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Reactance – I won’t do what you tell me!

“Why don’t you just do as you’re told?” is a phrase I heard many times as a child. Perhaps I often had a strong aversion to the specific instructions I was given, or perhaps I really didn’t like being told what to do. If it was the latter, then I was exhibiting a psychological response known as reactance, whereby we are motivated to rebel against what we are asked if we feel our personal freedoms or available choices are under threat.

Reactance – the motivation to rebel against offers, instructions, rules or people that are perceived to limit behavioral freedom or available choices

Originally introduced in 1966 in a seminal text by Brehm, reactance is a response to the perception of a threat to specific behavioral freedoms. It occurs when someone feels heavily pressured into a course of action or viewpoint and can result in strengthening the contrary view and increasing resistance to persuasion. The greater importance that someone places on individual freedoms and the more freedoms they perceive to be under threat, the more reactance they will feel.

Reactance is related to the negativity effect, the phenomenon that makes people more sensitive to losses than gains and thus highly motivated to avoid the perceived loss of their behavioral freedoms.

Simon Cowell, I won’t do what you tell me!

This response can be witnessed at the individual level, or in the actions of large groups. Back in 2009, a national wave of reactance swept the UK in response to the D-list celebrity creating TV singing contest, the X-factor. In the UK, one of the most celebrated achievements in music is to have a song at the top of the sales charts on Christmas day. From 2005 to 2008 this glory was achieved by the winner of that year’s X-factor contest. A feeling built up in the country that TV’s Mr “cruelty is an apt substitute for wit”, Simon Cowell, was telling people what to listen to. And the British people really don’t like to be told what to do! An ensuing internet campaign resulted in Rage Against the Machine’s infamous expletive-driven anthem “Killing in the Name” being propelled to Christmas number one, featuring a chorus that repeats the phrase “**** you, I won’t do what you tell me!” over and over.

Nudging reactance out of the way

Behavioral “nudge” techniques, as explored by Thaler and Sunstein, can be used to reduce reactance. Such techniques look to shape behavior and outcomes, not by limiting freedoms or available choices, but by carefully structuring the way people encounter their different options when making a decision. Nudging people towards certain desired behaviors can benefit them and society, whilst retaining personal freedoms can help minimize reactance to those behaviors.

A famous success for the public good using these techniques was that of auto-escalation in pension savings. People sign up to increase their pension contributions at fixed dates in the future, often timed to coincide with pay rises. The discounting effect on future payments makes it feel less painful than increasing payments today, and by the time the increase comes around people don’t notice it happening and continue with payments at the higher rate. In their Save More Tomorrow program, Thaler and Benartzi highlight that auto-escalation is most effective if participants are allowed to opt out at any time. In practice, people rarely cancel their auto-escalation commitments once they are activated, but they are more likely to activate them if they know their freedom to walk away has not been surrendered.

Less for the public good, this is exactly the same technique used by free trials of subscription services where the subscription payment automatically activates once the initial free period lapses.

♫Dee da da, dee da da, dee dum, Barbara Streisand

What’s the first thing you do when someone exclaims “don’t look”? If you’re anything like me, your eyes are immediately drawn – much to my dismay once when sharing a tent with my friend Jack at a music festival. The exclamation not only draws our attention, but reactance means that the forbidden nature of the subject makes us all the more interested. The marketing team of the 1979 comedy Monty Python’s Life of Brian, made full use of this effect by promoting the movie in Sweden as “The film so funny, it was banned in Norway”.

This phenomenon is known as the Streisand effect. It is named after the American actress and singer who once tried to have photos of her Californian home suppressed from a document highlighting coastal erosion. The photo subsequently received far more attention than before the intervention, the New York electronic duo Duck Sauce even wrote a song to perpetuate the effect.

In what turned out to be his last weeks in office, the former British prime minister, Boris Johnson, fell foul of the Streisand effect. In June 2022 his office persuaded the Times newspaper to remove a published article about him. But the paper had already gone to print, so it was only removed from the online edition. Eagle-eyed readers spotted this removal, attracting far more attention to the story and resulting in far more graphic and damaging details emerging than were included in the original article.

It’s for your own good

We need to pay close attention to possible reactance when developing the messaging of public health initiatives. Even the best intended campaigns have the potential to be derailed if they are seen as too prescriptive, resulting in ramifications for long-term health and longevity trends.

The success of public health policies aimed at things like improving diets, increasing exercise or stopping the spread of an airborne respiratory disease will depend largely on the amount of reactance with which they are met (unless they are very strictly policed). If the messaging is too prescriptive, some populations who exhibit high levels of reactance are likely to rebel and won’t receive the benefits from the initiative. We have recently seen higher levels of reactance, and lower levels of compliance to face-mask mandates from populations that place higher values on individual freedoms compared to collective good.

Different populations, both at the national level and at the societal level, will place different importance on individual freedoms versus collective good, and therefore exhibit different levels of reactance to public good initiatives. Reactance could therefore be a driver of differences in long term longevity trends between countries and sub-groups of national populations.

I want to be a brain surgeon!

Perhaps the most familiar exposure to reactance comes from the popular persuasion technique known as “reverse psychology”, where parents, schoolteachers and video game designers alike request the exact opposite of their wards than they actually desire. Hearing a strong command for a specific behavior, the reactance effect will drive the opposite response – which is of course the true intention. In Pickett family legend, when my sister was young and misbehaving my dad once told her “Since you’ve been misbehaving, I won’t allow you to become a brain surgeon”. She responded by running around shouting “I want to be a brain surgeon”. Well played dad!

What do you think?

Be it a reaction to pension saving recommendations, politicians trying to cover up misdemeanours, face mask mandates or the contrary nature of a headstrong child, reactance is a powerful response and is worth keeping in mind whenever making requests of other people.

How strongly do you feel reactance? Has it ever helped you or held you back in some way?

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