Psychological reactance is a cognitive bias that was initially studied by Brehm in 1966 that describes the extreme reactions human beings experience when we feel as though we are being pushed towards doing something or as though our freedom to make our own choices is being threatened. Reactance is a psychological defence mechanism that we utilise more or less subconsciously in order to try and get back our freedom.
We become “motivationally aroused”, meaning we’re flooded with an excess of righteous motivation that leads us to fight for those freedoms. This often presents itself as a Boomerang Effect of non-conformity, meaning we in fact end up supporting the very position or behaviour that we were being pushed away from. In other words, when we feel we are being forced into something, we often end up with a very negative perception of whatever that is and in fact tend to do the exact opposite thing as a form of extreme resistance.
Research has shown that the more we feel our freedom of choice is being threatened the more elevated and extreme our reactance will be.
Kiesler, Mathog, Pool & Howenstine conducted an experiment by contacting two groups of young women and asking them to sign a petition for opening a family planning and contraception clinic. One of these groups was then also sent some anti-contraception propaganda.
The experiment revealed that many more of the women from the group who had also received this anti-contraception propaganda signed the petition supporting the family planning and contraception clinic than from the group that had not. Instead of inciting a negative reaction against contraception as the propaganda had intended, it had in fact had the opposite result, encouraging the women to support the contrasting cause.
Sometimes reactance is visible when someone does something they know they shouldn’t just as a way of disrespecting authority or acting rebellious. An awareness of psychological reactance can be effective for persuasive strategies, especially in marketing, to encourage a certain behaviour or reaction from your customers or to avoid being subject to a Boomerang effect.