Reactance and persuasion: What is reactance?

Posted by on Oct 4, 2017 in Cover Stories, MEL Notes Blog | 0 comments

If an anti-smoking campaign targeting teenagers uses the slogan “Think. Don’t smoke,” the message often does not work well as the designers expected. In fact, it leads to the opposite effects: teenagers develop more favorable attitudes toward tobacco companies than otherwise (Henriksen, Dauphinee, Wang, & Fortmann, 2006). This boomerang effect could potentially be due to the activation of a type of resistance – psychological reactance.

Psychological reactance is conceptualized as a motivational state to reestablish a freedom when this freedom “is eliminated or under the threat of elimination” (Brehm & Brehm, 1981, p. 37). There are two basic underlying assumptions associated with this concept: a) individuals have the subjective experience of behavioral freedom under the perceived reasonable constraint; b) this freedom is important to individuals’ wellbeing since it helps individuals to satisfy their needs and avoid harm and pain. We can break down psychological reactance into four basic elements in reactance theory: freedom, threat to freedom, reactance, and restoration of freedom.

Freedom and threat
Freedom is conceptualized as “concrete behavioral realities” (Brehm & Brehm, 1981, p. 12). Brehm (1966) contends that individuals perceive the possibility to engage in a set of free behaviors at any given time. For instance, individuals sit in their living rooms perceive the freedom to enact a set of behaviors such as watching television, reading a book, calling a friend, lying down on the sofa, or simply sitting there. The freedom in psychological reactance is manifested as the autonomy to engage in or not engage in any of these concrete behaviors. If any force thwarts his/her free will to enact any of these free behaviors, a psychological reactance will be experienced. Any force that could create difficulty for individuals to enact free behaviors is considered to be a threat. For example, another person who prevents the exercising of freedom of an individual constitutes a threat. The threat can be impersonal factor such as the weather if it impedes an individual to enact free behaviors.

Magnitude of Reactance
The magnitude of psychological reactance is conceptualized as a continuum influenced by the following factors:

1) importance of the freedom to the individual

2) proportions of freedom eliminated or under threat

3) domineering language

4) intent to persuade

5) magnitude of the request.

The greater the proportion of freedom is under threat, the more important the freedom is perceived, the more domineering the language is, the more explicit the intent to persuade, the greater the magnitude of the request, the more likely the reactance is elicited and the greater its magnitude.

Consequence: Restoration of Freedoms
When the psychological reactance is experienced, individuals tend to restore their freedoms through different ways. One way to restore freedoms is to exercise the threatened behavior by oneself or by some external agent on behalf of oneself. For example, if an individual’s cell phone is robbed by someone else, to grab it back or have a police office to get it back are the ways to restore the freedom of possessing and using one’s own cell phone directly. The freedom can also be restored by implication. Specifically, if an external agent restores his/her own freedom, an individual can also achieve the restoration of his/her threatened or eliminated freedom as well. The restoration of freedoms is believed to be able to reduce psychological reactance.

Under the circumstances in which individuals realize that the threat is too great for them to restore the freedoms through any possible means, individuals are believed to give up the threatened or eliminated freedoms and the psychological reactance dissipates (Brehm & Brehm, 1981).


See if you can answer the following questions:
1. Is psychological reactance a situation factor or a personality trait? Or both?
2. How can you tell when reactance is activated? What are the indications?


Brehm, J. W. (1966). A theory of psychological reactance. New York: Academic Press.
Brehm, S. S., & Brehm, J. W. (1981). Psychological reactance: A theory of freedom and control. New York: Academic Press.
Henriksen, L., Dauphinee, A. L., Wang, Y., & Fortmann, S. P. (2006). Industry sponsored anti-smoking ads and adolescent reactance: Test of a boomerang effect. Tobacco Control, 15(1), 13-18. doi:10.1136/tc.2003.006361