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The Science of Reactance: Why We Want to Do the Opposite of What We're Told

Updated: Jun 26, 2023

Reactance is a psychological phenomenon that describes the human tendency to resist attempts to restrict our freedom or control our behaviour. In other words, when someone tries to persuade us to do something, we may feel a sense of resistance and do the opposite of what we're being told. This can happen in a wide range of situations, from individual interactions to large-scale social and political movements.

Reactance is a natural human response to perceived threats to our autonomy. When we feel like our freedom is being limited or our choices are being taken away, we may experience a strong emotional reaction. This reaction can take many forms, from anger and frustration to defiance and rebellion.

One of the most common manifestations of reactance is the desire to do the opposite of what we're being told. This can happen in many different contexts. For example, if a parent tells a child to do something, the child may resist and refuse to comply. Similarly, if a boss orders an employee to complete a task, the employee may feel a sense of reactance and delay or avoid completing the task.

Reactance can also be seen in larger-scale social and political movements. When people feel like their freedoms are being threatened or their choices are being limited, they may become more vocal and active in defending their rights. This can lead to protests, demonstrations, and other forms of resistance.

So why do we experience reactance? There are several psychological factors at play. One key factor is the need for autonomy. Humans have a deep-seated need to feel like they are in control of their own lives and decisions. When this sense of control is threatened, we may react with resistance.

Another factor is reactance bias. This is the tendency to place more value on things that we perceive as being restricted or scarce. For example, if a limited-edition product is advertised as being in short supply, people may be more motivated to buy it. Similarly, if our freedom to do something is threatened, we may become more motivated to do it.

Finally, reactance can be influenced by social and cultural factors. In some cultures, individualism and autonomy are highly valued, while in others, conformity and obedience may be more important. These cultural values can influence how people respond to attempts to control their behaviour.

So what can we do to avoid triggering reactance in others? One important strategy is to frame requests in a way that emphasizes choice and autonomy. For example, instead of ordering someone to do something, we can ask them if they would be willing to do it. This approach gives people a sense of control and can reduce feelings of reactance.

Another strategy is to provide people with information and reasons for why a particular action is necessary. When people understand the rationale behind a request, they may be more willing to comply. Additionally, it's important to be respectful and considerate when making requests. People are more likely to respond positively when they feel like their needs and feelings are being taken into account.

In conclusion, reactance is a natural human response to perceived threats to our autonomy. When we feel like our freedom is being limited, we may experience a strong emotional reaction and do the opposite of what we're being told. By understanding the factors that contribute to reactance and using strategies to minimize it, we can improve our communication and relationships with others.

If you've found yourself struggling with feelings of reactance and would like to learn more about how to overcome this tendency, we invite you to enroll in our course, Seeing Clearly: Overcoming Your Brain's Betrayal. In this comprehensive online program, you'll gain a deeper understanding of reactance and other cognitive biases that unknowingly affect you. Enroll today for free and take the first step towards greater self-awareness and improved communication with others.


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