Psychological Reactance: Theory and Applications

Jack W. Brehm, University of Kansas
[ to cite ]:
Jack W. Brehm (1989) ,"Psychological Reactance: Theory and Applications", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, eds. Thomas K. Srull, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 72-75.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, 1989      Pages 72-75

PSYCHOLOGICAL REACTANCE: THEORY AND APPLICATIONS

Jack W. Brehm, University of Kansas

When you put your quarters in a softdrink machine, you would not like the machine to start flashing a large Coca Cola sign at you, complete with a flashing arrow that keeps moving to the button for Coke (Classical, of course). Or at least I don't think you would like that, even if you intended to obtain a Coke when you started to put your quarters in the machine. It was my belief that people would not like to be treated this way that led to the construction of reactance theory.

Having noted similar kinds of examples in life around me, I was impressed that people responded negatively to influence attempts hat did not frustrate or even threaten to frustrate them, and sometimes the attempted influence was apparently in their own best interest. Eventually I went so far as to think that people would respond negatively to relatively impersonal influence attempts, as in the above example with a soft drink machine, and even to their own impulses and behavior.

What led me to this chain of conclusions, of course, was the idea fundamental to reactance theory, namely, that people become motivationally aroused by a threat to or elimination of a behavioral freedom. This motivational state is what is called psychological reactance. It impels the individual to restore the particular freedom that was threatened or taken away. It does not impel the individual to acquire just any freedom--only the one threatened or taken away will do.

You will note that I speak not of freedom in general but rather of specific behavioral freedoms. Examples would be the freedom to buy a Ford rather than a Toyota, the freedom to read Time magazine, and the freedom to attend this session rather than sleep late or to go sight seeing.

A reason for thinking in terms of specific behavioral freedoms is that one freedom can be threatened or lost without having any effect on the others. If, for example, I lose or misplace a book, my freedom to refer to or read that book is threatened or lost, but there is no effect on any of my other freedoms. A second reason for thinking in terms of specific freedoms is that some freedoms will be more important to the individual than will others, and, of course, people will differ regarding which freedoms are important to them. A third reason is that we can inspect specific freedoms to see if there is any logical or psychological relationship between them. It will sometimes happen that having one freedom will imply having another. For example, if a sportshirt is permissible attire at a certain restaurant, then presumably one is also free to wear a jacket and tie. A fourth and final reason for thinking of freedoms as specific is that the magnitude of reactance can be specified as increasing directly with both the number and proportion of freedoms that are threatened or eliminated.

Whatever freedom is threatened, whether it be the possession of a choice alternative or the adoption of a particular position on womens' rights, the resulting reactance leads to increased perceived attractiveness of that option. Thus, there may be two manifestations of the occurrence of reactance: actual attempts to restore freedom, and increased perceived attractiveness of the lost or threatened option.

That, in the shell of a macadamia nut, is the theory of psychological reactance. And like the nut, the theory, taken with a little salt, can be quite satisfying. It has led to the empirical demonstrations that, for example, a lost choice alternative tends to become more attractive, a forced attitudinal position tends to become less attractive, and a social influence attempt can easily boomerang. It has also led to the more-surprising findings that choice alternatives tend to converge in their attractiveness as the choice point approaches, and that the introduction of a new, relatively attractive alternative, makes previous alternatives more attractive. While these findings are far from an exhaustive account of research results predicted by the theory, they are enough to give one some notion of the theory's usefulness.

Aside from the basic notion that people are motivated to restore specific behavioral freedoms that are threatened or taken away from them, the most innovative aspect of the theory, in my own opinion, is the implication principle. The implication principle is somewhat analogous to the principles of stimulus and response generalization that come from early research and theories on learning and performance--the work of Clark Hull, Kenneth Spence, and Neal Miller would be examples. But the implication principle is based on logical or psychological understanding rather than on stimulus or response similarity. It simply assumes that a threat to a particular freedom can frequently be seen as a threat to other freedoms. If the hotel management, for example, announced that you cannot bring coffee into the conference rooms, then you might conclude that no liquids are allowed in the conference rooms-not even bloody marys at 8:30 in the morning. Without doubt many implicational principles are culture bound, but it would be my contention that the general principle of logical or psychological implication always operates.

And so what if it does? What importance does the implicational principle have for the understanding of phenomena associated with psychological reactance, or more generally, for the understanding of behavior? Rather than attempt a formal analysis around the implication principle, I would like simply to point to a few settings in which an understanding of implications should be important to our understanding of behavior.

When a specific freedom has been threatened or eliminated, as when your spouse announces "I need the car tonight," at least two distinguishable types of implication are possible in regard to other freedoms. The first type of implied threat applies to the same freedom on future occasions. If, after announcing an intention to use the car, your spouse explains that a special emergency has arisen that requires use of the car, then you will understand that pre-empting car usage is not likely to recur. However, if there is no explanation, or if the explanation suggests your spouse wants to use the car on a whim or, worse, that your spouse will frequently want to use the car in the future, then your future freedoms to use the car are in great jeopardy.

The second type of implication is that other freedoms of the same general nature may be threatened. These would be freedoms such as watching your favorite TV program, spending one evening a week out with your friends, or going to bed early. The implied threat to these freedoms from the statement "I need the car tonight," is not necessarily direct, as would be the case if you needed the car in order to join your friends; rather, it can be indirect and would presumably apply to all freedoms of equal or less importance. If your spouse can say who uses the car at night, then your spouse may be able to say what program will be on the TV and whether or not you can spend the evening out with your friends. And -if your spouse can decide who uses the car, then it is plausible that your spouse can decide about freedoms of lesser importance, such as who sees the editorial page first. Conversely, determining who gets the car may not imply a threat to a more important freedom, such as deciding to buy a new car or sell the house or get a divorce.

So the first type of implied threat is to the same freedom on future occasions, and the second type of implied threat is to freedoms of similar or less importance. And let us now ask why it should make any difference if there are implied threats to a few freedoms. Well, the answer to that question is first, that implied threats are likely to apply not to just a few freedoms but rather to a large number of freedoms. No serious research that I know of has been done on the notion of implication either within the framework of reactance theory or within the framework of another theory. I cannot say whether or not there may be limits on perceived implication. It is possible, for example, that you believe your spouse would gladly take away your freedoms to be with your same sex friends, but would never interfere with your time with the children. That is, there may be content areas that would tend to limit the freedoms affected by implied threat. In the absence of such a limit, or even if there were such a limit, the number of freedoms that could be threatened by arbitrarily reserving the car for the evening could be very large indeed. And then there are all the freedoms represented by possible future use of the car--one freedom each night for the coming year, some 365 freedoms threatened by implication! And if that is not staggering enough, just remember that the different kinds of freedoms that are of equal or less importance also may be threatened over future occasions. All in all, there could be some huge number of freedoms threatened by implication.

It is this implicational aspect that may give reactance theory some power to say something about the real world. It seems to be captured in the phrase, "If he does this to me, what can't he do?" That is, when one freedom is threatened or taken away, many freedoms logically could be in danger, and they presumably will be perceived as threatened unless there is an explicit and convincingly stated limit.

What happens when a number of freedoms are threatened? Theoretically, there is a lot of reactance, or in other words, the individual's response is likely to be very strong. He or she will raise hell in order to restore freedom, and the threatened alternative will look very attractive indeed. My guess, and it is just a guess, is that all the reactance is focused on the explicitly threatened freedom. It is not spread out over all the freedoms that are threatened by implication. In fact, I doubt that people could easily articulate freedoms that are threatened by implication. It is more likely that they simply feel the threat is general rather than specific, and hence it could apply to any number of (unspecified) freedoms.

If it is true that people are generally unaware of freedoms that are threatened by implication, but they nevertheless respond as though those freedoms are really threatened, then their response will appear to be too strong for what has happened to them. They will be throwing tantrums as though it is the end of civilization if their specific freedom is not restored. Both the recipient of their response, and any uninvolved observer, will judge that they are "overreacting." This discrepancy between the importance of the specific freedom that has been threatened and the magnitude of reactance could lead a person either to moderate his or her response, or it could lead a person to articulate the implied threats, which would maintain the strength of the original response. I presume it is the latter that is more likely to happen, though I have no good justification for this presumption.

Examples from the world about us come readily to mind. Two or three years ago when services at the Library of Congress were reduced because of the budget squeeze, users of the library screamed bloody murder. My guess is that while some users may have been inconvenienced, the real strength of their response came from the implied threat to all their uses of the library. After all, if certain services could be reduced, then what was to prevent those services from being eliminated altogether or other services from being reduced or eliminated?

Similarly, when the Coca-Cola company abandoned their standard recipe for Coke, the response of users was, of course, outrage. The threat was to present and future freedoms to obtain the familiar Coke.

These two examples, plus the hypothetical example of your spouse claiming the car for the night, illustrate one other important point about how freedoms are threatened by implication. The individual whose freedom is threatened must be embedded in a complex relationship with the perpetrator of the threat, and in order to have future freedoms threatened, the relationship must be enduring. People who live together, especially under the rules of marriage, are wonderful candidates for implied threats. But membership in organizations of most any kind supplies a ready source of implied threats. For example, an individual will tend to have many freedoms where she or he works, and one frequently expects to have a long term relationship with one's employer. A final, classic, example of potential implied threats to freedoms lies in one's relationship to local, state, and federal governments Without going into the gory details, let me just remind you that a stop sign can be installed at an intersection where you don't have time to stop in the morning, your land can be seized to be part of a new state highway, and you can lose federal tax deductions for some business expenses. I'm sure you are all familiar with these problems.

The point I have been trying to make is that the magnitude of psychological reactance is greatly enhanced by implied threats to freedoms, and reactance theory may therefore be useful in understanding practical matters mainly where implied threats are involved. Otherwise, reactance effects frequently may be too minuscule to be of any consequence.

But I presume that for the purposes of this group it is not enough to gain new ideas about why you are so bothered by the cap's being left off the lube of toothpaste. Presumably, you would like to know what all this has to do with understanding consumer behavior. So let us consider how reactance theory applies to consumer behavior and let's start with what freedoms the consumer has.

Awareness that certain products or services exist creates freedoms, though in some cases these freedoms will be very weak. For example, even though I live in Lawrence, Kansas, I am aware that out there somewhere in the world there are French, Thais, and Nigerian restaurants. Do I believe I have the freedom to eat at such restaurants? Not really, not as long as i stay in Lawrence. But I know that I could venture forth, spending 5100 or 5200 for airfare, to obtain an interesting meal. That's a freedom, but not one that I wish to exercise very often.

From the consumer's point of view, there are great numbers of products and services available, usually for a price. Any factor such as price or unavailability that makes it difficult for the consumer to have the product or service reduces the extent to which hat product or service is a freedom to the consumer. Nevertheless, a large price tag, such as for the purchase of a new car, makes the associated freedoms highly important to the consumer. If one cannot buy a different new car each month, then the single choice one makes must be the best possible. Because this kind of decision is infrequently made, there cannot be many future freedoms threatened by implication. But because of the importance of these freedoms, any implied threat would presumably arouse considerable reactance.

Again from the consumer's point of view, two different kinds of decisions can be involved in considering the available goods and services. The first is the decision that a particular type of product or service is needed. For example, this would be the decision to buy a new car, which may be made more or less independently from the decision about which car to buy. Where only one product or service of the desired kind is available, the consumer will have only two freedoms: (1) to have the service or product, or (2) not to have it.

The second decision, which of several similar products or services to select, involves the freedoms to have each product or service, and the freedoms to reject each. It will be obvious that the greater the number of similar products or services available, the greater will be the number of freedoms lost when a selection is made. The greater the number of freedoms lost, the greater should be the magnitude of reactance and consequent resistance to any particular selection. From this we can draw a couple of lessons about consumer behavior. First, the greater the number of products or services from which to choose, the more reluctant the consumer should be to select any given one. Second, the greater the number of products or services from which to choose, the greater will be the consumer's resistance to high pressure tactics to make a particular selection. Now let us see how implied threats, too, can play a role.

Given that the consumer starts out with the freedom to have each available alternative, almost any attempt to influence the consumer's decision is likely to create reactance and a counter-tendency. The amount of reactance and the strength of the counter-tendency, however, should be relatively small for most decisions that a consumer makes. If I am contemplating the soft drink section at my usual supermarket and someone approaches me to say "We are trying to get people to try Supercola, so the price of a six-pack is 50% off," I may well try Supercola. While some reactance is created by the influence attempt, it is not so much that it cancels out the attractiveness of a good buy.

Contrast that case with one in which I find that my usual supermarket has devoted 90% of its shelf space for soft drinks to its own house brand. Even though I can find the other brands that I am looking for, I cannot help noticing the attempt to influence my choice. Not only do I experience reactance, I feel a lot of it. Why do I feel so much? The reason that I feel so much reactance is because I choose not only soft drinks at this store, I also choose canned goods, pasta, frozen foods, and so forth. For each one of these choices that I make, there is the possibility that the supermarket is trying to influence me to select their house brand. Furthermore, because I shop at this store each week and expect to continue to do so, all my future choices as well may be subjected to influence attempts. You may be sure that I will not buy a house brand soft drink from this store. This is the obvious lesson about consumer behavior that we learn from reactance theory and its assertion about the effect of implied threats to freedoms.

In addition to the freedoms to have or reject particular products or services, consumers, I believe, think they have at least two other freedoms. Where a product or service is consumed regularly, the consumer expects it to be constant in character. I think the consumer believes it to be one of his freedoms that the character remain constant. The obvious example is that of the Coca-Cola recipe. It seems to me that much of the hue and cry occurred before anyone had a chance to try the new recipe. The problem was not the new taste but the arbitrary switch from the old taste. And if they do it once, they surely will do it ag as n.

Second, and not too surprisingly, consumers come to believe they have the freedom to obtain the product or service, even if they don't regularly obtain it. Indeed, one of the most distressing things in my life is when I find that a product that I bought 10 years ago, and now want again, is no longer on the market. It could be seen as a form of censorship imposed by the private sector on the public, and no matter if the product was not profitable, if that item can be eliminated, will Wheaties be the next to go?

The more general picture is that consumers have a complex relationship with innumerable organizations or agencies, and any of these relationships is easily capable of threatening a consumer freedom and simultaneously implying threats to a number of additional freedoms. If your local newspaper stops carrying Doonesbury, your local public radio station stops carrying All Things Considered, or the TV network stops producing Hill Street Blues, not only is the specific freedom threatened or lost, there is the dim awareness that a number of other favorite items could just as easily be taken away. It is, I believe, the implied threats that make specific losses so motivating. Whether the attempt is to induce the consumer to take a particular product or service, to change or even improve an old product or service, or to eliminate an unprofitable product, to the extent that freedoms to have other products or services may be threatened by implication, consumer responses are likely to be negative.

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