Psychological reactance: how we react to the threat of losing our freedom

You may have noticed that if someone pushes you to do something, it often makes you feel less inclined to do it. This is a phenomenon known as psychological reactance: a reflex reaction to being told what to do, or feeling that your freedom is under threat. It can occur in personal, professional or social settings when you feel that you need to regain a sense of control over your autonomy.

Controlling someone else’s sense of freedom can trigger anger, and motivate them to regain it. As a decision-maker, it is important to recognise that if you push people too hard, you may end up prompting them to do the opposite of what you wanted them to do. Understanding psychological reactance, and finding ways to positively impact others’ motivation, is therefore important in both professional and personal settings. Let’s have a look.

A fear of losing our personal freedom

The concept of psychological reactance was formulated by psychologist Dr. Jack Brehm in 1966. He defined reactance as “the motivation to regain a freedom after it has been lost or threatened.” It causes individuals to rebel against the pressure they are put under. 

It is often the thought of someone else exerting control, rather than the request itself, that leads to psychological reactance. As individuals, we want to feel that we have the freedom to do as we please. This means that when a circumstance arises which threatens our sense of freedom, reactance emerges as a form of motivational arousal.

For example, being told that you cannot use a mobile phone at school may increase your desire to do so, even if you previously did not have any desire to look at your phone. Being forced to pay fees for something that was previously free may reduce your desire to buy a product for which the cost can easily be justified.

You may work diligently and conscientiously to complete tasks at work without complaint. However, when your manager specifically requests a piece of work, you may start to feel your resistance growing. Despite completing similar tasks previously without issue, you may now feel the urge to react against the request simply because it has now been mandated by your manager.

The perceived threat to your autonomy makes the work feel unappealing and so you may put it to the bottom of your list, or even argue against doing it at all. This reactance is a direct effort to eradicate the new restrictions imposed upon you.

Reactance can occur whenever our emotional freedom is challenged. Research suggests that it can be triggered by external threats, such as being asked to complete a chore, or by internal threats or dialogue.

Furthermore, the intensity of reactance experienced may depend on how significant you perceive the threat to be. The greater the threat to your autonomy, the more likely you are to refuse to yield to social or professional influence. Similarly, if more than one freedom is threatened simultaneously, reactance will increase.

How to manage psychological reactance

Threats to freedom, and the resultant reactance, can occur in all facets of our lives. As a decision-maker, it is likely that your role will involve making requests or attempting to motivate others to work in a certain way. Finding ways to support the autonomy of others to prevent reactance from occurring is therefore vital.

1. Accommodate autonomy. Of course, you will sometimes need to make decisions that others have less input on. However, it’s essential to treat the people you collaborate with as autonomous agents. For example, if a new process will be implemented at work, give your team the opportunity to provide their thoughts and suggestions. This way, it will feel less likely freedom is being taken away, and more like power is being given. Research even suggests that “threatened individuals who feel powerful free themselves from the threatening situation and manage to reorient themselves.”

2. Set healthy constraints to breed creativity. It has been shown that having too few constraints breeds complacency, while excessive constraints can be detrimental to creativity and innovation: a moderate level of guidance “frames the task as a greater challenge and, in turn, motivates experimentation and risk-taking.” By finding a healthy middle ground between complete freedom and micromanaging, you can maximise creativity and encourage your team to investigate non-traditional solutions.

3. Use reactance as a motivator. In some situations, it may be possible to encourage others to achieve more by restricting their freedom in some way. For instance, a researcher may be driven to attend more conferences when told that they can only enrol on three per year. However, this strategy must be used with caution, as excessive or unfair infringement on freedom could result in resentment rather than motivation.

As you have seen, psychological reactance occurs as a response to a perceived restriction on our personal freedom. Being told not to do something, or having requests made of us, can cause us to rebel against the situation. However, it is possible to prevent reactance from occurring, and even to use it as a motivator.

By accommodating autonomy, using healthy constraints to encourage imaginative thinking, and applying reasonable restrictions as a stimulus for action, reactance can be directed in a way that improves creativity and productivity in the workplace — as long as leaders ensure that team members do not feel controlled, but instead feel empowered to achieve more.

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