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Abstract

Since Brehm first proposed reactance theory in 1966, many studies have explored the remarkable psychological phenomenon of reactance, which Miron and Brehm reviewed in 2006. We present an overview of research that has been done since then. A variety of studies have provided interesting new insights into the theory, adding to what is known about the phenomenon of reactance and the processes activated when people are confronted with threats to their freedom. Nevertheless, many issues that have not been clarified remain to be examined. We therefore close with proposing some suggestions for future research.
Review Article
Understanding Psychological
Reactance
New Developments and Findings
Christina Steindl,
1
Eva Jonas,
1
Sandra Sittenthaler,
1
Eva Traut-Mattausch,
1
and Jeff Greenberg
2
1
Department of Psychology, University of Salzburg, Austria,
2
Department of Psychology, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ, USA
Abstract. Since Brehm first proposed reactance theory in 1966, many studies have explored the remarkable psychological phenomenon of
reactance, which Miron and Brehm reviewed in 2006. We present an overview of research that has been done since then. A variety of studies
have provided interesting new insights into the theory, adding to what is known about the phenomenon of reactance and the processes activated
when people are confronted with threats to their freedom. Nevertheless, many issues that have not been clarified remain to be examined.
We therefore close with proposing some suggestions for future research.
Keywords: (vicarious) reactance, culture, persuasion, motivation, dual process
‘Why is it that a child sometimes does the opposite
of what he is told? Why would a person sometimes
dislike receiving a favor? Why is propaganda fre-
quently ineffective in persuading people? And why
would the grass in the adjacent pasture ever appear
greener?’’ (Brehm, 1966, p. v).
Almost 60 years have passed since Brehm presented a theory
of psychological reactance as an answer to these questions.
Reactance – the motivation to regain a freedom after it has
been lost or threatened – leads people to resist the social
influence of others. Since Brehm’s first publication on reac-
tance in 1966, the phenomenon has attracted attention in
basic as well as applied research in areas such as health, mar-
keting, politics, and education, and a wealth of reactance
studies have been published. Forty years after Brehm’s first
publication, Miron and Brehm (2006) reviewed those areas
they found especially relevant and pointed to several gaps
in the research. Inspired by their review paper, we set out
to explore theresearch addressing these gaps. About 50 years
after the theory was first proposed, it is much clearer what
reactance is and what role it plays when freedoms are threa-
tened. However, there are still unanswered but important
questions for psychology to clarify.
Reactance Theory
In general, people are convinced that they possess certain
freedoms to engage in so-called free behaviors. Yet there
are times when they cannot, or at least feel that they cannot,
do so. Being persuaded to buy a specific product in the gro-
cery store, being forced to pay tuition fees, being prohibited
from using a mobile phone in school, and being instructed
to perform work for the boss are all examples of threats to
the freedom to act as desired, and this is where reactance
comes into play. Reactance is an unpleasant motivational
arousal that emerges when people experience a threat to
or loss of their free behaviors. It serves as a motivator to
restore one’s freedom. The amount of reactance depends
on the importance of the threatened freedom and the per-
ceived magnitude of the threat. Internal threats are self-
imposed threats arising from choosing specific alternatives
and rejecting others. External threats arise either from
impersonal situational factors that by happenstance create
a barrier to an individual’s freedom or from social influence
attempts targeting a specific individual (Brehm, 1966;
Brehm & Brehm, 1981; Clee & Wicklund, 1980).
The unpleasant motivational state of reactance results in
behavioral and cognitive efforts to reestablish one’s free-
dom, accompanied by the experience of emotion. People
who are threatened usually feel uncomfortable, hostile,
aggressive, and angry (Berkowitz, 1973; Brehm, 1966;
Brehm & Brehm, 1981; Dillard & Shen, 2005; Rains,
2013). On the behavioral side, threatened people may exhi-
bit the restricted behavior (direct restoration) or may
observe others performing a related behavior (indirect res-
toration). They may aggressively force the threatening per-
son to remove the threat or they may behave in a hostile and
aggressive way just to let off steam (aggression). On the
cognitive side, people may derogate the source of threat,
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upgrade the restricted freedom, or downgrade the imposed
option (change in attractiveness; e.g., Bijvank, Konijn,
Bushman, & Roelofsma, 2009; Brehm, 1966; Brehm &
Brehm, 1981; Bushman & Stack, 1996; Dillard & Shen,
2005; Heilman & Toffler, 1976; Quick & Stephenson,
2007; Rains, 2013; Rains & Turner, 2007). However,
despite the well-explored consequences of reactance, there
has been little exploration of reactance as a state per se.
Reactance leads to behavioral, affective, and cognitive
effects, but what exactly causes these effects?
With the questions Miron and Brehm (2006) asked and
the research they reviewed as a starting point, we set out to
consider more recent advances. Here, we present our review
of research on the measurement of reactance, the role of
culture and self, vicarious reactance, determinants of reac-
tance in the context of persuasion, and the crucial role of
motivation in reactance processes. We review studies indi-
cating different reactance processes – some of them show-
ing that specific freedom threats arouse an intermingled
state of affect and cognition and some of them showing that
specific freedom threats arouse an immediate, emotional
reaction while others arouse a cognitive and a delayed emo-
tional reaction. We conclude by discussing remaining issues
and future research directions.
Can Reactance Be Measured?
In their review paper, Miron and Brehm (2006) already
provided some answers and further suggestions to the ques-
tion of how to measure reactance. For measuring reactance
as a trait they specify measurements such as the Hong’
Psychological Reactance Scale (HPRS; e.g., Hong, 1992)
which is still the most commonly used instrument. It has
been translated into many languages and is used in coun-
tries around the world (De las Cuevas, Peñate, Betancort,
& de Rivera, 2014). However, research still does not agree
on the factor structure. While Jonason, Bryan, and Herrera
(2010) reduced the original 18-item scale to a one-factor
measure comprising 10 items, De las Cuevas et al. (2014)
suggested a two-factor structure comprising an affective
and a cognitive dimension.
Measurements of the state of reactance are rare, possibly
because Brehm conceptualized reactance as ‘‘an interven-
ing, hypothetical variable’’ that cannot be measured directly
(Brehm & Brehm, 1981, p. 37; see also Brehm, 1966).
However, in 2006 Miron and Brehm suggested that ‘‘reac-
tance could be directly assessed through measurement of
the subjective experience (feeling) that accompanies the
urge to restore freedom’’ (Miron & Brehm, 2006).
The authors suggested that future studies should explore
what people feel if they experience threats to their freedom.
Over the last 10 years the question of how to measure the
experience of reactance has attracted increasing attention.
Exploring persuasive messages, Dillard and Shen
(2005) developed four items to assess peoples perceived
threat to freedom with regard to the message.
1
They dem-
onstrated that a message that is perceived as highly threat-
ening to ones freedom arouses reactance, which they
conceptualized as a latent variable intermingling anger
affect and negative cognition. To measure anger affect,
Dillard and Shen asked their participants to indicate how
irritated, angry, annoyed, and aggravated they were with
regard to a freedom-threatening message. Further, they
instructed participants to write down whatever came to
mind after reading the message. Independent raters coded
the thoughts as supportive, neutral, or negative. They found
that anger and negative cognitions in the form of counterar-
guments mediated the relationship between the freedom-
threatening message and people’s attitudes toward the mes-
sage. This attitude guided people’s behavioral intentions to
follow or not follow the advice of the message. But did
affect and cognition have separate or combined effects on
peoples responses to the message? To test this, the authors
compared four structural equation models: a single-process
cognitive model, a single-process affective model, a dual-
process model in which affective and cognitive reactions
had unique effects on people’s responses to the persuasive
message, and an intertwined model in which affect and cog-
nition were considered an alloy that could not be disentan-
gled. In two studies they found the best fit for the
intertwined model. In a meta-analytic review of 20 studies,
Rains (2013) confirmed that the intertwined model was
superior to the alternative models.
In a line of research on cross-cultural reactance (also see
the section Reactance, Culture, and the Self), Jonas and col-
leagues used a different approach to measure the experience
of reactance. They combined items assessing people’s per-
ception of threat to their freedom with items assessing peo-
ple’s emotional experience.
2
This measure has been shown
to mediate the effect of freedom threat on behavioral inten-
tions (e.g., the intention to help, Jonas et al., 2009, Study 4).
It has since been used in several studies investigating reac-
tance in the context of change situations (e.g., personal
change or political reforms), vicarious threats, and culture,
and it has been shown to mediate cognitive and behavioral
outcome variables such as attitude, intended and real
resistance behavior, and performance (Niesta Kayser,
Graupmann, Fryer, & Frey, 2015; Sittenthaler & Jonas,
2012; Sittenthaler, Traut-Mattausch, & Jonas, 2015;
Traut-Mattausch, Guter, Zanna, Jonas, & Frey, 2011;
Traut-Mattausch, Jonas, Förg, Frey, & Heinemann, 2008).
Sittenthaler, Traut-Mattausch, Steindl, and Jonas (2015)
validated these items together with items assessing
aggressive behavioral intentions as well as negative
1
On a 5-point response scale participants responded to the items ‘‘The message threatened my freedom to choose’’; ‘‘The message tried to
make a decision for me’’; ‘‘The message tried to manipulate me’’; and ‘‘The message tried to pressure me.’
2
This experience of reactance scale consisted of the items ‘‘How reasonable would a favor like that appear to you?’’; ‘‘How restricted would
you feel in your freedom of choice?’’; ‘‘How legitimate would a favor like that appear to you?’’; ‘‘How much would you feel under
pressure by being told you are the only one that can provide her this favor?’’; ‘‘How much would a favor like that bother you?’’; and ‘‘How
irritated would you probably feel by a request like that?’’
206 C. Steindl et al.: Understanding Psychological Reactance
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evaluations and propose a new state reactance measure, the
so-called Salzburger State Reactance Scale.
Miron and Brehm (2006) also suggested that another
way of directly assessing reactance would be to use physi-
ological measures. Past (Baum, Fleming, & Reddy, 1986)
and current (Sittenthaler, Jonas, & Traut-Mattausch, 2015;
Sittenthaler, Steindl, & Jonas, 2015) research has demon-
strated that freedom threats affect people’s physiological
arousal. Whereas in the previous study (Baum et al.,
1986) arousal level increased when people were confronted
with an uncontrollable event, such as a threat to their free-
dom, in the more recent studies (Sittenthaler, Jonas, et al.,
2015; Sittenthaler, Steindl, et al., 2015) merely imagining
being restricted from visiting a flat they might have wanted
to rent was sufficient to increase peoples heart rate.
Interestingly, there was a difference between the heart rate
increase following an illegitimate restriction (unexpected
and inappropriate) and a legitimate restriction (unexpected
but appropriate, i.e., when people were given reasons for
not being allowed to visit the flat). When confronted with
an illegitimate restriction, people’s heart rate increased
immediately. Heart rate also increased following a legiti-
mate restriction, but only after a time delay. This finding
led us to assume that different processes might be involved
when people are confronted with different kinds of threats
to their freedom. Whereas some threats (e.g., illegitimate
threats) seem to follow a more emotional process leading
to immediate arousal, others might induce people to reflect
upon the situation before getting into an arousal state
(Sittenthaler, Steindl, et al., 2015; see also Sittenthaler,
Jonas, et al., 2015, for similar processes when confronted
with self-experienced vs. vicarious reactance, on which
we elaborate in more detail below). These findings suggest
that dual processes in the form of more automatic, impul-
sive affect-driven versus more cognitive dominated reflec-
tive information processing (e.g., Strack & Deutsch,
2004; for an overview, see Gawronski & Creighton, 2013)
appear to be important when looking at reactance processes
following different kinds of threats. Affect and motivational
arousal seem to be involved in both types of reactance
responses, but occurring a bit later for the more reflective,
cognitively oriented responses. These findings allow us to
connect this line of research with Dillard and Shen’s
(2005) intertwined model, which conceptualizes reactance
as a latent variable intermingling affect and cognition (see
also Rains, 2013). Even if people first reflect on the restric-
tion to their freedom (cognition), the experience of reac-
tance seems to be also characterized by affect.
Different lines of research all suggest that one important
component of reactance is the experience of anger. Anger is
typically understood as a negative emotion but is also
related to motivation, namely, approach motivation
(Harmon-Jones, 2003, 2004; Harmon-Jones & Allen,
1998; Harmon-Jones, Harmon-Jones, Abramson, &
Peterson, 2009). Approach motivation – the motivation to
move toward something – is a force that determines human
behavior and affect (Gray, 1982, 1990). It contrasts with
avoidance motivation, which motivates people to withdraw
(Harmon-Jones, Harmon-Jones, & Price, 2013). In a theo-
retical overview on reactance, Chadee (2011) even proposed
that approach motivation is the necessary prerequisite for
reactance to emerge. Feeling able to resolve a threatening
event (i.e., to cope with a situation) has been shown to
evoke approach motivation (Harmon-Jones, Lueck, Fearn,
& Harmon-Jones, 2006; Harmon-Jones, Sigelman, Bohlig,
& Harmon-Jones, 2003). Because people experiencing
reactance are striving to restore their freedom (i.e., they
seem able to cope with the threat), reactance should be
associated with approach motivation. Steindl, Jonas, Klackl,
and Sittenthaler (2015) used electroencephalography (EEG)
and found that reactance was associated with heightened
left frontal alpha asymmetry, which is thought to be an
indicator of approach motivation (Harmon-Jones, 2003;
Harmon-Jones & Allen, 1998).
In summary, recent research suggests that reactance
can indeed be measured. It is possible to assess people’s
experience of a threatening situation, the cognitive and
affective processes that are activated by it, and the phys-
iological arousal and activity in the brain that accompany
the attempt to restore freedom. However, the extent to
which people are affected by threats to their freedom
and the resulting motivation to restore their freedom
strongly depend on a person’s self being involved in the
reactance process.
Reactance, Culture, and the Self
Miron and Brehm (2006) proposed that different cultures,
such as individualistic and collectivistic, react to different
threats and in different ways to restore their freedom. They
suggested that it might be crucial whether a threat comes
from individuals inside or outside one’s group. They cited
research showing that individualists and collectivists differ
in their expectations of control and choice and thus in their
self-construal, making them more or less sensitive to threats
(Iyengar & Lepper, 1999). Assessing people’s experience of
reactance by measuring perceived threat and emotional
experience, Jonas et al. (2009) showed that individualists
or people with an independent self-construal are more
affected by threats to their individual, personal freedom
(e.g., doing another person a favor by lending him/her one’s
business car), in contrast to collectivists or people with an
interdependent self-construal, who are more affected by
threats to their collective freedom, that is, threats affecting
not only themselves but also their group (e.g., doing another
branch a favor by lending them a pool of business cars).
The same results were obtained when independent versus
interdependent values were primed by describing the differ-
ences versus similarities between themselves and their close
others (see Trafimov, Triandis, & Goto, 1991). This sug-
gests that people’s experience of reactance strongly depends
on the goals and values most accessible when the threat
occurs. In these cultural studies, whether the values were
group or individual was the key factor causing the differ-
ences in reactance. Thus, the experience of reactance as a
mix of perceived threat and emotions seems to be motiva-
tional in nature. Only if people’s values are affected do they
seem to be energized to strive for a restoration of their
freedom.
C. Steindl et al.: Understanding Psychological Reactance 207
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Graupmann, Jonas, Meier, Hawelka, and Aichhorn
(2012) found that a threat to freedom of choice coming
from one’s ingroup aroused more reactance in individualis-
tic than in collectivistic people. Individualists indicated a
higher increase of attractiveness of the eliminated option
when the threat originated in the ingroup versus an out-
group. In contrast, collectivists indicated a higher increase
in attractiveness of the eliminated option when the threat
originated in an outgroup versus the ingroup. This again
seems to be because individualists highly value their indi-
vidual freedom and distinctiveness from their ingroup
(Markus & Kitayama, 1991). Thus, they are highly threa-
tened by decisions coming from the ingroup. Collectivists,
by contrast, highly value the connectedness with their
ingroup (Markus & Kitayama, 1991) and thus, do not feel
threatened by decisions coming from the ingroup.
Further evidence illustrating the motivational character
of reactance comes from Laurin, Kay, and Fitzsimons
(2012). They explained the contradictory effect that some
people may endorse a decision even though they are not
in favor of it. Two factors determining the reaction to
restrictions are the absoluteness of a restriction and self-
relevance. If the threat is absolute, that is, sure to come into
effect, people rationalize it. If it is nonabsolute, that is, it
may not come into effect, people respond with reactance.
Both effects, rationalization and reactance, were strongest
if the restriction was self-relevant.
The differences in reactance processes that are due to
one’s self being involved in the threat raise the issue of vicar-
ious reactance, in which a person experiences reactance to a
threat to another individual or group, even if the threat does
not have any implications for the person’s own freedom of
choice (Miron & Brehm, 2006). Is it possible to experience
reactance on behalf of another person? What happens when
people observe the restriction of another person?
Vicarious Reactance
Two distinct views of vicarious reactance exist: (a) It occurs
as a consequence of people cognitively taking the role of
the restricted person and asking themselves what the
restricted person might experience (see Brehm, 1972;
Miron, 2002; Worchel, Insko, Andreoli, & Drachman,
1974), and (b) people experience reactance themselves
while observing a threat to another persons freedom
(Andreoli, Worchel, & Folger, 1974). Andreoli et al.
(1974) tested female participants who observed an actor
being excluded from a decision-making process and found
that the participants themselves showed vicarious reactance
by rating the attractiveness of the discussion topics
higher when the actor was restricted versus not restricted.
The authors concluded that ‘reactance can be aroused by
the mere observance of a threat to another’s freedom, with-
out the perception of ones own freedom being potentially
directly threatened’’ (p. 767).
Whereas Andreoli et al. (1974) measured reactance only
in the form of cognitive changes in the attractiveness of an
option, Sittenthaler and colleagues (Sittenthaler & Jonas,
2012; Sittenthaler, Jonas, et al., 2015; Sittenthaler,
Traut-Mattausch, et al., 2015) assessed the subjective experi-
ence of vicarious reactance. They found that people experi-
enced strong reactance as a mix of perceived threat and
emotions if they observed or read about a freedom threat to
another person. These vicarious reactions to freedom threats,
however, were moderated by people’s self-construal. People
with a more interdependent self-construal or a collectivistic
cultural background (e.g., coming from Bosnia or Croatia)
experienced more vicarious reactance (especially for an in-
group member) compared to people with a more independent
self-construal or an individualistic cultural background (e.g.,
coming from Germany or Austria). Furthermore, people with
a more independent self-construal or an individualistic
cultural background indicated stronger reactance when
restricted themselves rather than being vicariously restricted
(Sittenthaler, Traut-Mattausch, et al., 2015). Other cross-
cultural studies on vicarious reactance among collectivists
from the Philippines (Steindl & Jonas, 2012) and Eastern
European countries (e.g., the Czech Republic, Romania,
Russia; Sittenthaler & Jonas, 2012) replicated those findings.
People respond to both kinds of freedom restrictions
(self- and vicariously experienced), but Sittenthaler and
colleagues presented evidence that the process underlying
vicarious threats is different from the process of self-
experienced threats. Before experiencing the motivational
arousal state of reactance, people observing a restriction
first seem to need to think about the restriction of the other
person. This was demonstrated by looking at threatened
people’s cardiovascular responses (Sittenthaler, Jonas,
et al., 2015, Study 2): While there was an immediate
increase in physiological arousal (e.g., heart rate) after
self-restrictions, the increase after vicarious restrictions
was delayed. Further evidence revealed that vicarious reac-
tance is associated with a more reflective, cognitive process
and self-experienced reactance with a more impulsive,
emotional process (Sittenthaler, Jonas, et al., 2015, Studies
3 and 4). This was shown by using a cognitive load task
(memorizing a 7-digit number), which diminished people’s
experience of vicarious reactance, and an emotionally dis-
tracting task (think about the nicest day of last summer),
which only diminished self-experienced reactance.
In a nutshell, research in the cultural context has shown
that reactance is a state that (a) is influenced by people’s
cultural self-construal and (b) can also be experienced
vicariously. Only if the freedom threat affects aspects that
are important to the self do people show reactance. This
illuminates that reactance is motivational in nature.
The motivational nature of reactance also becomes evident
in the different reactance processes we described before –
people’s responses to self-experienced and illegitimate
threats appear to be more impulsive, whereas the responses
to vicarious and legitimate threats seem to be more reflec-
tive. Similar different processes can also be found in the
persuasion context.
Persuasion and Resistance to Change
If persuasion poses a threat to a person’s free behaviors,
reactance in the form of negative cognitions, such as
208 C. Steindl et al.: Understanding Psychological Reactance
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counterarguing and anger affect, leads to more negative atti-
tudes toward the message and consequently to less intention
to behave according to the message. Counterarguing and
anger as an intertwined reactance process have been shown
to mediate the effect of perceived freedom threat on reac-
tance effects such as disagreeing with the message (Dillard
& Shen, 2005; Kim, Levine, & Allen, 2013; Rains, 2013).
Persuasive messages arouse reactance especially by
using forceful and controlling language, such as the terms
should, ought, must, and need. This language has been
shown to be perceived as more threatening and as eliciting
more reactance than noncontrolling language, such as the
terms consider, can, could, and may (Miller, Lane, Deatrick,
Young, & Potts, 2007; Quick & Stephenson, 2008).
For example, in a study on convincing members of a fitness
club to participate in special exercises, people who had
been given a forceful message such as ‘‘you have to do
it’’ compared to a nonforceful message such as ‘‘consider
it’’ experienced more threat, which elicited more reactance
(negative cognitions and anger), and consequently, people
were less convinced (Quick & Considine, 2008). Addition-
ally, how threatening controlling messages are perceived to
be depends on the level of social agency. Social agency is
the extent to which a social agent is ‘‘perceived as being
capable of social behavior that resembles human-human
interaction’’ (Roubroeks, Ham, & Midden, 2011, p. 157).
Roubroeks et al. showed their participants low- or high-
control advice about energy conservation in the form of a
text only, a text with a picture of a robotic agent, or a text
with a brief film clip of the agent (Roubroeks et al., 2011;
Roubroeks, Midden, & Ham, 2009). Both studies con-
firmed that the stronger the social agency of persuasive
messages, the higher people’s perceived threat and
thus the higher their reactance (negative cognitions and
anger).
With regard to the reactance process in the context of
persuasion, research by Silvia (2006) showed that threats
to freedom through persuasive messages can elicit disagree-
ment through different paths and that these paths have dif-
ferent consequences. If freedom was threatened at the end
of a persuasive message, people directly disagreed with
the message. If freedom was threatened at the beginning
of the persuasive message, negative cognitions such as
counterarguing and perceiving the source as low in credibil-
ity mediated the effect on people’s disagreement with the
message. While disagreement that originated directly from
the threat at the end of the message decreased over time,
disagreement that originated in negative cognitions was sta-
ble over time. Thus a reflective reactance process, in which
cognitions affect subsequent reactions, is a more stable
reactance process. Research by Ziegler, Schlett, and
Aydinly (2013) furthermore suggests that in this state, peo-
ple also seem to react very sensitively to the weakness of
arguments when confronted with a highly threatening
message. However, when they are in a state of positive or
negative mood, the strength of the arguments plays a less
important role in predicting their reaction toward the free-
dom threat. Interestingly, in a different line of research only
people with sufficient cognitive resources showed reactance
in the form of a negative attitude toward a restriction;
without sufficient resources they even justified the restric-
tion(Laurin,Kay,Proudfoot,&Fitzsimons,2013).
So far, affect and cognition seem to be central elements
if we want to understand the nature of reactance processes.
This is most clearly expressed in the intertwined model of
reactance (Dillard & Shen, 2005; Rains, 2013), but seems
to be also supported by other research lines. However, even
if reactance can be conceptualized as a latent variable inter-
mingling anger affect and negative cognition, we can distin-
guish further between more affect-driven impulsive
processes and more cognition-driven reflective reactance
processes. In some situations, these different processes
might be driven by both cognition and affect in an intermin-
gling manner. However, in other situations, they might be
distinguishable from each other. The latter becomes appar-
ent if we look at shorter persuasive messages where there is
less room for counterarguing.
For short messages, it has been found that the framing of
the message as loss (e.g., ‘‘When you do not use sun protec-
tion you will pay costs.’) led to a significantly stronger per-
ception of threat than a gain frame (e.g., ‘When you use sun
protection you will gain benefits.’’) and that the perceived
threat was positively correlated with anger but not with neg-
ative cognitions (Cho & Sands, 2011). The authors specu-
lated that ‘‘different types of messages create differences
in the process of reactance’’ (Cho & Sands, 2011, p. 315).
The influence of different types of threats that rely on
simplecueshasalsobeenexploredinthecontextof
political reforms. Citizens’ reactions are influenced by the
way politicians communicate reforms. Focusing on limita-
tions that will result from the change has been shown to
evoke more experience of reactance (using Jonas et al.’s,
2009, combined measure of an experience of perceived
threat and negative affect) and thus more negative attitudes
toward the reform than focusing on improvements that will
result (Traut-Mattausch et al., 2008). Furthermore, a study
by Förg, Jonas, Traut-Mattausch, Heinemann, and Frey
(2007) demonstrated that experts communicating the
reform to citizens aroused more experience of reactance
and consequently a more negative attitude toward the
reform than when laypeople delivered the message.
Likewise, in the context of communicating changes,
Niesta Kayser et al. (2015) used the same measurement
(Jonas et al., 2009) and found that presenting a change mes-
sage within an approach (focusing on possible positive out-
comes) versus an avoidance (avoidance of possible negative
outcomes) frame led to differences in people’s experienced
reactance. Changes presented as avoidance of negative out-
comes aroused more experience of reactance, which medi-
ated the effect of avoidance on people’s lower agreement
with the change. Avoidance resulted in more counterargu-
ing and less positive perceptions of the communicator
and the change message.
To summarize, in the context of persuasion, most of the
recent research has been conducted in the tradition of
Dillard and Shen’s (2005) intertwined model, according to
which people receiving persuasive messages perceive them
as threats to their freedom, which further elicit an experi-
ence of reactance in the form of counterarguments that
are accompanied by anger affect. When attempts are made
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to persuade people by using a forceful message, this mes-
sage motivates people to present arguments against the
persuasive attempt (counterarguing). This is a cognitive-
reflective process leading to negative attitudes toward the
message and finally results in lower behavioral intention
to follow the aim of the message. Research that indirectly
manipulated threat through framing has found reactance
to be a combination of perceived threat and negative affect
(Förg et al., 2007; Jonas et al., 2009; Niesta Kayser et al.,
2015; Traut-Mattausch et al., 2008). In these studies it
seems that certain cues elicit an affective-impulsive pro-
cess, which further leads to negative cognitions and a
behavioral intention to restore one’s freedom. This might
be comparable to dual-process models and their distinction
between more impulsive and more reflective processes of
social behavior (e.g., Strack & Deutsch, 2004; for an over-
view, see Gawronski & Creighton, 2013). On the one hand,
Dillard and Shen (2005) and Rains (2013) tested a dual-
process model and rejected it. Yet, on the other hand, as
described earlier, Sittenthaler and colleagues have shown
in two contexts that depending on the threat (legitimate
vs. illegitimate threats; self-experienced vs. vicarious
threats), people either react immediately or after a time
delay with an increased physiological arousal that can be
seen as an indicator of motivation (Baum et al., 1986;
Wright, 2008; Zanna & Cooper, 1974). Results showing
that reactance can emerge automatically also come from
studies on the implicit activation of reactance.
Priming Reactance
As mentioned by Miron and Brehm (2006), people do not
react only to obvious, direct threats. Reactance can also
be aroused in subtle ways and even outside of conscious
awareness. In a study by Wellman and Geers (2009), partic-
ipants were primed with modified items of the Therapeutic
Reactance Scale (Dowd, Milne, & Wise, 1991). Addition-
ally, they were given a pill and told that it either did or
did not improve performance on accuracy tasks. Results
indicated that participants who were primed with reactance
and who were given an explicit expectation that they should
be good at the task committed the most errors, contrary to
the experimenter’s expectation.
Chartrand, Dalton, and Fitzsimons (2007) showed that
even subliminal primes can arouse reactance. They sublim-
inally primed participants with the name of a controlling
significant other person who wanted them to work hard ver-
sus a signif icant other who wanted them to have fun.
Results reflected that participants primed with the control-
ling person’s name opposed the person’s wishes by answer-
ing fewer anagrams correctly than participants primed
with the noncontrolling person’s name.
3
Thus, it is possi-
ble to arouse reactance with stimuli not consciously
perceived, and relatively automatic processes can produce
immediate reactance effects.
However, this is not always the case. Kray, Reb,
Galinsky, and Thompson (2004) found in a study on stereo-
type threat and negotiation that only an explicit expectation
of behavior led to the exact opposite behavior. While an
implicit activation of the stereotype that men are better in
negotiating led to lower performance in women, an explicit
activation led to higher performance in women.
Reactance as Motivation
Reactance theory, following the tradition of dissonance the-
ory, is a theory of motivation. Using Brehm’s description of
reactance, it is ‘‘a motivational state and as such is assumed
to have energizing and behavior-directing properties
(Brehm & Brehm, 1981, p. 98). Therefore, reactant individ-
uals have a strong urge to do something (Brehm & Brehm,
1981). This contrasts with the concept of learned helpless-
ness, which is a state of passively enduring a threat or even
withdrawing from it (Seligman, 1975). Helpless individuals
usually do not feel capable of changing an unpleasant situ-
ation. Reactant individuals, in contrast, feel capable of
changing the current situation, that is, the freedom threat
(Mikulincer, 1988; Pittman & Pittman, 1979; Wortman &
Brehm, 1975). Consistent with these analyses, in Kray
et al.’s (2004) study of ‘stereotype reactance,’’ such reac-
tance occurred only if women had sufficient power to act,
which supports the idea that reactance develops only if
people feel capable of restoring their freedom. Thus reac-
tance possesses energizing and behavior-directing proper-
ties when something to restore the freedom can be done
(cf. Brehm & Brehm, 1981).
Although the intertwined model addresses anger, which
is a motivational state, it refers to anger only as affect.
However, as demonstrated by EEG studies, anger is
approach motivational (e.g., Harmon-Jones, 2003, 2004;
Harmon-Jones & Allen, 1998). Current EEG research sup-
ported this assumption, as well (Steindl, Jonas, et al., 2015).
Thus, reactance is a state possessing a tremendous motiva-
tional force that induces undesirable outcomes such as dis-
agreement or devaluation. Interestingly, most of the
presented studies viewed reactance primarily as an undesir-
able factor that has to be eliminated or at least reduced.
Several methods to reduce or prevent reactance have
already been tested. For example, to perceive a message
as less threatening, a restoration postscript telling partici-
pants that they are free to decide for themselves what is
good for them can help (Bessarabova, Fink, & Turner,
2013; Miller et al., 2007). Moreover, if the threatened per-
son takes the perspective of the threatening person (Steindl
& Jonas, 2012) or if state empathy is induced by a persua-
sive message, reactance is lower (Shen, 2010). Another
method is inoculation, which forewarns people of a poten-
tial threat. This strategy reduces the experienced threat and,
consequently, reactance effects (Richards & Banas, 2015).
3
In a second study, this result was moderated by dispositional reactance: Participants high in dispositional reactance solved fewer anagrams
correctly if they were primed with the person who wanted them to work hard than if they were primed with the person who wanted them to
relax. Interestingly, participants low in dispositional reactance showed the best performance if they were primed to work hard.
210 C. Steindl et al.: Understanding Psychological Reactance
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However, in other cases, one could even make use of the
motivational force of reactance. Paradoxical interventions,
for example, use reactance to successfully reduce symp-
toms such as procrastination (for an overview see Miron
& Brehm, 2006). Furthermore, reactance can produce both
undesirable and desirable outcomes. It has been found, for
example, that the experience of reactance can elicit height-
ened achievement motivation (Steindl & Jonas, 2014).
Recent studies have also shown that the experience of reac-
tance can be associated not just with negative feelings, such
as anger, but also with activating positive affect, such as
feeling strong and determined (Steindl, Jonas, et al.,
2015). We invite future research to investigate the desirable
motivational side of reactance in order to make use of its
energizing probabilities.
Implications and Suggestions for Future
Research
About 50 years of research has provided many answers
regarding the determinants of reactance, the subjective
experience of reactance, the processes involved, and its con-
sequences. Although Brehm and Brehm (1981) stated that
reactance cannot be measured directly, research has found
a way to do so. Studies have followed up on Miron and
Brehm’s (2006) idea of assessing the affective, cognitive,
and physiological aspects of experiencing reactance (e.g.,
Jonas et al., 2009; Rains, 2013; Sittenthaler, Jonas, et al.,
2015; Sittenthaler, Steindl, et al., 2015). Neuroscientific
studies using EEG and functional magnetic resonance
imaging (fMRI) have contributed to an even better grasp
of the reactance phenomenon (Steindl, Jonas, et al., 2015;
Steindl, Klackl, & Jonas, 2015).
These studies showed us that reactance is a state
consisting of affective, cognitive, and motivational compo-
nents. One affective as well as motivational facet of the
experience is anger. As anger is typically understood as a
negative emotion emerging when people are kept from
reaching a desired goal (for an overview see Berkowitz &
Harmon-Jones, 2004), one might wonder if reactance is
the same as anger. Although anger is an important compo-
nent of reactance and has been found to also evoke
approach motivation (Harmon-Jones et al., 2013), studies
have indicated that reactance also contains negative cogni-
tions (e.g., Rains, 2013). To explore the nature of reactance
and how it differs from anger, Steindl, Klackl, et al. (2015)
used fMRI techniques to compare conditions in which par-
ticipants read about reactance-arousing, anger-arousing, or
neutral situations. During reactance-arousing compared to
anger-arousing situations, the middle temporal lobe, the
temporal poles, and the gyrus rectus were active. These
regions have been shown to be involved in mentalizing pro-
cesses in which people are drawing inferences about the
mental states of others (Frith & Frith, 2003, 2006). This
suggests one basis for distinguishing reactance processes
from more pure anger processes, an issue that should be
explored more carefully in future research.
Another interesting question for future research would
be whether reactance motivation will always lead to efforts
to restore freedom. According to motivational intensity the-
ory (Brehm & Self, 1989; Brehm, Wright, Solomon, Silka,
& Greenberg, 1983; Wright, 2008; Wright, Agtarap, &
Mlynski, 2015; Wright & Brehm, 1989), the emerging
effort people expend to restore their freedom depends on
the difficulty of the required behavior. The more difficult
the behavior, the more effort is invested, up to the point
where it seems impossible to restore freedom. What hap-
pens to reactance arousal and striving if one cannot restore
an eliminated freedom (see Miron & Brehm, 2006) is an
open question. As Wright et al. (2015) suggested, more
research is needed to better understand the role of perceived
difficulty of freedom restoration in reactance striving.
In the context of persuasion, the intertwined model
describing reactance as a combination of anger and nega-
tive cognition that further affect people’s attitudes (Dillard
& Shen, 2005; Kim et al., 2013; Rains, 2013) seems to
be an important model for understanding the reactance pro-
cess. However, it is unclear if this model generalizes to all
reactance situations, that is, also to those outside the persua-
sion context. Studies using framing, vicarious, or legitimate
freedom threats for eliciting reactance indicate two pro-
cesses of reactance, a more impulsive emotional and a more
reflective cognitive process. People seem to either react to
the threat immediately or after a time delay with intermedi-
ary cognitions (e.g., Jonas et al., 2009; Sittenthaler, Jonas,
et al., 2015; Sittenthaler, Steindl, et al., 2015). A study by
Bessarabova and colleagues (2015) examining the process
of reactance induced by guilt appeals found that in the con-
text of guilt that the affective and cognitive reactance com-
ponent did not correlate, which is in contrast to the
intertwined model. However, in accordance with the inter-
twined model, both variables affected people’s reactions
to the perceived freedom threat. Yet, they did this via differ-
ent routes. Whereas guilt directly affected the affective
component of reactance (anger), it only indirectly affected
the cognitive component of reactance (negative cognitions)
via people’s awareness that the message was a guilt appeal
(Bessarabova, Turner, Fink, & Beary Blustein, 2015).
The question of when and how different reactance models
(dual-process vs. intertwined) apply seems to be a recent
interest in reactance research and should further be
explored in future studies.
Similar to the investigation of guilt, it would also be
interesting for future research to take a closer look at the
relation between reactance and other negative (and positive)
emotions, like fear (or humor). Shen and colleagues (2015)
looked at reactance processes resulting from fear appeals
from a within subjects perspective and interestingly found
that the presentation of humorous information can mitigate
reactance and therefore improve the persuasiveness of a
message (see Shen & Coles, 2015). De Lemus, Bukowski,
Spears, and Telga (2015) provide more evidence that
reactance threat can also result from perceived threats to
one’s groups and social identities. Specifically, they
show that examples of stereotypic women arouse some
reactance response in feminist women and examples of
C. Steindl et al.: Understanding Psychological Reactance 211
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counterstereotypic women arouse reactance in more tradi-
tional women. Interventions in the context of health behav-
iors can also elicit reactance which might contribute to the
often missing effects in the long term (Ungar, Sieverding,
Schweizer, & Stadnitskia, 2015).
Furthermore, how do cognition and affect combine in
different types of freedom threats? Is there a difference
between restricting a freedom versus imposing an alterna-
tive, and if so, how does this difference affect emotional
experience, cognition, motivation, and physiological arou-
sal? Although it is difficult to explore these processes in
real-world phenomena, it would be enormously enriching
for reactance research.
As people are often threatened by other people, reactance
plays a crucial role in interaction processes. In any social
interaction, one persons reaction influences the other per-
son’s experience, behavior, and cognition, which in turn
affects the first person, and so on (Steindl & Jonas, in press).
Freedom threats are probably common in many social inter-
actions. Customers may feel restricted by salespeople.
Service providers may feel controlled by those they serve.
Patients may feel constrained by doctors and therapists.
Marital partners may perceive threats to their freedoms from
their spouses. Future research might consider the dynamics
of these reactance processes in a wide range of social con-
texts, to reach an understanding of how people’s reactions
to freedom threats mutually affect each other. The papers
in the present volume hopefully both address these new ques-
tions and will serve to stimulate further efforts to do so.
Conclusion
Since Miron and Brehm’s (2006) review paper, research on
psychological reactance has continued. Although our
knowledge about this fascinating phenomenon has grown,
the puzzle of reactance is not yet complete. As Miron
and Brehm (2006) so aptly put it, we further ‘‘hope that
future research will consider the various implications of
the theory for real-world phenomena as well as continue
revealing and testing its basic theoretical assumptions’
(p. 16).
Acknowledgment
The first author of this article was financially supported by
the Doctoral College ‘‘Imaging the Mind’’ of the Austrian
Science Fund (FWF-W1233).
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Christina Steindl
University of Salzburg
Department of Psychology, Social Psychology
Hellbrunnerstraße 34
5020 Salzburg
Austria
Tel. +43(0) 662 8044-5164
Fax +43(0) 662 8044-5126
E-mail christina.steindl2@sbg.ac.at
214 C. Steindl et al.: Understanding Psychological Reactance
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... Free behavior usually describes the freedom to decide where you want to go, what you want to buy, or simply the freedom to say "No "to something (Steindl et al., 2015). Reactance depends on the significance of the freedom under threat (Steindl et al., 2015). In the current situation, many countries were forced to impose lockdowns and cancellations and to close shops, bars, and restaurants. ...
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This study examines the process of reactance induced by guilt appeals. Participants (N = 240 US high school students) received messages that advocated taking school seriously. The results of a 3 (guilt appeal level: low, moderate, high) × 2 (message referent: other, self) experiment indicated that guilt directly influenced the affective component of reactance-anger-but its effect on the cognitive component of reactance-relevant negative thoughts-was mediated via the awareness that messages used guilt to induce persuasion. Subsequently, reactance was negatively related to the advocated position. These findings suggest that employing guilt appeals in mass media campaigns for adolescents may be counterproductive: The guiltier the participants felt, the less positive were their attitudes toward taking school seriously. The study expands the scope of reactance theory by associating reactance with guilt appeals and examining the process by which reactance is induced. These and other results are discussed along with implications, limitations, and future research directions.
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The present research investigated whether an intervention designed to increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables (FVs) would elicit reactance and explored the consequences of reactance. Eighty-four students were randomized to one of two intervention groups or a control group. During the 1-week intervention, which was accompanied by a food diary, the 5aday-group had to eat 5 portions of FVs per day, the just1more group had to eat 1 more portion of FVs than usual, and the control group had to eat as usual. Both intervention groups reported higher reactance than the control group immediately after the intervention (T2) and still 1 week later (T3) with high effect sizes. Trait-reactance had no effect onany of the study variables. Intervention-elicited reactance was associated with a lower FV intake at follow-up (T4), andthis association was mediated by a more negative attitude toward eating 5aday assessed 1 week after the intervention (T3).
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Psychological reactance and related defensive processes have been long cited as an explanation for failure of fear appeal messages. The overwhelming majority of studies on fear and reactance have only examined the intensity of fear from a between-individuals perspective, in which individuals who have higher peak fear are predicted to experience stronger levels of psychological reactance. Recent development in the fear appeal research suggests an alternative perspective: Psychological reactance is activated when fear is aroused but not reduced within each individual; on the other hand, psychological reactance is mitigated or inhibited when fear is aroused and then reduced. Empirical data from a quasi-experimental study using graphic tobacco warning labels are used to test and compare the two approaches to studying the relationship between fear and psychological reactance. Implications for psychological reactance and fear appeal are discussed.
Research
Two experiments examined how individuals respond to a restriction presented within an approach versus an avoidance frame. In Study 1, working on a problem-solving task, participants were initially free to choose their strategy, but for a second task were told to change their strategy. The message to change was embedded in either an approach or avoidance frame. When confronted with an avoidance compared to an approach frame, the participants’ reactance toward the request was greater and, in turn, led to impaired performance. The role of reactance as a response to threat to freedom was explicitly examined in Study 2, in which participants evaluated a potential change in policy affecting their program of study herein explicitly varying whether a restriction was present or absent and whether the message was embedded in an approach versus avoidance frame. When communicated with an avoidance frame and as a restriction, participants showed the highest resistance in terms of reactance, message agreement and evaluation of the communicator. The difference in agreement with the change was mediated by reactance only when a restriction was present. Overall, avoidance goal frames were associated with more resistance to change on different levels of experience (reactance, performance, person perception). Reactance mediated the effect of goal frame on other outcomes only when a restriction was present.
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Research shows that people experience a motivational state of agitation known as reactance when they perceive restrictions to their freedoms. However, research has yet to show whether people experience reactance if they merely observe the restriction of another person’s freedom. In Study 1, we activated realistic vicarious reactance in the laboratory. In Study 2, we compared people’s responses with their own and others’ restrictions and found the same levels of experienced reactance and behavioral intentions as well as aggressive tendencies. We did, however, find differences in physiological arousal: Physiological arousal increased quickly after participants imagined their own freedom being restricted, but arousal in response to imagining a friend’s freedom being threatened was weaker and delayed. In line with the physiological data, Study 3’s results showed that self-restrictions aroused more emotional thoughts than vicarious restrictions, which induced more cognitive responses. Furthermore, in Study 4a, a cognitive task affected only the cognitive process behind vicarious reactance. In contrast, in Study 4b, an emotional task affected self-reactance but not vicarious reactance. We propose a process model explaining the emotional and cognitive processes of self- and vicarious reactance.
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Psychological reactance and related defensive processes have been long cited as an explanation for failure of fear appeal messages. The overwhelming majority of studies on fear and reactance have only examined the intensity of fear from a between-individuals perspective, in which individuals who have higher peak fear are predicted to experience stronger levels of psychological reactance. Recent development in the fear appeal research suggests an alternative perspective: Psychological reactance is activated when fear is aroused but not reduced within each individual; on the other hand, psychological reactance is mitigated or inhibited when fear is aroused and then reduced. Empirical data from a quasi-experimental study using graphic tobacco warning labels are used to test and compare the two approaches to studying the relationship between fear and psychological reactance. Implications for psychological reactance and fear appeal are discussed.
Article
We propose that reactance to threats to individual freedom can be broadened to include threats to group identity and its associated values and norms. In two studies we primed women and men with (counter) stereotypical roles and measured implicit activation of reactance versus acceptance goals, task persistence, and support for system justification beliefs and collective action. Although we found no direct evidence of reactance activation, men activated acceptance when primed with gender stereotypes, whereas women did not. Further, traditional women legitimize the system after counter-stereotypical exposure, whereas progressive women (feminist identifiers) persist more in solving a task stereotypically favoring men under these conditions (Study 1). Finally, nonsexist women show higher support for collective action after stereotypical exposure when threat to their identity is blatant (Study 2). We argue that reactions to identity threats depend on the content of that identity so that the specific form reactance takes may depend on the group norms being threatened.