Motivation and emotion/Book/2017/Reactance

What is reactance and what are its motivational implications?


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

Have you ever noticed yourself wanting a menu item that is not available? Have you observed others wanting to do an 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 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 is being 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[factual?], 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-1960s 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)[Rewrite to improve clarity]. Conceptualizing reactance as a two-step has been demonstrated to be a useful and preferable model which recognises the cognitives[say what?] 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).

Motivational role of reactance


Motivation is the drive or impetus to do something and varies not only in type or orientation but also intensity. Motivation can be either intrinsic or extrinsic and can be positive, driving something to happen or negative, blocking or preventing an action. Reactance is not only a motivation which is aroused when a freedom is lost entirely or reduced but occurs even when there is no way of restoring the freedom at all. It has been suggested that rather than experience the frustration of wanting the unattainable, an alternative motivation to simply "give up" can occur, which is perhaps more adaptive (Ryan & Deci, 2000). What is clear is that reactance drives a range of behaviours, from resisting social influence, refusing favours that may incur an obligation to "cutting off one's nose to spite one's face" rather than accept a loss of freedom. Reactance is least likely to be aroused if there is a belief that no freedom being curtailed. Reactance is more likely to be aroused if the sanction or perceived loss of freedom is considered to be relatively important. Another factor influencing the degree and arousal of reactance is the number of freedoms threatened, with the greater the number coinciding with stronger reactance. Reactance is also invoked where the threat of lost freedom is implied, such as when an assumption is made that the onerous threat or denial of freedom will repeat or continue[factual?]. The arousal of reactance is closely aligned with the motivation to retain control but is not restricted to outcomes which might be negative or restrictive. Reactance can also occur where the outcome may in fact be beneficial for the individual but the process of imposing it is the cause of the reactance[factual?]. If the freedom to choose or refuse the change is denied, reactance is likely to be aroused and the motivation to redeem the lost freedom is activated (Brehm & Brehm, 1989). Unlike hunger or sexual drives, which have hormonal bases, reactance is a psychological fusion of affect and cognition and a very complex motivation (Kiviniemi et al, 2017).

Who experiences reactance?


Although reactance has been recognised since the mid-twentieth century, there is still much to be discovered, including who experiences it most. Preliminary research using undergraduate participants and the Therapeutic Reactance Scale indicated that older and younger participants exhibited higher reactance than middle-aged participants, while African Americans, Asians and Hispanics exhibited higher reactance in toto, behaviourally and verbally, than Causasians[spelling?] 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). The manner in which individuals experience reactance is also influenced by their internal or external attributional style (Mikulincer, 1988). Lower dispositional anger expression has also been associated with lower levels of reactance (Richards & Larsen, 2016).

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).

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!

Because reactance involves the motivation to maintain control, it can be counteracted or minimised by the continuation or provision of choice. Individuals will experience or perceive loss of freedoms according to their own subjective idiosyncrasies. The degree of reactance can be influenced by the amount of decision and outcome freedoms. Communications can arouse reactance motivation by the use of controlling terminology but if language is used which implies personal choice and freedom to decide, reactance is less likely to occur[factual?]. As a motivational state, reactance can be reduced if freedom is implied, directed or offered (Brehm, 1989).

Some patients[say what?] 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).[for example?]

One approach that has been successful is known as the "but you are free" (BYAF) technique. This compliance-gaining tactic involves the addition of the words "but you are free to refuse or accept" following requests. This results in the listener being able to retain a sense of choice and control and reduces the incidence of reactance, but has been found to be most effective in person rather than in writing (Carpenter, 2013).

Measuring Reactance


[Provide more detail]

The Hong Psychological Reactance Scale


The Hong Psychological Reactance Scale (HPRS) has been compared to other assessment approaches 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 (Yost & Finney, 2017).

The Reactance to 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. The scale has been shown to have good psychometric properties (Hall et al, 2016).

Practical Implications of Reactance


Knowing the definition and theory of reactance is interesting, but 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[factual?], much remains to be resolved. For example, one American study explored the effect of reactance on the effectiveness of health warnings and found that the benefit of health warnings, 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 Australia, 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). An Australian study found that increasing the size of health warning labels did have the desired effect with reactance occurring in only a small minority (Yong et al, 2015).

Binge Drinking initiatives


Despite some expectations to the contrary, research continues to show that defensive cognitive processes, such as reactance, 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 21 years, there has actually been an increase in underage drinking. The number of drinkers contrasted markedly with those going back to the early 1950s and is considered to be directly correlated with the changed alcohol purchasing legislation (Engs & Hanson, 1989).

Relationship issues


While inattention to attractive relationship alternatives can enhance relationship well-being, the implicit prevention of attending to such desirable relationship alternatives may actually undermine, rather than strengthen, romantic relationships. As in the case of "forbidden fruit", subtly limiting attention to attractive relationship alternatives, reduced relationship satisfaction and commitment and increased positive attitudes towards infidelity, increased memory of the attractive relationship alternatives and increased attention to the attractive alternatives. Implicitly limiting attention to relationship alternatives may actually invoke reactance increasing the temptation of those alternatives and undermining the relationship well-being (DeWall et al, 2011).

Mental Health treatments


Reactance has been used as a therapeutic tool in therapies such as motivational interviewing. The therapist defends the status quo and by reactance, the patient then defends change thereby his or her motivation (Fond & Ducasse, 2015). Another type of paradoxical intervention occurs when change follows from defiance involving reactance (Rohrbuagh et al, 1981).



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 negotiators, however, when more feminine traits are utilised, they elicit more favourable outcomes particularly when linked to negotiator effectiveness[explain?]. It therefore appears that mixed-gender negotiations are indeed impacted by the particular motivations and cognitions of the negotiator (Kray, 2004).

Drug rehabilitation


There are many circumstances in which an understanding of reactance is 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). Public service announcements with loss-framed anti-marijuana messaging have been shown to be counter-productive, due to the greater perceived threat leading to reactance (Zimmerman et al, 2014).



Recent research has indicated that 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, 2017). It has also been shown that decreasing parents' use of negative social control strategies and increasing adolescents' positive affective reactions to parental social control may help promote positive lifestyle changes in late adolescents (Pugliese & Okun, 2014).

Corrections & Law Enforcement


As in many circumstances, reactance plays a role in the manner in which individuals are dealt with within the justice system. For example, in one large and interesting study, it was noted that drunk drivers were dealt with more harshly if it was their birthday. Contrary to expectations, when detainees made a salient point of their birthdays it is less likely that consideration is made positively and more likely that over-compensation will occur, to counteract the perceived bias (Moore & Pierce, 2016).

Public Health


[missing something?] (Powell et al, 2016), particularly in high-risk groups (Schuz et al, 2013) Health warnings have been found to be less effective if they elicit reactance (Hall et al, 2016), however the success of some health campaigns has been shown to improve if an inoculation message forewarns of the potential of reactance. It appears that self-generated cognitions that might otherwise lead to negative health behaviours can be inoculated against (Richards & Banas, 2015). In studies on sexual health messaging, it was shown that the more freedom-threatening the language, the greater the perceived threat to freedom and therefore the greater the level of reactance that followed, but that likelihood for unhealthy outcomes also depended on the degree to which anger was communicated (Richards & Larsen, 2016). Research has also shown that assumptions of masculinity or racism as deterrents for health-related engagement may fail to address the negative role that reactance and threats to the sense of control actually play (Powell et al, 2016). It is likely that tactics which attack self-image will trigger reactance and provoke non-adaptive responses (Wehbe, 2017).

Sport Psychology and Exercise


Research has shown that adult participants experienced reactance and responded unfavourably to forceful messages advocating exercise activities, suggesting that this should be taken into consideration by exercise advocates and health campaigners (Pugliese & Okun, 2014; Quick & Considine, 2008).

Asylum seekers


Yet another example of reactance producing counter-intuitive results has been noted in the experience of asylum-seekers. Despite quite harsh sanctions to leave once their application for refugee status had failed, asylum seekers rebelled against efforts to expel them, demonstrating that pressures to comply operate paradoxically. State efforts had in fact the opposite effect because of reactance (Sanchez-Mazas, 2015).

Same-sex Marriage


It may be that there is an element of reactance involved in the campaign for same-sex marriage. Although the right to marry has not existed and then been withdrawn, there is a perception of a the threat to freedom which is perceived as illegitimate and unfair (Sittenthaler et al, 2015). Interestingly, when members of LGBTQI community have been involved in soliciting donations for the same-sex marriage campaign, and have self-identified, the response is actually less effective than for those who did not self-identify, which suggests a negative response to such persuasive tactics (Harrison & Michelson, 2011). Reactance may also play a role in disputes involving those who perceive their religious freedoms will be or have been compromised by same-sex marriage, such as their freedom to not provide services for or be otherwise impacted by, same-sex marriage (Minton et al, 2016)

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



Choose the correct answers and click "Submit":

1 Who introduced Psychological Reactance Theory?

Alfred Bandura
Aaron Beck
Roy Baumeister
Daryl Bem
Jack Brehm

2 Reactance involves the drive to:

Control our emotions
Lose control
Regain a lost freedom
Regain motivation



The motivation to restore or reclaim lost freedom is powerful and common and examples of reactance are found in many instances of our daily lives. An understanding and recognition of reactance may be useful in navigating our own relationships with others and provides an enlightening perspective on the interactions and behaviours of others. This oppositional and defiant reaction to loss of control and freedom is a powerful motivation which can hinder and cause dysfunctional relationships (Wortman & Brehm, 1975). Research into reactance continues and should lead to even more being known of its motivational implications.

See also



Brehm, J. W. (1966). A Theory of Psychological Reactance. Oxford, England: Academic Press.

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

Brehm, J. W. (1993). Control, Its Loss, and Psychological Reactance. In G. Weary, Gleicher, F., Marsh, K.L. (Ed.), Control Motivation and Social Cognition: Springer Verlag.

Carpenter, C. (2013). A Meta-Analysis of the Effectiveness of the “But You Are Free” Compliance-Gaining Technique. Communication Studies, 64(1), 6-17. doi:10.1080/10510974.2012.727941

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

Engs, R., Hanson, D.J. (1989). Reactance Theory: A Test with Collegiate Drinking. Psychological Reports, 64(3), 1083-1086. doi:10.2466/pr0.1989.64.3c.1083

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. doi:10.1007/s12160-016-9799-3

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/s10865-016-9821-z

Harrison, B. F., Michelson, M.R. (2011). Not That There’s Anything Wrong with That: The Effect of Personalized Appeals on Marriage Equality Campaigns. Political Behaviour, 34(2), 325-344. doi:10.1007/S11109-011-9169-6

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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/s10865-016-9821-z

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