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Psychological Reactance

Brehm (1966) declared that people have a need for freedom. The need for freedom is activated whenever people feel a restriction put upon their actions or opinions.

People usually respond to a restrictive force by fighting back against it, resisting attempts at influence. Brehm described psychological reactance as a force aroused by threats to a person's freedom.

Psychological reactance is aroused whenever a person is given a direct order or told that an activity is not possible or not allowed. When pushed, people tend to push back. When told they cannot have something, people tend to want it.

What is psychological reactance? How did Brehm & Sensenig study it?

Brehm and Sensenig reported a simple experiment that demonstrated psycho­logical reactance. In a game that re­quired cooperation, a subject (actually a confederate of the experimenter) passed one of two notes to the other subject.

One note suggested a possible course of action by listing alternatives and stating a preference. The other note directly requested a particular course of action, saying the partner "should" do something.

Nearly 70% of the subjects went along with the suggestion in the first condition. Less than 40% went along with the request in the second.

"Don't think of a white bear"

Dostoevsky, the famous author, played a mind game with his brother that demonstrates psychological reactance. He challenged his brother not to think of a white bear, then watched with amuse­ment as his brother wrestled with the impossibility of fulfilling this request.

Wegner, Carter, White, and Schneider (1987) decided to document the phenomenon. They asked students to participate in a "stream of conscious­ness" experiment that required the students to speak everything that came into their minds into a tape recorder, for five minutes.

Before starting a session, students in the experimental group were instructed to avoid thinking about white bears, but to ring a bell if the thought did enter their minds despite the prohibition. They rang the bell often.

What childhood game shows reactance? How did Wegner and co-workers study it?

Are forbidden objects as irresistible as forbidden thoughts? Folklore supplies two different answers.

In one of Aesop's fables, a fox could not reach a bunch of grapes, so he declared they were probably sour. This defensive mechanism, if reliable, would predict that a forbidden object will be declared less appealing.

On the other hand, forbidden fruit is often thought to be more tempting, as in the Garden of Eden. The theory of psycho­logical reactance would predict that a forbidden object becomes more alluring, because when something is forbidden, that impinges on your freedom of choice and arouses the opposite reaction (the need for freedom).

Allen and Allen (1974) did a study with preschool and fourth grade children on the attractiveness of forbidden objects. First the child ranked five different toys for attractiveness.

Next the researchers moved the toys to the side and pointed to the third-ranked toy (intermediate in attractiveness). The child was told he or she could play with all the toys "except that one." No explan­ation was offered.

"The child's attention was then diverted from the toys for about three minutes by the experimenter's asking a few questions about the child's age, number of brothers and sisters, etc....

"After approximately three minutes, the subject was again asked to rank each of the five toys according to how much he liked each one at that particular time ('right now'). It was made clear to the subject that he could change the ranking of each toy in either direction or leave it unchanged." (Allen and Allen, 1974, p.872)

The results? Preschoolers ranked the forbidden toy less attractive (sour grapes). Fourth graders ranked the forbidden toy more attractive (forbidden fruit).

How did the Allen and Allen research show forbidden fruit and sour grapes effects in different age groups?

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Motivation

If psychological reactance can make forbidden fruit more attractive, it might have the opposite effect on freely offered fruit. It might make it less attractive.

In general, if something is forbidden, it is attractive, but if you are paid to do something, this might decrease your enjoyment. Both cognitive dissonance and psychological reactance would predict that.

Motivation theorists distinguish between intrinsic and extrinsic motives. An activity is intrinsically motivating if a person does it voluntarily, without receiving payment or other type of reward. An activity is extrinsically motivated if a person does it primarily for external reinforcement such as food or money.

In a classic article titled "How to Turn Play into Work," Green and Lepper (1974) showed how intrinsic motivation could be undermined by external reinforcement. Their subjects were preschool children.

One group of children was provided with an activity (putting colorful shapes into puzzle boards). This was similar to their usual preschool activities, and they enjoyed playing with the 10 puzzle boards.

Another group was given the same boards, but they were told that, as a reward for doing the puzzles, they would be later be given access to a group of more desirable toys. Both groups received the same access to those "more desirable toys" later.

The difference between the groups was that one group thought they were working for a reward, the other did not. According to the Premack Principle, the group that was promised access to more desirable toys should have been reinforced for playing with the puzzles, which should have increased the frequency or prob­ability of playing with puzzles later.

The opposite happened. After being allowed access to the more desirable toys, both groups were again given free access to the puzzles. Now the group never rewarded for playing with the puzzles spent more time with them.

The group rewarded earlier for playing with the puzzles now spent less time with the puzzles, when they had free access. The frequency or probability of playing with the puzzles went down, which means (by definition) the puzzle-playing behavior was punished, even though the children had been rewarded.

In Chapter 5 (Conditioning) we discuss­ed how specialists in applied behavior analysis make a distinction between reward and rein­forcement. Reward refers to intention (a reward is intended as something positive). Reinforcement is defined by effect (the behavior it follows becomes more frequent). They are not always the same thing.

This is an example of such a situation. The act of rewarding the preschoolers functioned as a punishment for playing with the puzzles (i.e. made the frequency of playing with puzzles go down).

What is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation? What did Green and Lepper demonstrate in their classic study?

The same phenomenon can occur with athletes, although nobody hopes for it. Many athletes start by playing a sport for the joy of it. They are intrinsically motiv­ated. If they are excellent enough to continue on the college level, they take rewarded with scholarships.

Sometimes this "turns play into work." Raedeke (1997) found that athletes are more likely to experience burn-out if they feel trapped by scholarships and other obligations, rather than playing for enjoyment of the sport.

What was the effect of required community service on students not inclined to serve?

Stukas, Snyder, and Clary (1999) found that mandatory community service programs, required in some high schools in the United States, had a negative effect on people not inclined to serve. "Students who initially felt it unlikely that they would freely volunteer had signifi­cantly lower intentions after being re­quired to serve." The outside pressure lowered their already-low intrinsic motiv­ation to volunteer.

Reverse Psychology

Psychological reactance implies that people will react against anything that impinges on their freedom. This includes commands and suggestions.

If you want to get somebody to do something, sometimes it helps to ask for the opposite. This is popularly termed reverse psychology.

What is "reverse psychology"? How did hypnotist Milton Erikson use it?

One of the all-time masters of hypnosis was Milton Erikson. He used reverse psychology on subjects who otherwise could not be hypnotized.

Faced with resistance, Erikson simply suggested his client should fight against the hypnosis as hard as they could. This (he claimed) led them to react against the suggestion, making them easier to hypnotize.

How do parents use it?

Parents learn to manipulate small chil­dren using reverse psychology. Toddlers can go through a stage of saying "No!" to every request. If a parent says, "Oh, you probably would not like this food..." a child is more likely to try it.

The Suzuki Method of violin instruction includes an element of reverse psych­ology, according to Singer (1984). Singer wrote that Suzuki outlined four steps:

1. Parents should not command their children to play the violin. There is no pressure or bribing or punishment.

2. Parents should provide a home environment that is enriched with good music. A violin might be located in a strategic place, where the child can see it. Ideally, an older sibling or parent might play the violin.

3. The parents should be patient. Sooner or later the child will ask to play the violin.

4. The first time the child asks, the parents should say, "Sorry, no, maybe some other time."

How did the Suzuki Method use reverse psychology, according to Singer?

After this, the child will ask and perhaps even beg to play. At this time, the child can be allowed a restricted amount of time to play the violin. Gradually more time is "allowed" as the child's abilities improve. [End of quotation from Singer, 1984.]

That is a great example of the "forbid­den fruit" effect. If the violin is initially forbidden, the child wants it more.

There is only one problem with this particular example. In attempting to veri­fy Singer's report, I could not find similar advice in any publication relating to the Suzuki Method. Perhaps it was the technique of only one Suzuki Method practitioner.

The forbidden fruit principle seems to work its magic in the marketplace whenever products are banned. They end up being more popular. The American showman P.T. Barnum supposedly said, "There is no such thing as bad publicity."

If a book is banned, sales soar where it is legal to buy. If a movie is criticized as being in bad taste, many people want to see the movie.

What happens when a book or movie is banned?

Could the same thing be true of programs to warn teenagers about hazard of drugs and premarital sex? Research shows anti-drug pro­grams in public schools "never actually worked" (Cima, 2017).

The opposite thing happened when cannabis was legalized in Colorado. The use of cannabis among teenagers dropped once it was no longer forbidden (Gorman and Craft, 2017).

Brody (1986) reported that sex education programs conveying the message "Don't do it" were followed by higher levels of sexual activity. Brody concluded, "Girls who get no message except 'Don't do it' are more likely to do it."

Marjoe Gortner toured the country as a childhood preacher and faith healer, advertised as "The World's Youngest Ordained Minister." Later he renounced his claim to special faith healing powers.

Marjoe made a documentary film (Marjoe (1972)) and lectured to college audiences about the ways a charis­matic speaker can manipulate an audience. One of his techniques employed reverse psychology.

I lecture in about twenty colleges a year...and I do a faith-healing demonstration–but I always make them ask for it. I tell them that I don't believe in it, that I use a lot of tricks; and the title of the lecture is "Rhetoric and Charisma," so I've already told them how large masses are manipulated by a charismatic figure.

I've given them the whole rap explaining how it's done, and they still want to see it. So I throw it all right back at them. I say, "No, you don't really want to see it."

And they say, "Oh yes, we do. We do!" And I say, "But you don't believe in it anyway, so I can't do it." And they say, "We believe. We believe!"

So after about twenty minutes of this I ask for a volunteer, and I have a girl come up and I say, "So you want to feel better?" and I say, "You're lying to me! You're just up here for a good time and you want to impress all these people and you want to make an ass out of me and an ass out of this whole thing, so why don't you go back and sit down?" I get really hard on her, and she says, "No, no, I believe!"

And I keep going back and forth until she's almost in tears. And then, even though this is in a college crowd and I'm only doing it as a joke, I just say my same old line, In the name of Jesus! and touch them on the head, and wham, they fall down flat every time. (Conway & Siegelman, 1978)


Allen, V. L. & Allen, P.S. (1974). On the attractiveness of forbidden objects. Developmental Psychology, 10, 871-873.

Brehm, J. W. (1966). A Theory of Psychological Reactance. New York: Academic Press.

Brehm, J. W. & Sensenig, J. (1966). Social influence as a function of attempted and implied surpation of choice. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4, 703-707.

Brody, J. E. (1986, April 30). Talking to teen-agers on sex. New York Times, p.Y19.

Cima, R. (2017, April 8) DARE: The anti-drug program that never actually worked. Priceonomics. [blog] Retrieved from:

Conway, F. & Segelman, J. (1978). Snapping. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott.

Gorman, S. & Craft, D. (2017) Colorado's teen marijuana use dips after legalization. Scientific American Policy and Ethics [blog] Retrieved from:

Green, D. & Lepper, M. R. (1974, September). How to Turn Play Into Work. Psychology Today, pp.49-52

Raedeke, T. D. (1997) Is athlete burnout more than just stress? A sport commitment perspective. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 19, (1997), 396-417.

Stukas, A. A., Snyder, M., & Clary, E. G. (1999) The effects of "mandatory volunteerism" on intentions to volunteer. Psychological Science, 10, 59-64.

Wegner, D. M., Schneider, D. J., Carter, S. R. III, & White, T. L., (1987) Paradoxical effects of thought suppression, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 53, 636-647.

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