Don’t tell me what to do: 6 behavioural insights to overcome reactance
All humans have a reactance bias to varying degrees. At the most basic level we don’t like to be told what to do. Whether that’s a toddler that refuses to eat vegetables, a teenager that won’t tidy their bedroom, or an employee that rants at being micro-managed, our instinctive reaction is to do the exact opposite.
It’s closely linked to autonomy bias1, our innate need to control our own lives, and it kicks in whenever we feel our freedom to make our own decisions and choices is threatened.
Since Brehm2 first identified reactance theory in 1966, a body of evidence has shown that we value freedom so much, we will actually make irrational choices that conflict with our desires and best interests to avoid being told what to do. The amount of reactance felt depends on many things, particularly the perceived importance of the freedom and the size of the threat to it. As always, the cultural context matters – individualistic cultures generally see higher levels of reactance than collectivist ones3.
Reactance is a “hot state” associated with high emotions, anger and negativity4. The harder we are pushed, the more motivated we are to protect our freedoms and push back, known as the Boomerang Effect5. Many studies have shown this in practice – from health promotion messages to buying a pair of jeans, the more assertive communications trigger the most reactance6.
So how can we boost compliance with policies and encourage citizens to make better choices in a way that does not trigger reactance? Here are 6 behavioural insights that may help:
1. Understand the audience and identify possible threats to freedoms
Start by understanding where people are at. Consider their feelings and whether the desired behaviour could impact on their sense of freedom to trigger reactance. If you’re planning a big change, communicate early and clearly to forewarn people of the potential threat. People have to learn about something before they decide to act or reactance takes over, so knowing where your audience is on the journey will enable you to tailor messages appropriately. How many times have you walked away from a pushy salesperson who is trying to make you buy something when you’re just using your freedom to look and learn what is available?
2. Highlight certainty and inevitability
Evidence shows that reactance is more likely if we feel that there’s even a small chance that we could restore our freedom7. In studies, people viewed restrictions that were definitely happening more favourably than those that might not come into effect. Once we understand there is zero chance of overturning a decision, we rationalise the situation and get on with it, whereas any uncertainty increases motivation to reclaim the freedom. Just think back to Brexit.
3. Frame messages to provide a sense of autonomy and choice
Changing the way messages are framed to offer a feeling of choice reduces the sense that our freedoms are being taken away from us. By changing the dialogue, you can move from feeling you “have to” do something to believing that you are in control and using your freedom to choose to act in a certain way. This can be as simple as choosing which task you will tackle first on your to-do list, to what time you will put the recycling out, to picking from a list of specific health and safety improvements. A recent study found that providing choice to select options from a list of environmental, energy or water conservation behaviours was effective at diminishing reactance8.
4. Focus on the positives, use humour and storytelling
Nobody likes to feel they are missing out and we are more likely to experience reactance when we feel we are losing something. The ineffectiveness of “freedom-threatening language” messages has been well-documented across the full range of health behaviours and contexts, whereas a focus on the positive impact of the change can be more enabling9.
Use storytelling narratives to build empathy, increase persuasion and reduce reactance. Similarly, consider using humour and a more playful tone of voice, which has been shown to reduce reactance, especially when delivering difficult requests. Content that is entertaining is also more likely to be noticed and remembered.
5. Choose the right messenger
Depending on the context, we are more likely to feel reactance if information is delivered by an authority figure10. Choosing relatable messengers can make a significant difference to how the request lands, so consider peer to peer strategies, and tap into communities of interest.
6. Use reactance to motivate action
The anger activism model shows the potential to use reactance to trigger action where the audience is favourable and feels they have a chance of success. However, this can backfire among those who have a negative attitude to the issue. Think Stop Climate Chaos, Extinction Rebellion, Just Stop Oil and similar movements. One study by Quick to advocate for policies banning smoking indoors showed that increased anger towards second-hand smoke as a violation of the personal freedom to breathe clean air, increased support for smoke-free spaces11.
So reactance isn’t always negative. It can also be used as an internal motivator to drive positive action or in campaigns to encourage people to aspire to “against-the-odds” seemingly impossible goals.
If this has triggered any thoughts for you, I’d love to talk. You can choose to contact me by email or phone if you’d like. I’m really hoping for 100+ conversations as my boss told me that would be an impossible dream for my little blog. Thank you if you’re still reading this. 😊
- Zemack‐Rugar, Y., Moore, S. G., & Fitzsimons, G. J. (2017). Just do it! Why committed consumers react negatively to assertive ads. Journal of Consumer Psychology https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2017-06668-001
- Laurin, K., Kay, A. C., & Fitzsimons, G. J. (2012). Reactance versus rationalization: Divergent responses to policies that constrain freedom. Psychological Science, 23(2), 205 https://doi.org/10.1177/0956797611429468
- Psychological Reactance and Persuasive Health Communication: A Review of the Literature – Tobias Reynolds-Tylus https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fcomm.2019.00056/full