Research in social influence demonstrates that individuals often move in the direction demanded by a leader (obedience) or modeled by a majority (conformity), and cognitive dissonance theory suggests that individuals will depreciate the items and activities that are denied them (“sour grapes”). However, despite the allure of cognitive consistency and the power of the leader and majority, there are many cases in which people resist influence and even move in the opposite direction (“boomerang”). American psychologist Jack Brehm’s (1966; Brehm and Brehm 1981) theory of psychological reactance offers an explanation for this obstinate behavior and identifies the conditions under which individuals will be motivated to resist compliance.
Brehm argues that individuals have a set of “free behaviors” that they believe they can engage in at present or some time in the future. Behavioral freedoms vary in importance, with some being highly important because they deal with critical survival. Stephen Worchel (2004) suggested that these freedoms help define the individual’s self-identity, and many are based on the positions one holds in groups. Jack Brehm and Sharon Brehm (1981) argued that these freedoms help establish the individual’s sense of control over his or her environment. Events that threaten or eliminate behavioral freedom create a motivational state (reactance) aimed at restoring the freedom(s) in question. The degree of reactance is determined by the importance of the threatened/eliminated freedom(s) and the degree of threat. A threat or elimination of freedom results in an increase of attractiveness of the forbidden act and the motivation to engage in that behavior. Hence, pressure to engage in a specific act may arouse reactance because this pressure threatens the individual’s freedom to adopt other positions or engage in other behaviors. The result will be an increase in the motivation to embrace the forbidden alternative.
For example, Thomas Hammock and Brehm (1966) led children to believe that they could choose between a number of candy bars. When the experimenter threatened the freedom to choose candy bar X by stating that candy bar X should not be chosen, children reacted by choosing the item. In another situation, the importance of the freedom to play with a toy was varied by pairing it with a similar type of toy (low importance) or a different type of toy (high importance). The degree of threat to play with a specific toy was manipulated by placing it behind either a high barrier (high threat) or low barrier (low threat). The combination of high importance and high threat increased the likelihood of children choosing the toy behind the barrier (Brehm and Weinraub 1977). And Worchel and Brehm (1970) found that a target audience was more likely to adopt a forbidden position (boomerang) when the communicator threatened their freedom by explicitly telling them that they could not adopt this position.
Reactance theory has also been applied to explicate findings in a variety of other areas. For example, the empirical foundation of cognitive dissonance theory was research demonstrating that after choosing between two relatively attractive items, individuals enhanced the attractiveness of the chosen item and depreciated the rejected item (Brehm 1956). However, closer inspection of the behaviors in this free-choice paradigm reveals that prior to the decision individuals often pay closer attention to the item they eventually reject, and immediately after the choice the rejected alternative increases in attractiveness and the chosen alternative’s attractiveness decreases (regret). These effects have been explained by suggesting that choosing an alternative eliminates the freedom of the individual to have the rejected alternative, thereby creating reactance.
In another realm, research has demonstrated that an item (a commodity or individual) becomes more attractive when it becomes more scarce, distant, or difficult to obtain. Each of these conditions can be viewed as threatening the individual’s freedom to possess the item and as arousing a state of reactance. Similar reasoning has been applied to explain why censored material is often more desired and influential than material readily available to the individual. Other research has shown that an individual’s freedom may be threatened when he or she observes the freedom of a closely related group member being threatened (implied threat), and freedom may be restored (implied restoration) when the individual observes a group member regaining his or her freedom (Worchel and Brehm 1971). In a unique twist, reactance theory has been applied to explain why desired behavior change in therapy settings may be achieved by discouraging the desired behavior (paradoxical intervention), and to caution health communicators about overly strenuous efforts to dissuade an audience from engaging in risky behaviors (e.g., the use of drugs, unprotected sex) that audience members view as being important options.
Overall, reactance theory points out that for every force pushing in one direction, there will be a counter-force moving people away from this position. The counterforce will be strongest when a negated position (or behavior) is perceived as important and as comprising a free behavior.
SEE ALSO American Psychological Association; Behaviorism; Censorship; Cognitive Dissonance; Developmental Psychology; Evolutionary Psychology; Happiness; Optimism/Pessimism; Resistance; Social Cognition
Brehm, Jack W. 1956. Postdecision Changes in the Desirability of Alternatives. Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 52: 384-389.
Brehm, Jack W. 1966. A Theory of Psychological Reactance. New York: Academic Press.
Brehm, Jack W., and Sharon Brehm. 1981. Psychological Reactance: A Theory of Freedom and Control. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Brehm, Jack W., and Marcia Weinraub. 1977. Physical Barriers and Psychological Reactance: 2-Year-Olds’ Responses to Threats to Freedom. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 35: 830-836.
Hammock, Thomas, and Jack W.Brehm. 1966. The Attractiveness of Choice Alternatives when Freedom to Choose Is Eliminated by a Social Agent. Journal of Personality 34: 546-554.
Worchel, Stephen. 2004. The Diamond in the Stone: Exploring the Place of Free Behavior in the Study of Human Rights and Culture. In Motivational Analyses of Social Behavior: Building on Jack Brehm’s Contributions to Psychology, eds. Rex A. Wright, Jeff Greenberg, and Sharon Brehm, 107-128. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Worchel, Stephen, and Jack W. Brehm. 1970. Effect of Threat to Attitudinal Freedom as a Function of Agreement with the Communicator. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 14: 18-22.
Worchel, Stephen, and Jack W. Brehm. 1971. Direct and Implied Social Restoration of Freedom. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 18: 294-304.