “you must,” “it is impossible to deny,” and “you have to.” In fact, new research suggests that direct eye contact is associated with greater reactance, and as a result, people become less persuaded. It is also the case that some people just tend to be more prone to responding with reactance to freedom-threatening messages than others.
What Reactance Ultimately Means
What is interesting about this, I think, is that people become more predictable when their freedom is threatened than when it isn’t, but not in the way most people would think. You might expect that when someone’s freedom feels limited, he feels no option but to go along with what the other person is saying; however, the reality is that the person will reliably go in the other direction, and resist what the other person is saying.
When we think we’re capable of thinking for ourselves, the last thing we want is to feel forced to think a certain way. If you’re in the business of persuasion, then, you might have a perfectly valid point, and the other person might even agree with it, but if you make your arguments too forcefully and assume that the person has no other option but to agree, it may only serve to drive that person further away.
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