Reactance Theory in Consumer Research: the Past, Present and Future


Greg Lessne and M. Venkatesan (1989) ,"Reactance Theory in Consumer Research: the Past, Present and Future", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, eds. Thomas K. Srull, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 76-78.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, 1989      Pages 76-78


Greg Lessne, University of Rhode Island

M. Venkatesan, University of Rhode Island

The social psychological roots of reactance theory are reviewed followed by a discussion of the early consumer research that invoked reactance theory. More recent research is then discussed along with reasons why the theory has not received a great deal of attention in recent years. Finally a set of unresolved issues are presented which can serve to provide some guidance for those interested in conducting future research into reactance theory.

Reactance theory is a social psychological theory developed by Jack Brehm (Brehm 1966, 1972; Brehm, Stires, Sensenig and Shaban 1966; Hammock and Brehm 1966). The theory is concerned with how individuals react when their freedom to choose is restricted. According to the theory, when an individual's freedom to engage in a specific behavior is threatened. the threatened behavior becomes more attractive. For reactance to occur, the individual must have an expectation of free choice and the individual must perceive the freedom in question as being important (Clee and Wicklund 1980). In other words, "The consumer whose decision alternative is blocked (partially or wholly) by a barrier should become increasingly motivated to obtain that alternative"(Clee and Wicklund, 1980, p. 39: .)ln Brehm's (1972, p.l) words, "The basic idea of the theory is that a person is motivationally aroused any time he thinks one of his freedoms has been threatened or eliminated. This motivational arousal, ... moves a person to try to restore his freedom." According to Clee and Wicklund (1980), two conditions must be present for the operation of reactance theory: (l) an individual must expect a measure of freedom to act in the situation, and (2) some threat must arise which impinges upon that freedom. (A portion of this discussion is drawn from Clee and Wicklund, 1980 and Lessne and Notarantonio, 1988).

In one of the earliest laboratory investigations of reactance theory, Brehm et al. (1966) investigated the effects that product unavailability had on product attractiveness. Participants in the first session of the study listened to and evaluated four phonograph records. At the second session participants were told that they were going to listen to the same four records, evaluate them and choose one to keep. Prior to listening to the records during the second session, one group of participants was informed that one of the records was no longer available because it was missing from the shipment. In each case, the record that was reported as unavailable was the one that was rated as the participants' third choice. As reactance theory predicts, the third rated record increased in attractiveness as a result of becoming unavailable. Sixty-seven percent of those participants who had their third choice eliminated raised their evaluation. Only forty-three percent of those who did not have their third choice eliminated raised their evaluation.

The earliest study performed by a consumer researcher (Venkatesan 1966) was published in the same year that Brehm's (1966) seminal work, A Theory of Psychological Reactance, appeared. In this study, the focus was on group conformity behavior. In order to ascertain whether individuals demonstrate independence from the norm of the group, an experimental condition was created. In this condition, the three confederates not only indicated their choices, but they made sure that they were following the judgment of the previous confederate (not an independent Judgment by itself). Thus. when freedom to choose was artificially restricted in this experimental condition, the subjects tended not to conform as much as evidenced in the "conformity condition. "

Mazis, Settle and Leslie (1973) applied reactance theory in a field study investigating the effects of a ban on phosphate detergents in Miami. They found that Miami residents evaluated phosphate detergents more favorably than residents of Tampa where phosphate detergents were still available. This study is perhaps the most convincing in terms of demonstrating the theory's relevance to consumer research.

Lessne (1987) investigated whether retail advertisements which describe sales of limited duration (e.g. One Day Only, Three Days Only) are capable of increasing consumer demand. One of the key findings of the study is that an advertisement for a One Day Only sale results in greater purchase likelihood than advertisements for a Three Day Only sale, a Five Day Only sale and a sale of an unstated duration.

Lessne and Notarantonio (1988) investigated the effect of limits in retail advertisements (e.g. limit 2 per customer, limit 4 per customer). A key finding of this study is that limits are capable of increasing attraction to the advertised product (soda). Those in the limit 4 treatment group evidenced a greater intended purchase quantity as well as a stronger belief that "many will want to purchase this product after seeing this ad" than those who were exposed to a control ad which did not contain a limit statement.

In a strict sense, according to reactance theory, those who are exposed to an advertisement with a limit 2 statement should be more attracted than those exposed to a limit 4 statement. 'The magnitude of reactance aroused by the introduction of a barrier is a direct function of the size of the barrier up to that point at which the barrier becomes too great to overcome."(Brehm, 1972, p. 17) Lessne and Notarantonio's (1988) findings indicate that the limit 4 statement resulted in a greater likelihood of buying and a stronger belief that many will want to purchase. Even though the limit 2 barrier was not "too great to overcome" participants in the study acted as if they perceived it as too restrictive. The "sour grapes effect (Clee and Wicklund, 1980; Hammock and Brehm, 1966) provides an explanation of this outcome by maintaining that objects which become unobtainable will be derogated by individuals. The sour grapes effect and the reactance effect are therefore countervailing forces. Lessne and Notarantonio's (1988) findings indicate that the sour grapes effect can be operational even if the object is not entirely unobtainable.

Lessne and Notarantonio (1988) also investigated whether the imposition of limits has a differential impact on individuals with different demographic backgrounds. Older individuals and those with higher incomes were found to be more positively affected by the limit 4 treatment than others. The importance of this finding is that certain market segments may be more ''limit-influenced'' than others.


There has been extremely little empirical reactance theory consumer research conducted since Mazis et al (1973) (cf Henion and Batsell, 1976; Lessne, 1987; Lessne and Notarantonio, 1988). As a result of this paucity of research we do not have a great deal of insight into how "translatable" reactance theory is to a consumer behavior context. It is not possible at the present time to know what modifications or extensions are necessary (if any) to apply the theory to the context of consumer behavior.

Perhaps one of the reasons why there has been so little empirical research in the context of consumer behavior may be that the theory is not seen as having managerial ramifications. An additional complicating factor is if that the theory can be applied to a manager's benefit, such an application may be deemed unethical. The findings of Lessne (1987) indicate that reactance theory may have managerial applications but such applications would indeed be considered unethical. Clearly corroboration of these findings would be managerially relevant; managers might be encouraged to advertise sales as lasting for a short duration to increase purchase likelihood.

Perhaps an argument can be made that advertising sales of short duration is indeed ethical because those who make such purchases will derive greater satisfaction from the purchased product because they purchased it during a sale of short duration. This outcome would still be cause for ethical concern if the consumers' increased level of satisfaction was due to the mistaken belief that the purchase made at a sale of short duration was a better value than a sale of longer duration. Indeed a preliminary analysis of advertisements for sales of short duration indicates that the length of the sale is not related to amount of savings.(Lessne 1988)

The countervailing nature of the reactance effect and the sour grapes effect makes reactance theory research all the more challenging. A message that is intended to cause reactance and therefore increase attraction may instead cause sour grapes and decreased attraction.

According to reactance theory, reactance appeals should increase consumers' attraction to the advertised product because such appeals threaten consumers' freedom. (Lessne 1988) Advertisements which describe sales of short duration or limited purchase quantities (e.g. Limit One per Customer) may be viewed as reactance appeals. This discussion raises a number of important unresolved issues with respect to reactance theory implications for consumer behavior research. Central to these issues is the reactance appeal construct. A reactance appeal is defined as a statement in an advertisement which is perceived as restricting consumers' behavior with respect to the advertised product.

The extent to which consumers feel their freedom threatened by a potential reactance appeal would provide an indication of the relative validity of the reactance appeal construct. Unfortunately, inclusion of a question on a survey instrument such as, "Please indicate the extent to which you felt your freedom was threatened by the advertisement", is not very plausible. In other words, it is very difficult to determine whether individuals are indeed experiencing reactance. This being the case, in a strict sense, it is impossible to determine whether reactance is operational or if a competing theory can satisfactorily explain this behavior (e.g. commodity theory Brock (1968)). Anyone who is contemplating performing research using reactance theory should realize that it will remain virtually impossible to unequivocally demonstrate that reactance is being aroused. Does this then mean that the theory should be abandoned? No, it just requires a shift in how the theory should be applied in consumer research.

It is our view that the driving force behind reactance theory applications for consumer research should not be the theory per se but the phenomenon under investigation. The theory should play a guiding role, but consumer behavior research will necessarily become very restricted if one maintains only a strict theory-testing perspective. This is true because the phenomena we are concerned with typically do not fit within the strict confines (assumptions) of the theory. Being entirely theory-driven would result in research into phenomena which are not necessarily important but rather phenomena which happen to fit closely with the theory whether or not the phenomena are important. The advocated position would result in reactance theory playing an important guiding role, possibly in conjunction with other relevant theories. The focus should be on the phenomena of interest not the theory.

The limited research in consumer behavior appears to demonstrate that reactance appeals may be capable of increasing product attraction, but it has not shed much light on the nature of the relationship (Lessne 1987,1988; Lessne and Notarantonio 1983). The relationship between a reactance appeal and product attraction may be mediated by a number of inferences made by the consumer, for example: 1. price inferences (e.g. the product must be a bargain), 2. scarcity inference. Lessne and Notarantonio (1988) provides some support for the notion that the reactance effect is not mediated by price inferences.

Reactance theory is also potentially capable of explaining the effects that a "hard sell" can have on consumer choice. For example, if a consumer perceives that a salesperson is pressuring him/her into the purchase of a specific product. reactance may be aroused. The reactance effect would motivate the consumer to reassert their freedom by not purchasing the promoted item.

The relative success of the Home Shopping Club (HSC) may be partially attributable to reactance. HSC markets products via a cable television show. Consumers can only purchase products by phoning in their order during the very brief period (5-15 minutes) when the product is being featured. This temporal barrier may serve to promote reactance and therefore result in increased attraction.


While there is not considerable empirical research in the application of reactance theory to the consumer behavior context, available evidence to date suggests that reactance theory would seem to be applicable to a limited set of conditions where consumers' freedom of choice is threatened. Such threats come from product unavailability or restrictions placed on the number of items one can purchase during a "sale" or restrictions imposed by limiting the duration of a "sale." While these conditions fit the requirements of reactance theory, experimental field studies have not been conducted which fully explore the utility of the theory to consumer behavior. What is suggested here is that the theory not be tested in the strict theory testing perspective but rather that the theory be used as a guiding framework in investigations of important phenomena.


Brehm, Jack W. (1966), A Theory of Psychological Reactance, New York: Academic Press, Inc.

Brehm, Jack W. (1972), Response to Loss of Freedom: A Theory of Psychological Reactance, Morristown, NJ: General Learning Press.

Brehm, Jack W., Lloyd K. Stires, John Sensenig and Janet Shaban (1966), 'The Attractiveness of an Eliminated Choice Alternative," Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2, 301-313.

Brock, T.C. (1968), "Implications of Commodity Theory for Value Exchange," In A.G. Greenwald, T.C. Brock and T.M. Ostrom (Eds.) Psychological Foundations of Attitude. New York: Academic Press .

Clee, Mona A. and Robert A. Wicklund (1980), "Consumer Behavior and Psychological Reactance," Journal of Consumer Research, 6 (March), 389-405.

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.

Henion, Karl E. and Richard R. Batsell (1976), "Marketing of Blood Donorship, Helping Behavior and Psychological Reactance," Educator's Proceedings, Chicago: American Marketing Association, 652-656.

Lessne, Greg J. (1987), "The Impact of Advertised Sale Duration on Consumer Perceptions," Ln J.M. Hawes (-Ed.) Developments in Marketing Science, Vol. X, Atlanta: Academy of Marketing Science, pp. 115117.

Lessne, Greg J. (1988) "Reactance Appeals in Advertising: A Neglected Field of Inquiry" unpublished working paper, University of Rhode Island

Lessne, Greg J. and Elaine Notarantonio (1988), "The Effects of Limits in Retail Advertisements: A Reactance Theory Perspective," Psychology and Marketing, Spring, Volume 5, (l) pp. 33-44

Mazis, Michael B., Robert B. Settle and Dennis C. Leslie (1973), "Elimination of Phosphate Detergents and Psychological Reactance," Journal of Marketing Research, 10 (November,) 390-395

Venkatesan, M. (1966), "Experimental Study of Consumer Behavior Conformity and Independence." Journal of Marketing Research, 3 (November), 384-387.

Wicklund, Robert A. (1974), Freedom and Reactance. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates



Greg Lessne, University of Rhode Island
M. Venkatesan, University of Rhode Island


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16 | 1989

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