Motivation and emotion/Book/2017/Reactance

From Wikiversity
Jump to: navigation, search
What is reactance and what are its motivational implications?
Parodyfilm.svg[Replace this text with the URL Go to a 3 min. audiovisual overview of this chapter.]


Figure 1. Like Adam and Eve, humans are often tempted by "forbidden fruit"

Have you ever noticed yourself wanting the one menu item that is not available? Have you observed others wanting to do the one activity that is not allowed? Have you noticed someone having no interest whatsoever in something until it is unattainable or prohibited? Are you aware that humans will often strive to regain a freedom that has been curtailed, even if that freedom was not valued or exercised until it was eliminated? This reaction is not just a quirk, annoying trait or occasional peculiarity. It is a psychological phenomenon called reactance, a motivational state which arises when individuals perceive that their personal freedom has been limited or denied.

Anyone wanting to improve their life, become happier, achieve their dreams, and understand themselves or others, would do well to understand reactance, because reactance has relevance to our daily lives, relationships and experiences.


  • What is Reactance?

According to Brehm, who coined the term, reactance is motivational arousal to appreciate a loss of freedom and then to regain the reduced or lost behavioural freedoms. It has been said that if you tell someone that they can do anything, they won't know what to do, but if you tell someone what they cannot do, they will know exactly what they want to do. Reactance does not motivate the attainment of any freedom but specifically the restoration of a freedom which has been denied or lost (Brehm, 1989). However, reactance can also ensue when a threat is implied or suspected, that is, sometimes reactance can occur when there is no actual or particular threat or denial of freedom but when it has been perceived that that a threat or loss of freedom will follow. Instances of reactance can be entirely imaginary and individual in that one may assume a freedom exists to do a thing, discover that for one reason or another that freedom would not be able to materialise and then feel motivated to obtain that freedom which has been perceived as having been lost. Specific losses of freedoms may also motivate the anticipation of the loss of other freedoms, for example, the cancellation of a television program may motivate one to reflect or anticipate the cancellation of another favourite show. Similarly, the closure of a local restaurant may cause one to imagine the closure of a favourite restaurant, leading to a more avid appreciation and sense of anxiety should it also close.

  • Psychological Reactance Theory

Psychological Reactance Theory (PRT) was formulated in the mid-1960's but continues to be developed and has wide-ranging relevance. Examples of situations where reactance has particular relevance include compliance with treatment modalities and preventative health measures. For these reasons and more, there is a significant body of research which explores the manner in which reactance motivates us and affects our lives. PRT proposes two important elements. Firstly, that a loss of freedom will elicit a reactance response and secondly, the motivation to re-obtain the freedom lost, follows (Brehm, 1966). Conceptualizing reactance as a two-step has been demonstrated to be a useful and preferable model which recognises the cognitives steps involved. For example, in a study in which forceful language was used to convey a threat to personal freedom, participants initially perceived a threat and subsequently experienced the motivation to reclaim the freedom. Acceptance of reactance as a two-step process not only acknowledges the cognitive mechanism but creates a consistent basis for subsequent research (Quick & Considine, 2008). More recently, PRT has evolved to encompass, for example, negative responses to a range of change-inducing stimuli such as persuasion and diversion, which are followed by efforts to restore the previous position and maintain the status quo (Brehm, 1981).

  • Who experiences reactance?

Although reactance has been recognised for more than half a century, there is still much to be discovered in relation to it. Included in this dearth of information is who experiences it most. Preliminary research using undergraduate participants and the Therapeutic Reactance Scale indicated that older and younger participants exhibited higher reactance than those middle-aged, while African Americans, Asians and Hispanics exhibited higher reactance in toto, behaviourally and verbally, than Causasians and Native Americans. This research also demonstrated that men were more likely to experience total, behavioural and verbal reactance than women (Woller, Buboltz & Loveland, 2007). More recent studies, designed to explore ways of reducing reactance, have shown that collectivist cultures are more likely to experience reactance than individualistic cultures (Steindl & Jonas, 2012).

  • Can reactance be prevented or reduced?

Research has been undertaken to explore opportunities to minimise reactance. One study which used a perspective-taking intervention showed that those who adopted the perspective of the thwarting person experienced less reactance than those who did not (Steindl & Jonas, 2012). Another approach which has been studied is inoculation. This involved pre-warning the participants of the possibility that they may experience reactance after exposure to information warning against excessive alcohol consumption. The inoculating effect was that participants felt less threatened and experienced lower levels of reactance, while still responding positively to the health warning messages and indicates that inoculation can be an effective tool in reducing negative health behaviours (Richards & Banas, 2015).

  • The development of reactance theory
  • Specific examples
  • Reactance versus
    • helplessness
    • worry (Raps, Peterson et al, 1982)
    • anger (Richards & Larsen, 2016)

Motivational Implications[edit]

Figure 2. "Please walk on the grass". People are often motivated to do that which they have been directed not to do ... and vice versa!
  • Definition of motivation
  • Motivational implications of actual threats to freedom
  • Motivational implications of implied threats (Brehm, 1989)
  • Counteracting reactance (Richards & Banas, 2015) and cultural aspects to be considered when doing so (Steindl & Jonas, 2012)

Some patients require assistance accepting change and to resolve ambivalence regarding problematic behaviour. The Motivational Interview is one technique that has been employed to facilitate change. This technique, which some might describe as a form of "reverse psychology", differs from others as the therapist's approach is to defend the status quo. The patient, experiencing reactance, defends the change and enhances his or her motivation (Fond & Ducasse, 2015).

  • The effect of reactance on behaviour: General comments, including who is most likely to experience reactance (Woller, Buboltz & Loveland, 2007)


Measuring Reactance[edit]

  • The Hong Psychological Reactance Scale (Yost & Finney, 2017)

The Hong Psychological Reactance Scale (HPRS) has been compared to other assessment approach and has been found to provide consistent results. Factor analysis showed that reactance was positively related to entitlement and negatively related to agreeableness, conscientiousness and conformity.

  • The Reactance Health Warnings Scale

Due to the lack of a standardised measure of reactance, researchers have developed scales such as the Reactance to Health Warnings Scale to scientifically measure interventions (Hall, Sheeran, Noar et al, 2016).

Quiz questions[edit]

Watch this space! A Reactance-themed quiz similar to the following example quiz questions may be included soon.

Choose the correct answers and click "Submit":


Approximately how many neurons are in the human brain?

1,000,000 (1 million)
10,000,000 (10 million)
100,000,000 (100 million)
1,000,000,000 (1 billion)
10,000,000,000 (10 billion)


A typical neuron fires ________ per second.

1 to 4
5 to 49
50 to 99
100 to 199
200 to 499

For more information, see Help:Quiz.

Practical Implications of Reactance[edit]

Figure 3. The freedom to marry is avidly desired but denied to many

While knowing the definition and theory of reactance is interesting per se, recognising reactance and its motivational implications in real-life experiences can be extremely useful and enlightening. In ourselves, it may mean that we can adopt a more measured and mature response to situations in which we would otherwise take a more reflexive approach. For example, we may feel inclined initially to reject a reduction in rights or freedoms, whereas if we question whether or not we are experiencing reactance, we may find that we are in fact accepting of the limitations and no retaliatory response is needed. In dealing with others, it may mean that we construct our arguments or explanations in anticipation of reactance and allow for a period of negativity and revolt when initiating change or new regulations, or the reactance can simply be explained to the person experiencing an oppositional response.

Situations where reactance may be an issue include smoking cessation programs, binge drinking initiatives, relationship issues, mental health treatments, negotiations. drug rehabilitation, parenting and others.

  • Smoking cessation campaigns

Despite recent research into the effect of reactance on smoking reduction programs, much remains to be resolved. For example, one American study explored the effect of reactance on the effectiveness of health warnings and found that health warning, including pictorial health warnings, can be reduced if they induce reactance (Hall et al, 2016). Another study, however, which reviewed the efficacy of pictorial health warning labels in Australian, Canada, Mexico and the United States, found that, overall, the more reactance smokers experienced, the more likely they were to avoid the source of the reactance, that being the health warning labels, thus forgoing cigarettes in the process. The result was therefore that reactance was positively associated with cessation attempts, across all four countries (Cho et al, 2016).

  • Binge Drinking initiatives

Despite some expectations to the contrary, research continues to show that defensive cognitive processes, such a reactance, do impact on the effectiveness of health-risk messages, particularly in university students (Knight & Norman, 2016). In fact, American research has shown that, since 1987, when the alcohol purchasing age there was raised to 21years, there has actually been an increase in the underage drinkers. The number of drinkers contrasted markedly with those going back to the early 1950's and is considered to be directly correlated with the changed alcohol purchasing legislation (Engs & Hanson, 1989).

  • Relationship issues (DeWall et al, 2011)
  • Mental Health treatments (Fond & Ducasse, 2015) and approaches (Mikulincer, 1988)
  • Negotiations

An appreciation of reactance and in particular, differences in gender-related experiences of reactance, can be a useful attribute during negotiations. Gender-based experiments have demonstrated that the use of masculine traits during mixed-gender negotiation processes deliver more favourable results for higher-powered negotiator, however, when more feminine traits are utilised, they elicit more favourable outcomes particularly when linked to negotiator effectiveness. It therefore appears that mixed-gender negotiations are indeed impacted by the particular motivations and cognitions of the negotiator (Kray et al, 2004).

  • Drug rehabilitation

There are many circumstances in which an understanding of reactance not only interesting but helpful, however in the area of drug rehabilitation this knowledge is not only relevant but also important. Research has demonstrated that successful drug rehabilitation is dependent on two elements. One is readiness, which requires acceptance of the need for treatment and a commitment to participate and the other is resistance. If, for example, there is a high level of reactance, such as might occur if the rehabilitation treatment is coercive, the level of resistance will predict a higher likelihood of future drug use. For this reason, a participant's motivation in drug rehabilitation is considered crucial for successful engagement with treatment (Longshore & Teruya, 2006).

  • Parenting

Recent research has indicated the level of conflict between adolescents and mothers is impacted not only by the parenting style but also the level of reactance experienced by the adolescent. A supportive method of parenting was associated with a lower level of conflict, however adolescent reactance was associated with more conflict and withdrawal and less engagement and compliance. This indicates that both mothers' parenting and adolescents' conflict management styles have important roles in regard to conflict levels and frequency (Missotten et al, 2017).

  • Corrections & Law Enforcement (Moore & Pierce, 2016)
  • Public Health (Powell et al, 2016), particularly in high-risk groups (Schuz et al, 2013)
  • Sport Psychology and Exercise (Pugliese & Okun, 2014)
  • Asylum seekers ( Sanchez-Mazas, 2015)
  • Same-sex Marriage: reactance when the threat to freedom is perceived as illegitimate and unfair (Sittenthaler, Steindl & Jonas, 2015)


  • What are the take-home messages? Is reactance adaptive and can or should it be avoided to achieve healthier outcomes?

See also[edit]


Brehm, J. W. (1989). Psychological Reactance: Theory and Applications. Advances in Consumer Research, 16, 72-75.

Cho, Y. J., Thrasher, J. F., Swayampakala, K., Yong, H. H., McKeever, R., Hammond, D., Borland, R. (2016). Does reactance against cigarette warning labels matter? Warning label responses and downstream smoking cessation amongst adult smokers in Australia, Canada, Mexico and the United States. P.LoS One, 11(7), e0159245. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0159245

DeWall, C. N., Maner, J. K., Deckman, T., & Rouby, D. A. (2011). Forbidden fruit: inattention to attractive alternatives provokes implicit relationship reactance. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol, 100(4), 621- 629. doi:10.1037/a0021749

Eaton, K., Ohan, J. L., Stritzke, W. G. K., Courtauld, H. M., & Corrigan, P. W. (2017). Mothers' decisions to disclose or conceal their child's mental health disorder. Qual. Health Res, 27(11), 1628-1639. doi:10.1177/1049732317697096

Fond, G., & Ducasse, D. (2015). [Motivational interview: supporting change]. Soins Psychiatr. (299), 41-43. doi:10.1016/j.spsy.2014.12.015

Hall, M. G., Sheeran, P., Noar, S. M., Ribisl, K. M., Bach, L. E., & Brewer, N. T. (2016). Reactance to health warnings scale: development and validation. Ann. Behav. Med., 50(5), 736-750.


Hall, M. G., Sheeran, P., Noar, S. M., Ribisl, K. M., Boynton, M. H., & Brewer, N. T. (2017). A brief measure of reactance to health warnings. J.Behav. Med., 40(3), 520-529. doi:10.1007/s10865-


Kiviniemi, M. T., Ellis, E. M., Hall, M. G., Moss, J. L., Lillie, S. E., Brewer, N. T., & Klein, W. M. P. (2017). Mediation, moderation, and context: Understanding complete relations among cognition,

affect, and health behaviour. Psychol. Health, 1-19. doi:10.1080/08870446.2017.1324973

Knight, R., & Norman, P. (2016). Impact of brief self-affirmation manipulations on university students' reactions to risk information about binge drinking. Br. J. Health Psychol., 21(3), 570-583.


Kray, L. J., Reb, J., Galinsky, A. D., & Thompson, L. (2004). Stereotype reactance at the bargaining table: the effect of stereotype activation and power on claiming and creating value. Pers. Soc.

Psychol. Bull, 30(4), 399-411. doi:10.1177/0146167203261884

Longshore, D., & Teruya, C. (2006). Treatment motivation in drug users: a theory-based analysis. Drug Alcohol Depend., 81(2), 179-188. doi:10.1016/j.drugalcdep.2005.06.011

Mikulincer, M. (1988). Reactance and helplessness following exposure to unsolvable problems: the effects of attributional style. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol., 54(4), 679-686.

Missotten, L. C., Luyckx, K., Branje, S., & Van Petegem, S. (2017). Adolescents' Conflict Management Styles with Mothers: Longitudinal Associations with Parenting and Reactance. J. Youth

Adolesc. doi:10.1007/s10964-017-0634-3

Moore, C., & Pierce, L. (2016). Reactance to transgressors: Why authorities deliver harsher penalties when the social context elicits expectations of leniency. Front Psychol., 7 550.


Powell, W., Adams, L. B., Cole-Lewis, Y., Agyemang, A., & Upton, R. D. (2016). Masculinity and race-related factors as barriers to health help-seeking among African American Men. Behav.

Med., 42(3), 150-163. doi:10.1080/08964289.2016.1165174

Prevost, C., Lau, H., & Mobbs, D. (2017). How the brain converts negative evaluation into performance facilitation. Cereb. Cortex. doi:10.1093/cercor/bhw400

Pugliese, J. A., & Okun, M. A. (2014). Social control and strenuous exercise among late adolescent college students: parents versus peers as influence agents. J Adolesc, 37(5), 543-554.


Quick, B. L., & Considine, J. R. (2008). Examining the use of forceful language when designing exercise persuasive messages for adults: a test of conceptualizing reactance arousal as a two-

step process. Health Commun., 23(5), 483-491. doi:10.1080/10410230802342150

Raps, C. S., Peterson, C., Jonas, M., & Seligman, M. E. (1982). Patient behavior in hospitals: helplessness, reactance, or both? J. Pers. Soc. Psychol., 42(6), 1036-1041.

Reach, G. (2011). Obedience and motivation as mechanisms for adherence to medication: a study in obese type 2 diabetic patients. Patient Prefer Adherence, 5, 523-531


Richards, A. S., & Larsen, M. (2016). Anger expression moderates the effects of psychological reactance to sexual health messages. Health Commun, 1-10.


Rohrbaugh, M., Tennen, H., Press, S., & White, L. (1981). Compliance, defiance, and therapeutic paradox: guidelines for strategic use of paradoxical interventions. Am. J. Orthopsychiatry, 51(3),


Sanchez-Mazas, M. (2015). The construction of "official outlaws". Social-psychological and educational implications of a deterrent asylum policy. Front. Psychol., 6, 382.


Schuz, N., Schuz, B., & Eid, M. (2013). When risk communication backfires: randomized controlled trial on self-affirmation and reactance to personalized risk feedback in high-risk individuals.

Health Psychol., 32(5), 561-570. doi:10.1037/a0029887

Sittenthaler, S., Steindl, C., & Jonas, E. (2015). Legitimate vs. illegitimate restrictions - a motivational and physiological approach investigating reactance processes. Front Psychol, 6, 632.


Steindl, C., & Jonas, E. (2012). What reasons might the other one have? - perspective taking to reduce psychological reactance in individualists and collectivists. Psycholog. (Irvine), 3(12A),

1153-1160. doi:10.4236/psych.2012.312A170

Steindl, C., & Jonas, E. (2015). The dynamic reactance interaction - How vested interests affect people's experience, behavior, and cognition in social interactions. Front. Psychol., 6, 1752.


Wehbe, M. S., Basil, M., & Basil, D. (2017). Reactance and coping responses to tobacco counter-advertisements. J. Health Commun., 22(7), 576-583. doi:10.1080/10810730.2017.1329853

Woller, K. M., Buboltz, W. C., Jr., & Loveland, J. M. (2007). Psychological reactance: examination across age, ethnicity, and gender. Am. J. Psychol., 120(1), 15-24.

Yong, H. H., Borland, R., Hammond, D., Thrasher, J. F., Cummings, K. M., & Fong, G. T. (2016). Smokers' reactions to the new larger health warning labels on plain cigarette packs in Australia:

findings from the ITC Australia project. Tob. Control, 25(2), 181-187. doi:10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2014-051979

Yost, A. B., & Finney, S. J. (2017). Assessing the unidimensionality of trait reactance using a multifaceted model assessment approach. J. Pers. Assess., 1-11.


Zimmerman, R. S., Cupp, P. K., Abadi, M., Donohew, R. L., Gray, C., Gordon, L., & Grossl, A. B. (2014). The effects of framing and fear on ratings and impact of antimarijuana PSAs. Subst. Use Misuse, 49(7), 824-835. doi:10.3109/10826084.2014.880721

External links[edit]