Reactance and persuasion: How do we measure reactance?

Posted by on Dec 1, 2017 in Cover Stories, MEL Notes Blog | 0 comments

Many psychological concepts are both dispositional and situational. Reactance is no exception. Although most of the classic reactance research focuses on situational reactance (see Burgoon, Alvaro, Grandpre, & Voulodakis, 2002, for a review), it is also considered as a personality trait (Brehm & Brehm, 1981). In other words, some individuals are more reactance-prone than others. If this is true, and if there is a way to identify those who are more likely to react to persuasive messages with reactance, we can achieve better persuasive outcomes by either developing tailored messages for them or simply excluding them if that’s preferred.

Several reactance-proneness measures have been developed over the years. Early measures include Merz’s (1983) Questionnaire for the Measurement of Psychological Reactance (QMPR) and the Therapeutic Reactance Scale by Dowd and colleagues (1991) for clinical purposes, among others. The most popular one is the Hong Psychological Reactance Scale (HPRS) by Hong and colleagues (Hong & Page, 1989; Hong, 1992; Hong & Faedda, 1996). However, a major limitation of the HPRS is that it does not measure the steady state of reactance. Rather, it captures the sensitivity to circumstances and messages that threaten individuals’ freedom (Quick, Shen, & Dillard, 2013).

All right, you may think to yourself, we don’t have a good tool to assess reactance as individual differences, I get it. How about situational reactance?

The short answer is yes. There is a widely-accepted way of measuring reactance now. However, it was not available until the beginning of this century. Originally, it was believed that reactance “cannot be measured directly” (Brehm & Brehm, 1981, p. 37). In studies conducted from 1960s to early 21stcentury, the activation and the magnitude of psychological reactance were inferred from its antecedents and outcomes. The antecedent of reactance is the awareness of the threat. Outcomes such as source derogation (Smith, 1977), adopting a position or behavior opposite to the one that is advocated (Worchel & Brehm, 1970), and the change of the perceived attractiveness of the option or choice threatened (Hammock & Brehm, 1966) are considered as evidence of activation of reactance.

The unclear explication of psychological reactance has been considered to be a main limit of the application of this theory (Dillard & Shen, 2005). Effort has been made to uncover the nature of psychological reactance in recent years. After studying the related research inspired by cognitive psychology, emotion, and persuasion, Dillard and Shen (2005) argue that psychological reactance can be directly measured. According to them (2005), psychological reactance can be conceptualized as pure cognitive, according to the cognitive response approach to persuasion (e.g., Petty & Cacioppo, 1986). From this perspective, reactance can be operationalized as counter-arguing and thus can be measured by thought-listing technique (Cacioppo & Petty, 1981). Psychological reactance can also be conceptualized as anger – a form of negative affect. This conceptualization is consistent with Brehm’s description that reactance is experienced as hostile and aggressive feelings. Based on this proposition that reactance can be cognitive and/or affective, Dillard and Shen (2005) proposed four different models to describe the structure and nature of psychological reactance. In the first two models, reactance is manifested as either anger (single-process affective model) or counter-arguing (single-process cognitive model). The last two models recognize the possibility that reactance can be both cognitive and affective. In the dual-process model, anger and counter-arguing are separately functioning. The intertwined model conceptualizes reactance as the combination of anger and counter-arguing. In other words, anger and counter-arguing are intertwined and can’t be separated in the intertwined model. The two experiments conducted by Dillard and Shen (2005) provide support for the intertwined model. Among the four models, the intertwined model shows best fit with the data. Rains and Turner (2007) tested the dual-process model, the intertwined model, and the linear affective-cognitive model and also found the intertwined model showed the best fit.

These two studies (Dillard & Shen, 2005; Rains & Turner, 2007) have been critiqued by other researchers. For example, Kim and Levine (2008, see Rains, 2013) argued that the freedom threat is confounded by insult and/or message strength in Dillard and Shen’s (2005) study. Pointing out that the zero-order correlation between counter-arguments and attitudes was not significant and it was significantly smaller than the zero-order correlation between anger and attitude, they also contended that counter-arguing was not likely to be responsible for the significant path from reactance to attitude in research conducted by Rains and Turner (2007). In an effort to address these issues and get a clearer picture of the nature of psychological reactance, Rains (2013) conducted a meta-analytic study to test the different models. The result shows that the intertwined model best fits the data. Therefore, the best knowledge about the nature of psychological reactance at this stage is that it comprises two intertwined components: anger and counter-arguing.

You probably get the sense that the original conceptualization of reactance assumes that it is situational. That is correct (Brehm, 1966; Wicklund, 1974). That’s why most of the classic reactance research focuses on situational reactance (see Burgoon, Alvaro, Grandpre, & Voulodakis, 2002, for a review).




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