“Reactance” and How to Talk

In addition to the Peter Coyote talk, another piece that has prompted me to reevaluate my thinking and my rhetoric is the June 2016 “The Anti-P.C. Vote” op-ed by Thomas Edsall and two articles Edsall referred to. He also reported that Jonathan Haidt, a professor at N.Y.U, told him “reactance” is

the feeling you get when people try to stop you from doing something you’ve been doing, and you perceive that they have no right or justification for stopping you. So you redouble your efforts and do it even more, just to show that you don’t accept their domination.

The theory was first developed in 1966 by Jack W. Brehm in “A Theory of Psychological Reactance,” in which he stated:

Psychological reactance is an aversive affective reaction in response to regulations or impositions that impinge on freedom and autonomy. This reaction is especially common when individuals feel obliged to adopt a particular opinion or engage in a specific behavior. Specifically, a perceived diminution in freedom ignites an emotional state, called psychological reactance, that elicits behaviors intended to restore this autonomy.

Haidt argued, “The accusatory and vindictive approach of many social justice activists and diversity trainers may actually have increased the desire and willingness of some white men to say and do un-PC things.”

In his reference to another article, “Psychological reactance theory” by Dr. Simon Moss, Edsall summarized that Moss found that the kind of messages that provoke a defiant or oppositional response include “imperatives, such as ‘must’ or ‘need’; absolute allegations, such as ‘cannot deny that …’ and ‘any reasonable person would agree.’ ”

More fully, Moss wrote:

Specifically, a perceived diminution in freedom…elicits behaviors intended to restore this autonomy. Reactance, for example, often encourages individuals to espouse an opinion that opposes the belief or attitude they were encouraged, or even coerced, to adopt…. Reactance was proposed to explain many common examples of resistance in society, such as the adverse effects of prohibition.

Reactance is experienced whenever a free behavior is restricted…. Specifically, individuals often show boomerang effects, in which they become more inclined to enact the very behavior that was restricted…. Finally, reactance provokes adverse attitudes towards the source of any restriction….

Research indicates that some linguistic features seem to evoke…psychological reactance. In particular, dogmatic messages were perceived as more threatening, which provoked reactance, anger, and unfavorable thoughts. The dogmatic messages include:

  • Imperatives, such as “must” or “need”
  • Absolute allegations, such as “cannot deny that…” or “This issue is extremely serious”
  • Derision towards other perspectives, such as “Any reasonable person would agree that…”
  • Threatening warnings rather than merely impartial, objective information

In contrast, messages that are less dogmatic do not provoke this sequence of reactions. These messages are more likely to include:

  • Allusions to choice, such as “You have a chance to…” or “We leave the choice to you…”
  • Qualified propositions, such as “There is some evidence that…” or “This issue is fairly serious”
  • Impartial, objective information
  • Avoidance of imperatives or derisive language

Questions are less inclined to promote reactance. These messages are not as dogmatic or dictatorial…

In the writing I’ve done since reading that article, I’ve tried to follow its recommendations. But old habits die hard!

That’s especially true when one feels a sense of urgency, and Lord knows we face many urgent issues. It’s easy to develop tunnel vision on one pressing crisis or another. But I think it’s helpful to recall Coyote’s long view and Dr. King’s faith in the moral arc of the universe — and step back to see the situation from multiple perspectives.

Yes, the Apocalypse is happening. Pick your Apocalypse; the options are many. But the ultimate Apocalypse is Death itself. All life dies. Even the universe as we know it will die (and perhaps collapse into another black hole that will explode in another big bang which will lead to new life. And let’s remember that each day more than 20,000 young children die needlessly, prematurely.

It’s hard, but we can face those realities, change what we can, accept what we cannot, and still embrace the joy that life offers — a joy that becomes deeper the more compassionate we are. With that perspective, it may be easier to avoid reactance-provoking language.

As one who has long been intrigued with the power of questions, I was struck by Moss’ report that questions are likely to be more effective. I would add, that’s especially true if they are sincere and not rhetorical questions. Regardless, I yearn for a world that, one way or the other, learns to better communicate.

What suggestions do you have for less dogmatic language — as alternatives to “must,” “need,” and other absolutes?

5 Responses to “Reactance” and How to Talk

  1. Pingback: The Backfire Effect | Wade's Wire

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