Autonomy and Reactance in a Nutshell: Honoring people’s autonomy and minimizing reactance is extremely important in all kinds of strategic influence and public advocacy, from local political campaigns to public health campaigns to global environmental advocacy.
Autonomy is a critical component of our wellbeing, and normally it is a central element of successful influence. Whenever people feel that their autonomy is respected and free to comply with your request or refuse it, they are less likely to show resistance. Conversely, people resist any attempts to persuade them whenever they feel they are being forced to do something against their will or that their autonomy is constrained in any way. Any perceived infraction of autonomy can provoke reactance leading to the opposite behavior. Respecting people’s autonomy and avoiding reactance is crucial in all sorts of situations, whether you’re developing a message for a health campaign or trying to pitch a political reform.
There are a few practical ways to show that you respect people’s autonomy, and also to reduce reactance by acknowledging it. The basic principle is to always respect and reaffirm people’s autonomy and show it with particular language, for example, by using questions instead of statements, by using positive phrasing, and by avoiding controlling language. If merely reaffirming people’s autonomy is not enough and reactance nevertheless arises, one way to decrease it is to acknowledge it.
Theory of Psychological Reactance
Jack Brehm’s theory of psychological reactance, originally developed in 1960s, explains that whenever people feel that their autonomy is threatened, they will experience reactance which often leads them to adopt a contrary behavior than the one they are pressured to adopt. So any feeling that you’re trying to impose on them your opinion or your will, may lead people to act in the opposite way, even when it is against their best interest. As the threat to person’s autonomy increases, so does reactance. We usually associate reactance with small children and teenagers, when telling them to do one thing almost ensures that they will do the opposite, but reactance doesn’t respect age limits.
Reactance Against Health Recommendations
One field that is plagued with reactance is health psychology, where reactance usually arises in response to various health recommendations that seem to encroach on people’s freedoms. For example, reactance explains why patients often don’t take their medications when ordered to do so, and non-compliance increases with the more extensive, prescriptive, and encroaching treatments.
People with addictive behaviors, like alcohol drinking or tobacco smoking, are dedicated practitioners of reactance, usually without realizing it. For instance, college students who received a high-threat message discouraging alcohol drinking, had more intentions to drink compared with those who received a low-threat abstinence recommendation; as typical, reactance was greatest with those whom the message threatened the most—the heavy drinkers.
Studies on effectiveness of tobacco warnings also show that warnings provoke reactance; this is especially likely with the graphic warnings, which have become so popular in the recent decade. Unfortunately, such public health measures are usually adopted with little consideration of their side effects, and one of their side effect is that heavy smokers, thanks to reactance, may be less motivated to quit.
Reinforcing Autonomy and Minimizing Reactance
The basic principle is to always respect and reaffirm people’s autonomy. Tell them that they will be the only ones who will decide whether to change their mind or take your recommended action, and that it will always remain completely up to them.
Also, there are a few simple ways to convey a greater respect for autonomy, such as using questions instead of statements, using positive phrasing, and avoiding controlling language.
Questions create much less reactance than statements do. For example, a 2012 study by researchers from Luxemburg and Netherlands—Sabine Glock, Barbara Müller, and Simone Ritter—tested the effectiveness of various warning labels on cigarette packages.
The study compared graphic warnings, simple textual warnings, and the same textual warnings rephrased as questions. So, for example, a simple textual warning like “Smoking causes fatal lung cancer” was reformulated as a question: “What are the consequences of smoking for your lung?” Smokers who saw the graphic labels were the least likely to consider smoking risky; textual labels increased the risk-perception, but the questions worked best.
It is best to avoid telling people that they cannot do something, because this may encourage just the opposite. (Not only children are tempted by signs like “Don’t push this button” or “Don’t touch”.) Try to find ways to express the same idea positively.
In one experiment, a customer service representative had to authorize a bank account before the customer could transfer funds. Some customers were told, “you can’t transfer funds until you go through these steps to authorize the account”; others, however, heard the same statement only phrased positively: “let me walk you through these steps to authorize the account.” The customers rated the service that used positive phrasing as being 82% higher quality and 73% lower effort.
Controlling language, which uses forceful commands like “must” or “should”, will create much more resistance than non-controlling language which emphasizes choice and uses qualifiers such as “possibly”, “perhaps”, “maybe”, “you might consider”, and so on.
Validation of Reactance
If merely reaffirming people’s autonomy is not enough and reactance nevertheless arises, one way to decrease it is to acknowledge it. When people feel that their complaints are understood, their reactance, hostility, and defensiveness decreases and they become more open. Conversely, until people feel that they are understood and validated, they will respond defensively to any suggestions. (See also this post for a an example of such validation in a study by Carol Werner and her colleagues, which used clinical validation to increase persuasiveness of environmental recycling appeals.)
Sometimes reactance can be used as a deliberate tactic, by forcing people to do the opposite of what you really want them to do. Marketers sometimes use reactance by telling people they cannot buy their product. For example, one of Dr. Pepper’s ad for diet soda claimed that it is “It’s not for woman”, while of course hoping it would encourage women to buy it.
Yet, while such tactics may sometimes be effective, reverse psychology is often ethically questionable. Moreover, these tactics are also pregnant with many dangers, as people may view it as a devious persuasion tactic, and such perceptions backfire.
 Jack W. Brehm, A Theory of Psychological Reactance (San Diego, CA: Academic Press, 1966).
 Jeanne S. Fogarty and George A. Youngs, Jr., Psychological Reactance as a Factor in Patient Noncompliance With Medication Taking: A Field Experiment, Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 30, 2365-2391 (2000).
 Lillian Southwick Bensley and Rui Wu, The Role of Psychological Reactance in Drinking Following Alcohol Prevention Messages, Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 21, 1111-1124 (1991).
 David M. Erceg-Hurn and Lyndall G. Steed, Does Exposure to Cigarette Health Warnings Elicit Psychological Reactance in Smokers?, Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 41, 219–237 (2011).
 Sabine Glock, Barbara CN Müller, and Simone M. Ritter, Warning Labels Formulated as Questions Positively Influence Smoking-Related Risk Perception, Journal of Health Psychology, 18, 252–262 (2012).
 Matt Dixon and Nicholas Toman, How Call Centers Use Behavioral Economics to Sway Customers, Harvard Business Review Blog, July 13, 2010, http://blogs.hbr.org/2010/07/how-call-centers-use-behaviora/