Mind & Body

Reactance Is Why You Act Irrationally When Your Freedom Is Threatened

Teenagers don't exactly love being grounded. They tend to yell, or storm off, or sneak out to parties anyway. This is less because they're young, it turns out, than because it's human nature. When we sense our freedoms are under threat, we all tend to act out, sometimes irrationally, to reestablish our sense that we're free. Psychologists call this "reactance."

What Is Reactance?

Psychologist John Brehm first proposed the concept of reactance in 1966. At the time, psychology as a field was very interested in how persuasion worked. Brehm, however, was more interested in how persuasion failed, though, and reactance was often a factor. If someone feels like you're bossing them around, it triggers reactance, and they're unlikely to see your perspective.

In fact, people often do the diametric opposite of what "bossy" figures tell them to. In one study, a judge warned a mock jury to disregard inadmissible evidence, with no further explanation. While another jury that had simply been told certain evidence was inadmissible ignored that evidence in their deliberations, the jury that was admonished by the judge felt their freedom to interpret it themselves was under threat — and they used the evidence to make their final decision, in spite of the judge's directions.

You don't need to be a judge to provoke reactance, though — far from it. Most things we consider "bad news" can be viewed as a loss of freedom. Injuries and illnesses restrict your physical freedom. Getting dumped means you lose your freedom to see your partner when you want, and your freedom to choose if and when the relationship ends. Being fired is a similar double whammy.

Most of this "bad news" is really just sudden change, which can be framed as an opportunity. Getting dumped, for instance, can be viewed as an opportunity to meet new people. But when people lash out in response to change, it's usually because they perceive their freedom to be dwindling. This triggers reactance, a psychological phenomenon, but that, in turn, triggers a burst of adrenaline. Something akin to the fight-or-flight instinct kicks in. People feel compelled to do something, even if it's stupid or counterproductive.

Why Does Reactance Matter?

Interestingly, though reactance can manifest explosively and even violently, it also explains a lot of indecision and inaction. In a 1970 study, participants had to choose between two different styles of interview. One style wasn't obviously better than the other. People tended to put off making the choice at all because they felt most free with two attractive options in front of them. Choosing one would be exercising freedom, but it would also feel like a loss of freedom. (Exhibit A: every love triangle on TV.)

One thing reactance doesn't mean is that humans inherently dislike rules and constraints, though. We do like some limits. In fact, too much choice can make us unhappy. In one study, people shopped at a display of either six or 24 jams. Those with fewer choices were more likely to buy jam, and more likely to feel good about their selection. Still, other studies have shown that you're more likely to buy a product with two options than you are if there's only one. What triggers reactance is not that our freedom is limited, but that freedoms we already have feel like they're slipping away. It's a key distinction.

So what do you do with this situation? When you know reactance is possible, you can figure out an optimal way to deliver bad news without triggering the feeling. It's best if it comes with a built-in choice, so the recipient feels some freedom — we're breaking up, but you decide how we divvy up the furniture! — and an immediate, constructive activity that will soak up some adrenaline — you're getting demoted, and can you walk down to HR to pick up some paperwork? By granting the illusion of freedom and providing an active distraction, you can help keep lashing out to a minimum.

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As we said, a loss of freedom is often just an opportunity for change. To explore how to make change easier, check out "Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard" by Chip and Dan Heath. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

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Written by Mae Rice July 27, 2018

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