Imagine you've gone on a diet and ask your partner to support you and help you eat healthier. After a few days, you go to a restaurant for dinner and order an unhealthy dessert. Your partner tells you: "but you weren't on a diet!"
It is a simple observation. Chances are you're just trying to help you, but instead of thanking him for reminding you of your goals, you feel the anger building inside you. You think: "how dare you tell me what I can eat ?!"
If this situation is familiar to you, you are not the only one. We are all annoyed to be told what to do. It is due to psychological reactance.
What is psychological reactance?
The concept of psychological reactance comes from a study conducted in 1966, when psychologist Jack Brehm discovered that at the age of only 2, we are attracted to what is forbidden or difficult to achieve.
Brehm found that young children do not show a special preference for toys that are within their reach, but show three times greater interest in those that are hidden behind a transparent plexiglass barrier.
Continuing to study this phenomenon, he found that when we perceive that our freedom of behavior is threatened, we develop an intense emotional response, which he called psychological reactance, which would be the result of a limitation or restriction - real or imagined - of our behavioral possibilities and ability to make decisions.
Psychological reactance usually occurs when we are under great pressure to accept a certain point of view or attitude. As a result, resistance is generated which leads us to react in the opposite direction, reinforcing the reverse point of view or attitude. Basically, reactance is a counterforce strategy to maintain or regain our freedom. We simply rebel.
5 aspects that intensify psychological reactance
Sometimes we accept the limits or prohibitions that come from the environment or from other people quite well, other times we react by rebelling. What does the intensity of our reaction depend on?
1. Expectation of freedom. In order for the psychological reactance response to be activated, it is essential to be aware of our freedom, to perceive that we have the power to make our decisions and that we are able to direct our actions. To paraphrase George Orwell, until we are aware of our strength, we will not rebel. This means that the more free we are to think, the more intense our reaction will be when someone or something tries to limit that freedom. If we aspire to decide for ourselves and take the reins of our lives, any attempt to decide for us or to limit our options will be perceived as a huge threat to our freedom.
2. Importance given to freedom. The more important freedom is to us, the more threatened we will feel and the stronger our reaction will be when they try to forbid us something or dictate what we should do. Of course, threatened freedom must also be taken into account. In general, the more important the threatened freedom, the more intense the psychological reaction will be. It is not the same thing to stop ourselves from eating a dessert - as much as we like it - than to decide for ourselves which university faculty to enroll in.
3. Amount of freedoms threatened. If a situation threatens several freedoms, it will cause greater reactance. The future implications of prohibitions or limitations also affect our emotional response. The implications of not eating dessert after dinner are not the same as choosing a particular college creme, to which we will probably devote a large part of our lives, for example. Therefore, psychological reactance depends on the consequences of our renunciation.
4. Intensity of the threat. Not all threats provoke a psychological reactance response. The more a threat limits our feeling of freedom, the stronger our response will be. Indeed, direct threats often result in more intense rejection. It is not the same to be told in an authoritative voice that we cannot eat a dessert than to suggest that we should not eat it, for our health. In fact, several studies have shown that telling people who are free to decide for themselves what is good for them, after pointing out healthy behavior, is usually enough to reduce psychological reactance as they will not perceive the suggestion as a threat to their health. their ability to decide.
5. Legitimacy of the threat. Reactance also depends on the legitimacy of the source that threatens our freedom. If the threat comes from an authoritative source that is important and meaningful to us, the reactance is usually less. In other words, if it comes from an important person, who exercises some authority over us, we will be more likely to hear his words without reacting by putting us on the defensive.
How do we react to psychological reactance? Lights and shadows
There is no doubt that, faced with an important limitation of our independence, psychological reactance is a mechanism that pushes us to defend and preserve that freedom. By fighting for what we believe in and, above all, for our right to decide, we take the reins of our life and preserve our identity. But it's not all "roses and flowers". Psychological reactance also has shadows.
The emotions that usually trigger reactance don't always help us make the best decisions or reach our goals. In some cases they can even become counterproductive, showing themselves to be an immature reaction. Because?
We cannot forget that our reaction when we feel our freedoms are threatened has two components: cognitive and emotional. When negative thoughts are triggered, we often feel anger, anger, hostility and frustration. These feelings propel us to action. We believe we must do something to defend our freedom.
So we can choose different paths. We can respond with a direct recovery, in which case we try to recover the threatened freedom by precisely developing the prohibited conduct, an option that often creates more conflicts and confrontations.
Another alternative is indirect recovery, which consists of developing a behavior equivalent to the threatened one, such as we do not eat dessert but instead ask for a coffee with extra cream and a liqueur, which would be the equivalent in calories. The problem with this alternative is that it is rarely satisfactory.
Finally, a third way is what is called subjective response, which involves the implementation of a cognitive restructuring mechanism of the situation that triggered the reactance, such as: finding the positive aspects of possible alternatives and changing your mind.
How to use psychological reactance in our favor?
The negative thoughts and emotions that often accompany psychological reactance make it worthwhile to take the time to evaluate - more objectively - how dangerous the situation really is. We simply need to take a few seconds, minutes or even days before reacting, in order to weigh the pros and cons, rethinking the experience in a more rational light.
Studies have found that trying to put ourselves in the place of the person who is supposedly limiting our freedom and feeling empathy can help reduce psychological reactance. This does not mean that we will necessarily do what is asked of us or that we will accept that they limit our freedom, it just means that we can decide, with maturity and objectivity, what is best for everyone, including ourselves, by breaking the threads of the emotional abduction that triggers the reactance.