Don’t Tread on Me! Psychological Reactance as Omnipresent

If you’ve raised kids, or are trying to enact change in organization, you know well the phenomenon of psychological reactance, although you probably don’t know it by that name. You might call it the “terrible twos” or “change resistance.”

Psychological reactance is the instantaneous reaction we have to being told what to do (Brehm & Brehm, 1981). This leads to some remarkable findings, one of which I came across while reading about correcting misinformation. As Lewandowsky, Ecker, Seifert, Schwarz, & Cook (2012) state:

“People generally do not like to be told what to think and how to act, so they may reject particularly authoritative retractions. For this reason, misinformation effects have received considerable research attention in a courtroom setting where mock jurors are presented with a piece of evidence that is later ruled inadmissible. When the jurors are asked to disregard the tainted evidence, their conviction rates are higher when an “inadmissible” ruling was accompanied by a judge’s extensive legal explanations than when the inadmissibility was left unexplained (Pickel, 1995, Wolf & Montgomery, 1977)” (p. 116).

So, in this case, the mock jurors reacted to being told what to think—to the degree that they decided to use the inadmissible evidence just to spite the judge for being spoken to authoritatively!

With such a reaction that seems instantaneous (and is present for most toddlers), is psychological reactance pre-wired? Are we born with a propensity to react to any freedom being limited? And if so, what would be the evolutionary justification for such a tendency? Jonathan Haidt offers one explanation in his book The Righteous Mind. He hypothesizes that psychological reactance evolved to avoid being dominated by an alpha male, which could help a collective survive. He cites a stunning passage from Christopher Boehm’s Hierarchy in the Forest:

“A man named Twi had killed three other people, when the community, in a rare move of unanimity, ambushed and fatally wounded him in full daylight. As he lay dying, all of the men fired at him with poisoned arrows until, in the words of one informant, ‘he looked like a porcupine.’ Then, after he was dead, all the women as well as the men approached his body and stabbed him with spears, symbolically sharing the responsibility for his death” (Boehm as cited in Haidt 2012, p. 199).

There is a lot going on in this passage, but partly it is the response of a community responding to potential domination by Twi. The difficult question to answer is if societies (and individuals) who rose up against dominance were more likely to survive than those who passively accepted domination. Selection at a societal level is a controversial hypothesis, but if true, then psychological reaction may be a pre-wired disposition in us—making it all the more prevalent.

So, the next time you are seeking to implement a change in an organization, think of the villagers responding to Twi’s attempted domination. You will surely be on the receiving end of psychological reactance. This is all the more reason to build cooperation and buy-in from the start by openly inviting contributions and participation. Also, beware of condescension. Similar to jurors using inadmissible evidence, people may not be reacting to the content of any change initiative, but the manner in which it is explained. Of course, I am aware of the irony of telling you what to do in a post about psychological reactance. Consider these “helpful suggestions.” 🙂

References:

Brehm, S. S., & Brehm, J. W. (1981). Psychological reactance: A theory of freedom and control. Academic Press.

Haidt, J. (2012). The righteous mind: Why good people are divided by politics and religion. New York: Pantheon Books.

Lewandowsky, S., Ecker, U. K. H., Seifert, C. M., Schwarz, N., & Cook, J. (2012). Misinformation and its correction: Continued influence and successful debiasing. Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 13(3), 106-131.

Pickel, K. L. (1995). Inducing jurors to disregard inadmissible evidence: A legal explanation does not help. Law and Human Behavior, 19, 407–424.

Wolf, S., & Montgomery, D. A. (1977). Effects of inadmissible evidence and level of judicial admonishment to disregard on the judgments of mock jurors. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 7, 205–219.

Ryan Smerek is an assistant professor and assistant director of the MS in Learning and Organizational Change program at Northwestern University. He is the author of Organizational Learning and Performance: The Science and Practice of Building a Learning Culture.

Photo Source: Chris Karidis/Unsplash

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