Change Blog

The psychological phenomenon of reactance: About freedom and resistance

By Lukas Christmann, published on 13 June 2024

Psychological reactance is the defensive reaction we experience when our freedom is threatened. This reaction occurs when we feel that our freedom is being restricted and manifests as a motivational state aimed at restoring our freedom.

There are various triggers for psychological reactance. One of the most common triggers is interpersonal influence, where other people try to control our behavior or decisions. Another trigger is barriers, which are physical or symbolic obstacles that prevent us from achieving our goals. Finally, self-imposed threats can also play a role, such as internal conflicts or self-imposed restrictions that limit our freedom.

Reactance encompasses three main components:

There are affective, cognitive, and physiological aspects. Affective means that we experience emotional reactions such as anger or frustration. Cognitively, we think about the threat to our freedom and develop strategies to restore it. Physiologically, reactance manifests through physical reactions such as increased heart rate or tension.

Reactance can manifest in various ways: Direct restoration of freedom involves doing exactly the opposite of what we were told. Indirect restoration of freedom involves performing a different but comparable behavior or shifting our behavior to another context. In some cases, reactance can also lead to aggression, where we physically or verbally attack the threatening entity. Another form is a change in attractiveness, where the threatened choice suddenly appears more attractive than before.

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How can reactance be reduced?

One approach is to use non-controlling language, such as terms like "consider," "can," "could," and "might" instead of "should," "must," and "need to." Another strategy is to frame messages as gains rather than presenting the message as a loss. It can also be helpful to present messages by focusing on possible positive outcomes instead of avoiding negative outcomes. Additionally, emphasizing the benefits of a change rather than the limitations is recommended. Finally, humorous information can help convey the message more effectively.

 

What actions can you take if you experience or perceive reactance yourself?

First, consider the situation before acting and take a moment to assess it. Listen attentively and actively to understand the other person's perspective. Find ways to stay calm by taking deep breaths or counting to ten. Remain curious and ask questions to understand the other person's motivations. Seek contact, be appreciative and direct, openly discuss your concerns, and show appreciation for the other person's perspective.

Conclusion

By understanding the triggers, components, and manifestations of reactance, we can find better ways to manage and mitigate these reactions. This knowledge can be particularly helpful in interpersonal relationships and communication situations to avoid conflicts and act more constructively. Using non-controlling language, framing our messages positively, and considering the other person's perspective can reduce the likelihood of reactance occurring in the first place. Ultimately, it's about interacting with respect and empathy and respecting each individual's freedom.

Topics: ChangeGrowthReactance

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Lukas Christmann
Consultant & Agile Coach

lukas.christmann@timmermannpartners.com

 

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