DON'T OVER(look) REACT(ance)!

Has anyone ever said to you, "Don't overreact!" If so, there's a better-than-decent chance that you didn't like it. After all, to you that was just a natural reaction. (And who exactly appointed your friend as the ultimate arbiter of appropriate reactions anyhow?)

The point is upon hearing, "Don't overreact!" it was perfectly natural for you to think, "Don't tell me what to do," because, well, human beings are wired like that.

Reactance, in the psychological sense, describes the common human reaction to a perceived loss of freedom. By "a loss of freedom," I don't mean going to jail – I mean a loss of choices. We do not like having our choices taken away.

As first articulated by Dr. Jack Brehm, a perceived loss of behavioral choice creates an intense emotional reaction that drives people to want to restore their own authority. Usually, "restoring their own authority" is achieved by embracing the very choice that is threatened.

What matters in the moment is often not the choice itself, but the freedom to make it. This desire can be strong enough to diminish even the desire for an actual evaluation of the choices themselves! People can be driven to embrace choices that they would never make under any other circumstances, simply to reassert their own right to choose.

This is why when someone says, "Don't overreact!" they are actually encouraging you guessed it...overreact! (Next time, tell them to try something more like, "I understand how you feel," and then take it from there.)

Reactance is broadly applicable because there are so many types of choices we can perceive (rightly or wrongly) to be losing, explaining the wide range of social science experiments to identify reactance in action.

From countless studies of managerial effectiveness and I/O Psychology, the feeling of autonomy in performing their jobs is one of the most important predictors of worker motivation, engagement and performance. In other words, the freedom to choose how to achieve goals is of tremendous importance to most individuals.

Multiple studies of therapeutic counselling demonstrate that authoritarian, directive and controlling language is far less effective than softer language that highlights the ultimate decision power of the individual.

In one 1976 study (Pennebaker and Sanders), two different signs were placed on bathroom walls at a university. One sign read, "Do not write on these walls under any circumstances." The other sign read, "Please don't write on these walls." After two weeks, guess which wall had the most graffiti? (The first one. Please tell me you got that.)

A 1994 study (Stewart and Martin) found that strongly-worded, controlling messages worked against the effectiveness of a whole host of public health initiatives. In other words, if you "ordered" people what to do, you were less likely to be effective. Rather, if you informed people of the consequences of their choices, you were more likely to be effective.

A 2004 study of anti-smoking interventions (Miller et al.) found that strong and direct wording of messages played a role in hampering their effectiveness. A 1974 study (Zellinger et al.) showed that banning books made them more popular, a finding that has been repeated across multiple forms of censorship.

Yet perhaps the most compelling reactance studies are related to the "BYAF" technique, which stands for "But You Are Free." Initially tested in a French mall in 2000, social scientists (Gueguen and Pascual) dressed as panhandlers, asking strangers for bus fare. In the first run, they simply asked the question, but in the second run they added these words to the end of their requests, "but you are free to accept or refuse." Sure enough, when they added the BYAF words, the rate of "yes" responses increased by 50%.

This outcome has been repeated many times in many environments. A 2012 meta analysis of 42 individual studies (Carpenter) showed the technique working across all types of situations and requests. The BYAF technique is so effective specifically because it diffuses reactance by highlighting the freedom of choice.

These findings explain why an understanding of reactance is so important for organizations. In any type of communication or program design, it is worth maintaining and highlighting the freedom to choose, whenever possible, in order to maximize effect.

Finally, there are two other psychological constructs that demonstrate the power of reactance: intrinsic motivation and reverse psychology.

Intrinsic motivation (doing something merely because you want to) is far more powerful than extrinsic motivation (doing something for a reward / to avoid punishment), at least in part due to the power associated with that freedom of choice.

Reverse psychology (influencing people by pushing them to do the opposite of what you actually want) works so well at least in part due to the negative power of the perceived threat to that freedom of choice.

So with that in mind, I end with this: DO NOT read this blog every month, and DO NOT forward it to all your friends! NO MATTER WHAT! ;)

See you next month.

Other articles in this series:

The Applied Guide: How Behavioral Economics Makes Everything Better, Vol. 1, Part 1

The Applied Guide: How Behavioral Economics Makes Everything Better, Vol. 1, Part 2

The Applied Guide: How Behavioral Economics Makes Everything Better, Vol. 2, Part 1

The Applied Guide: How Behavioral Economics Makes Everything Better, Vol. 2, Part 2

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