Psychological reactance is related to the layperson’s notion of reverse psychology: tell someone to do something, and they will do the opposite.
However, it’s not always that easy. This lesson discusses several types of reactance and the factors that influence the behavior.
Definition of Psychological Reactance
Have you ever known someone, perhaps a young person, who seemed to do exactly the opposite of what he or she was asked to do? Sometimes it seems like it would be easier to tell them to do the opposite of what you want them to do; this is commonly known as reverse psychology. Usually, we think of children behaving in this manner, but the phenomenon has been observed in adults, as well. In psychology, this type of behavior is an example of reactance.While reverse psychology is more of a layperson’s concept than an actual part of psychology, it does help to illustrate the basic premise behind reactance. In psychology, reactance refers to a way in which a person thinks or behaves when perceiving a threat to his or her freedom.
There are several types of reactance, as we’ll see here now.
Theory and Examples
Reactance occurs as a result of a person’s drive to protect his or her own perceived personal freedom. A variety of authority figures and consequences can restrict this freedom.
Reactance has both a mental and a behavioral component. The mental component involves assessing one’s options for any given choice, while the behavioral component is the part of the process observable from the outside.For instance, Charlie’s mom tells him to wear his dress shoes instead of his sneakers to church.
Suddenly, wearing the sneakers seems like a much more attractive choice because of his mother’s insistence that he not wear them. In choosing to wear sneakers instead, Charlie protects his freedom by doing what his mother told him not to do.The freedom to choose a behavior must exist in the first place. People who don’t experience a particular freedom, or have no meaningful choice in the matter, don’t experience reactance, since their independence isn’t threatened. If Charlie’s family were poor, for example, and couldn’t afford more than one pair of shoes for him, then there wouldn’t be an issue; Charlie wouldn’t have a choice, and he would be much less likely to react.In extremely young children, reactance occurs less, since they aren’t able to make many of the choices involved in their day-to-day activities. When Charlie was a toddler, his mother would have ensured he wore proper attire to church because she helped him dress.
As children grow older, however, reactance becomes more common as they protect their freedom by acting against caretakers’ suggestions. They can act in this way even if the suggestions are sound, and the actions are against their own self-interest. For instance, Charlie’s mom tells him not to use his red fire truck as a skateboard because it’s dangerous. She also tells him he could break it that way. Charlie continues to use the toy in that manner and eventually breaks it.While the observable part of reactance is the behavior, it’s based upon how choices appear to the person engaging in the behavior.
Using the toy truck as a skateboard is suddenly even more attractive to Charlie. Now he perceives that he’s acting under his own agency, which he wouldn’t be doing if he listened to his mother.
Types of Reactance
A variety of behaviors fall under reactance. The one we’ve already touched upon occurs when someone acts in a way completely contrary to what some sort of authority wants the person to do. As we’ve already seen with the toy truck, acting contrary to instructions is not always practical and can have negative results. For example, if Charlie’s mom gives him a good scolding on Sunday, he will likely stop wearing the wrong shoes to church. He can, however, still react by confiding in his favorite uncle, Dave, that his mom is really lame about Sunday clothes.
Or, he can react by wearing the right shoes, but otherwise making a mess out of his Sunday clothes – untucking his shirt or getting his clothes dirty while playing after church, for instance.Reactance sometimes occurs when a person makes a choice that cuts off other choices. For example, Charlie gets a certain amount of lunch money every day at school and can choose what he wants, but he can’t have it all. Let’s say that in the lunch line, there’s pizza, Jell-O, ice cream sandwiches, lasagna, and fried chicken. He can also go to the vending machines where they sell a lot of his favorite treats, like potato chips and candy bars. As the line is moving, he has to choose something, so he gets the pizza and the jell-O.
After he’s paid for his lunch and sits down with his friends, he looks longingly at the ice cream one of his friends has chosen, and then he sees another friend eating the fried chicken, which also looks really good. He’s remorseful that he made the wrong choice.In this case, he’s not reacting against an authority figure at all; instead, he’s reacting against the consequence of having made a choice. Suddenly, the food he didn’t choose is more attractive than the food he did choose. In fact, the more choices there are, the harder it is for him to make a decision because more choices mean more options are ultimately removed by making the choice.
Applying reverse psychology sometimes works on someone who is reactant, but it’s rather non-scientific. It’s a bit more complicated than that. Reactance functions within a complicated web of social and psychological interaction. Reactance refers to a way in which a person thinks or behaves when perceiving a threat to his or her freedom. It can take various forms and sometimes causes people to make decisions that function against their interest (such as ignoring good advice), but it generally influences a person to do things they’re told not to do. There must be choices present–like being able to have more than one pair of shoes–for reactant behavior to occur because a person’s independence can’t be threatened when there is no choice to begin with. In addition, having many options can give a person a sense of more choices being cut off altogether, leading to even less freedom.