Psychology Of Reactance Research Paper

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The theory of psychological reactance (Brehm 1966) pertains to the reactive human tendency to protect or defend threatened freedoms. Unlike most conceptions about motivation, reactance theory does not speak of the human as arriving at a particular goal, achieving clarity in ambiguous stimulus fields, reducing conflict, or preserving self-worth. On the contrary, the reactance process is one of remaining open, of preserving one’s freedom of movement, in the face of pressures to firm up or narrow the direction of movement.

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1. Freedom: The Starting Point

The theory can best be introduced by considering single behavior realms in which freedom for the individual is conceivable. For instance, while shopping a person expects the freedom to choose from a vast array of breakfast cereals or brands of coffee. In more important matters, the person has a choice among numerous kinds of automobiles. In commerce with others, the person can potentially choose between being overtly friendly vs. taking a more distanced stance toward others. Even in such affective realms as emotions there is the potential—as in a setting that would normally set off sadness or grief—to react appropriately or to begin laughing.

In short, the theory addresses the freedoms associated with segments of human existence. These usually entail concrete behavioral scenarios in which a decision is eventually possible, or in which the person senses that several different solutions or directions can be chosen or tried out. In the context of the theory one does not speak of ‘the free person’ vs. ‘the unfree person.’ Freedom here is defined by the concrete endeavor of interest, such as finding oneself in a coffee bar and having to choose between espresso and normal coffee.

By no means does the theory assure that people automatically feel free across all such settings. On the contrary, Brehm (1966, 1968, 1993) postulates that, in each behavioral setting, the person will have a strong (or less strong, ranging down to zero) sense of freedom as a function of one of two factors. (a) Prior experience in the setting will be a guide as to expectations of freedom, as in, for instance, the case of a child who has always been entrusted with the freedom to select any of the breakfast cereals in the grocery store. This case my be contrasted with the child who has always been instructed to pick only the one brand of cereal that contains no sugar, preservatives, or coloring. (b) The other factor underlying the person’s sense of being free, or less free, in a particular setting has to do with culturally-defined expectations. For example, pedestrians may (or may not) expect the freedom to cross against the red light, depending on local customs.

In practice, this all-important starting point for the theory—the person’s expecting to be free or not—has been handled in an experimental manner. In some studies research subjects are told that they can expect to select freely from among several available consumer alternatives. For other participants, the expectation is created that they will receive one or more of the consumer items on a random basis, or at the whim of the person who controls the situation. People in this latter case thus find themselves expecting to gain something, such as a CD, pen, or article of clothing, but there is no person-freedom associated with their gaining that end.

With this illustration the reader can see that the theory is highly specific in its treatment of freedom, choice, and the free person. Setting-by-setting, individuals expect to be able to move about and choose freely, or not. One child expects to choose freely among cereals; another does not. Students in one culture might expect to choose which textbook to read for an exam; students in another culture may have no such expectation.

2. Reactance Arousal

Given that a person expects freedom of movement in a setting, infringements on that freedom will instigate a motivational force of reactance. The state of reactance, going into gear as a function of the strength of threat to freedom and the importance of the freedom, brings the person to resist and counter the shrinking of the pertinent freedom. This is manifested in a direct behavioral fashion and also in terms of affective reactions.

Take the instance of the child who expects freedom of choice among breakfast cereals. If the child is standing before the array of breakfast products, pondering what to choose, reactance will come about by another person’s picking a box of cornflakes from the top shelf and dropping it into the child’s grocery basket. This unequivocal social influence will set up reactance in the child, resulting in the tendency to remove the cornflakes from the basket and to select a different variety. Further, the motivational state will show up in terms of affective changes; as an outcome of the social interference with freedom, the child will become relatively unattracted to the cornflakes and increasingly attracted to other salient, interesting brands.

3. Frustration

Reactance is not about attaining the goal that is top-ranked in the person’s need or preference hierarchy. If the child had initially ranked Swiss muesli as No. 1, and cornflakes as No. 4, then the adult’s placing the cornflakes in the child’s grocery basket would have been directly frustrating. Perhaps obviously, the child would have reacted negatively to the frustration of a simple need to select the top-ranked item. However, the deciding quality of reactance theory is in its addressing freedom per se, and not the issue of the person’s attaining the most-preferred goal object. The implications of this statement are far reaching; as long as the child’s freedom to choose any of the considered alternatives is interfered with, reactance will be engendered. Quite aside from whether the muesli is No. 1 and the cornflakes No. 4, or vice versa, the adult’s constraining the choice will produce reactance and the consequent behavioral/affective effects.

The point regarding frustration is similar when reactance is brought about in areas such as freedom of values, attitudes, or emotions. There is a sense in which it is frustrating to be pressured to take a certain opinion position, particularly one at variance with one’s usual opinions. When a member of the American Civil Liberties Union is confronted with others who authoritatively argue in favor of restricting certain rights, the felt pressure to succumb to such pressure toward change is in a sense frustrating. But for reactance theory, the actual direction of such social pressure is not a terribly critical factor. If the member of the ACLU feels free to hold any of several positions along the human rights continuum, then this person will also experience reactance when a forceful communicator insists that the only correct opinion is a totally liberal one. Reactance, in the case of pressure to change an opinion, value, or emotion, is manifested in terms of ‘boomerang’ effects, i.e. switching the opinion to a direction opposing the communication.

4. Areas Of Application

Given the breadth of the theory, it seems reasonable that it should be applied to such diverse realms as choices among products, among people (e.g., choosing a partner), and to numerous social realms such as whether or not to help another person and whether or not to abide by another’s advice or efforts to influence. The research evidence addressing these topics is largely experimental, and follows the formula given by the theory. First the investigator must know whether or not the person to be studied expects freedom of choice in the given context, and second, the strength of the threat to that freedom is varied. Within these general methodological guidelines, research participants have been shown to resist persuasive attempts, refuse to help, and frequently to upgrade their attraction to potential choice objects or people whose availability has been threatened. Reviews of these many effects can be found in Brehm (1966, 1968, 1993), Brehm and Brehm (1981), Wicklund (1974, 1997), and Wortman and Brehm (1975).

5. The Longer-Range Dynamics

These dynamics can best be depicted in three phases, with the assistance of an expanded theory by Wortman and Brehm (1975). The first two phases, as described above, are (a) the instigation of an expectation of acting freely in a domain, and (b) infringements on that freedom, producing reactance. The issue raised by Wortman and Brehm—implying a third phase—has to do with the effect of repeated restrictions on freedom. A person may be accustomed to choosing freely between espresso and normal coffee in a certain coffee bar. When the management announces one day that normal coffee is not available, the reactance produced response is one of increased attraction to normal coffee and a corresponding downgrading of espresso. But what transpires upon repeated, continued instances of this restriction? Will the person continue to express reactance on the second, third, fourth, and fifth days of the freedom restriction?

In alternative theoretical language, such repeated restrictions are called helplessness inducing (Seligman 1975), and in the Wortman and Brehm model, the idea is that repeated violation of the freedom will eventually bring the person to no longer expect freedom of action within that domain, as in the particular coffee shop. The expectation of free choice is altered into the expectation of espresso, and nothing more. This adaptation to the repeated restriction is thus the third phase of the longer-term reactance process, and as such, describes the ebb and flow of reactance in numerous situations over the course of a child’s development, as well as the ebb and flow of reactance in diverse areas as a result of cultural change.

6. Individual Differences

Brehm (1993) differentiates sharply between the chronic need to expand areas of freedom and control, and the defense of a specific area of freedom or control. The former, normally associated with such concepts as control need or competence striving, addresses a human who is, across time and place, chronically interested in enlarging the scope of freedom, thus in maximizing personal control in a general sense. Such a chronic personal striving can be operationalized in terms of certain individual differences, such as Rotter’s Internal/external control scale and, to be sure, researchers have introduced these very individual differences into a variety of reactance paradigms. The research suggests that those with a high chronic need for control appear to evidence stronger responses in reactance-creating situations (see Brehm and Brehm 1981).

On the other hand, there is little theoretical reason to expect that general human tendencies will be pertinent to the reactance process as described in detail in the numerous experiments. This is because the question of whether a person will evidence the counter-behaviors, the boomerang effect attitude changes, and other freedom-restoring maneuvers, is a highly concrete issue. The parameters of each behavioral scenario, combined with the individual’s expectation of freedom within those confines, determines the momentary predilection to protect and regain freedom.

7. Future Directions

A salient direction to take in future development of the theory involves the social circumstances which give rise to expectations of freedom. While the original theory refers to such expectations as stemming from (a) direct, personal experience and (b) societal conventions regarding specific classes of actions, there is a further possibility: a person who is raised in a community in which a variety of points of view are acknowledged will stand to gain a sense of freedom to express those many points of view. This should apply no matter whether they are expressed in discussions of opinions and values, or even in solutions to problems. In contrast, a person coming from an environment in which there is ‘one correct opinion,’ or solution, will be less likely to incorporate the idea that multiple opinions or solutions are possible or desirable (Wicklund 1999). Accordingly, we may be able to speak of a person’s more general sense of freedom of opinions and values, as long as the person’s socialization experiences are in a setting that fosters such multiple values systems, or even multiple personality traits. The direction for corresponding research lies both in developmental psychology and in the detailed descriptions of cultural settings allowed by cultural anthropology.


  1. Brehm J W 1966 A Theory of Psychological Reactance. Academic Press, New York
  2. Brehm J W 1968 Attitude change from threat to attitudinal freedom. In: Greenwald A G, Brock T C, Ostrom T M (eds.) Psychological Foundations of Attitudes. Academic Press, New York
  3. Brehm J W 1993 Control, its loss, and psychological reactance. In: Weary G, Gleicher F, Marsh K L (eds.) Control Motivation and Social Cognition. Springer, New York, pp. 3–30
  4. Brehm S S, Brehm J W 1981 Psychological Reactance: A Theory of Freedom and Control. Academic Press, New York
  5. Seligman M E P 1975 Helplessness: On Depression, Development, and Death. Freeman, San Francisco
  6. Wicklund R A 1974 Freedom and Reactance. Erlbaum, Hillsdale, NJ
  7. Wicklund R A 1997 The theory of psychological reactance: a reliably revolutionary perspective. Contemporary Psychology 42: 679–81
  8. Wicklund R A 1999 Multiple perspectives in person perception. Theory and Psychology 9: 667–78
  9. Wortman C B, Brehm J W 1975 Responses to uncontrollable outcomes: An integration of reactance theory and the learned helplessness model. In: Berkowitz L (ed.) Advances in Experimental Social Psychology. Academic Press, New York, Vol. 8, pp. 277–336
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