Psychological Reactance. A Theory of Freedom and Control. Book • Authors: Sharon S. Brehm and Jack W. Brehm. Browse book content. About the book. Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, Pages PSYCHOLOGICAL REACTANCE: THEORY AND APPLICATIONS. Jack W. Brehm, University. Abstract. Since Brehm first proposed reactance theory in , many studies have explored the remarkable psychological phenomenon of reactance, which.

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Since Brehm first proposed reactance theory inmany studies have explored the remarkable psychological phenomenon of reactance, which Miron and Brehm reviewed in 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.

Why would a person sometimes dislike receiving a favor? Why is propaganda frequently ineffective in persuading people?

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And why would the grass in the adjacent pasture ever appear greener? Almost 60 years have passed since Brehm presented a theory of psychological reactance as an answer to these questions. Reactance — reatance motivation to regain a freedom after it has been lost or threatened — leads people to resist the social influence of others. Inspired by their review paper, we set out to explore the research 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 threatened. However, there are still unanswered but important questions for psychology to clarify. 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 grocery 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. The amount of reactance depends on the importance of the threatened freedom and the perceived magnitude of the threat.

Internal threats are self-imposed threats arising from choosing specific alternatives and rejecting others. On the behavioral side, threatened people may exhibit the restricted behavior direct restoration or may observe others performing a related behavior indirect restoration.

They may aggressively force the threatening person 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, upgrade the restricted freedom, or downgrade the imposed option change in attractiveness; e. 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 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 reactance in the context of persuasion, and the crucial role of motivation in reactance processes.

We review studies indicating different reactance processes — some of them showing 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 emotional reaction.

We conclude by discussing remaining issues and future research directions. In their review paper, Miron and Brehm already provided some answers and further suggestions to the question of how to measure reactance. However, research still does not agree on the factor structure. While Jonason, Bryan, and Herrera reduced the original item scale to a one-factor measure comprising 10 items, De las Cuevas et al. 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. 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. To test this, the authors compared four structural equation models: In two studies they found the best fit for the intertwined model.

In a meta-analytic review of 20 studies, Rains 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 SelfJonas and colleagues used a different approach to measure the experience of reactance. It has since been used in several studies investigating reactance in the context of change situations e.

Sittenthaler, Traut-Mattausch, Steindl, and Jonas validated these items together with items assessing aggressive behavioral intentions as well as negative evaluations and propose a new state reactance measure, the so-called Salzburger State Reactance Scale. Miron and Brehm also suggested that another way of directly assessing reactance would be to use physiological measures.

Whereas in the previous study Baum et al. 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. Heart rate also increased following a legitimate 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. These findings suggest that dual processes in the form of more automatic, impulsive affect-driven versus more cognitive dominated reflective information processing e. 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.

Even if people first reflect on the restriction to their freedom cognitionthe experience of reactance seems to be also characterized by affect.

Different lines of research all suggest that one important component of reactance is the experience of anger. Approach motivation — the motivation to move toward something — is a force that determines human behavior and affect Gray, In a theoretical overview on reactance, Chadee even proposed that approach motivation is the necessary prerequisite for reactance to emerge.

Feeling able to resolve a threatening event i. Because people experiencing reactance are striving to restore their freedom i. In summary, recent research suggests that reactance can indeed be measured.

Miron and Brehm proposed that different cultures, such as individualistic and collectivistic, react to different threats and in different ways to restore their freedom. In these cultural studies, whether the values were group or individual was the key factor causing the differences in reactance.

Thus, the experience of reactance as a mix of perceived threat and emotions seems to be motivational in nature. Individualists indicated a higher increase of attractiveness of the eliminated option when the threat originated in the ingroup versus an outgroup. In contrast, collectivists indicated a higher increase in attractiveness of the eliminated option when the threat originated in an outgroup versus the ingroup.

Thus, they are highly threatened by decisions coming from the ingroup. Further evidence illustrating the motivational character of reactance comes from Laurin, Kay, and Fitzsimons 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.

Understanding Psychological Reactance

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. Is it possible to experience reactance on behalf of another person? What happens when people observe the restriction of another person? Two distinct views of vicarious reactance exist: Whereas Andreoli et al. They found that people experienced strong reactance as a mix of perceived threat and emotions if they observed or read about a freedom threat to another person.

People with a more interdependent self-construal or a collectivistic cultural background tbeory. 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.

People respond to both kinds of freedom restrictions self- and vicariously experiencedbut 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. While there was an immediate increase in physiological arousal e. Further evidence revealed that vicarious reactance is associated with a more reflective, cognitive process and self-experienced reactance with a more impulsive, emotional process Sittenthaler, Jonas, et al.

Only if the freedom threat affects aspects that are important to the self do people show reactance. This paychological that reactance is motivational in nature. Similar different processes can also be found in the persuasion context. Persuasive messages arouse reactance especially by using forceful and controlling language, such as the terms should, ought, must, and need.

Additionally, how threatening controlling messages are perceived to be depends on the level of social agency. With regard to the reactance s in the context of persuasion, research by Silvia showed that threats to freedom through persuasive messages can elicit disagreement through different paths and that these paths have different consequences. If freedom was threatened at the end of a persuasive message, people directly disagreed 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 stable 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 furthermore suggests that in this state, people 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 freedom threat. So far, affect and cognition seem to be central elements if we want to understand the nature of reactance processes. However, even if reactance can be conceptualized as pxychological latent variable intermingling anger affect and negative cognition, we can distinguish further between more affect-driven impulsive processes and more cognition-driven reflective reactance processes.

In some situations, these different processes might psychologgical driven by both cognition and affect in an intermingling manner.

Psychological Reactance: Theory and Applications by Jack W. Brehm

However, in other situations, they might be distinguishable from each other. The latter becomes apparent 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. The influence of different types of threats that rely on simple cues has also been explored in the context of political reforms.

Focusing on limitations that will result from the change has been shown to evoke more experience of reactance using Jonas et al.