Post No.: 0328
Some people, in the face of authority and restrictions to their freedoms, automatically feel compelled to resist that authority, regardless of whether these restrictions are for their own benefit or not. Adolescents are more likely to do this and it can depend on one’s political beliefs too. It occurs when someone feels that their choices are being taken away from them and are being purposely limited, and they feel heavily pressured to comply with a certain position or behaviour. The greater the threat of restriction, and the more a choice is personally perceived to matter, the greater the level of psychological ‘reactance’, which is the urge to do the opposite of what someone wants us to do out of a need to resist a real or perceived attempt to constrain our freedom of choice. It’s like a ‘do not touch’ sign next to a piece of art can make people want to touch it even more!
In some contexts, it’s also known as the ‘boomerang effect’, which happens when an attempt at getting people to adopt a certain position has the unintended outcome of making them adopt an opposing position instead.
The reasonably predictable effect of reactance can therefore cause a person to adopt or strengthen a stance that is contrary to what was intended, and increase their resistance to persuasion. Such a person will also tend to perceive a ‘slippery slope fallacy’, whereby, in this case, they’ll think that one restriction to their liberties will undoubtedly lead to more and more in the future.
A (loose) counterpoint to ‘slippery slopes’, however, is the ‘boiling frog syndrome’, which occurs when people can sleepwalk into problematic situations that only build and occur very gradually (e.g. becoming obese, global warming, or indeed erosions to people’s freedoms). We often fail to notice very slow changes, just like we won’t tend to realise how bad our vision has gotten until we get our eyes checked – as we gradually become more elderly, less light reaches our retinas, our reaction times naturally worsen, our hearing deteriorates and so forth, but we can fail to notice these changes from one year to the next so we may mistakenly believe that our driving reactions are as good as when we were much younger if we are currently elderly.
People who are more likely to react with reactance may suspect conspiracies are always underfoot. ‘Anti-establishment bias’ is a bias against anything that is mainstream, or that major companies, scientific bodies and/or the government are always conspiring against the general public to control us in order to further their own interests or to otherwise screw us over (as if the ‘official version’ of a story is always a fuzzy cover up).
Reactance is related to reverse psychology. ‘Reverse psychology’ can take advantage of a person’s reactance. For example, if a good thing becomes banned, made scarce or put just out of reach then some people will want it even more – hence banning something can predictably make something seem (even more) desirable. Children, especially adolescents (although not all), are more likely to react in this way because adolescence is a developmental period of risk-taking and rebellion against parents and current institutions. However, banning something harmful might still easily be more sensible than not banning it, just like how some people would definitely eat all of the snacks in the house if they were present in the house, resulting in their own poor health!
People who respond with reactance can fall foul of ingroup biases, confirmation biases and outgroup stereotypes, such as believing that all authority figures and restrictions are there to basically control them rather than to ever serve the public’s best interests – but sometimes we need to restrict some freedoms to protect others (e.g. restricting the press from using phone hacking techniques). These people can therefore be the most difficult to persuade because they don’t recognise these biases and they don’t see that their defensive reactions are akin to religious dogma – for if you try to attack their beliefs, they’ll try to strengthen and rationalise their beliefs even further, such as by avoiding exposure to information that counters their beliefs or by not actively seeking information that may contradict their views, or by falling back onto groups of people and information that support and reinforce their current views i.e. their filter bubbles and echo chambers. This is related to the various backfire effects explained in Post No.: 0127. They don’t truly want to hear criticism against their current worldviews so they might avoid those who would likely intellectually destroy them.
Proposals seem less valuable if they appear to originate from an antagonist (‘reactive devaluation’). So we’ll rate an idea more highly if it comes from someone from our own side rather than from someone from an opposing side, even if it’s the exact same idea. Also, withheld proposals seem more valuable than those conceded. The more a party wants to hide something, the more people will predictably want to know what it is. It’s like a ‘top secret’ stamp on a document can make people want to read it even more! The ‘Streisand effect’ occurs when the attempt to hide, censor or remove a piece of information ends up motivating people to want to find out what it is and to publicise and spread it even more! This is again related to reactance. Of course this effect can be intentionally exploited by marketers or others, such as purposely engineered ‘leaks’ about future products that barely reveal anything but piques media and consumer interest and generates free publicity for the brand. (Name your own tech company here!)
People purposely using reverse psychology are playing on reactance by attempting to influence someone to choose the opposite of what they request. Reverse psychology works at times because some people have a naïve conception of what being independent or a leader means, whereby they believe that if they follow someone else’s ideas or suggestions, no matter their merit, then they’re not being independent or being a leader. However, if people are being manipulated by reverse psychology then it will ironically mean that they’re neither independent-minded nor leading(!)
…As you can hopefully see, when we assume we’re being freethinking and independent by relying on such shortcuts to thinking as ‘don’t follow or trust the mainstream’, we can still fall into common and predictable patterns of behaviour – so much that they have names as a result of experimental findings in psychology! And those who understand human psychology (such as companies that collect and process lots of behavioural information about their users) can exploit that reactance behaviour and other predictable behaviours.
We shouldn’t just, for example, automatically reject restrictions to our freedoms just because they’re restrictions to our freedoms, just like we shouldn’t just do the opposite of what people say since they might be playing us in the hope we’d do exactly that. It’s best not to blindly trust nor automatically distrust authority – take everything on a case-by-case basis and rely on the evidence, data, arguments and logic. We’ve got to think with our heads rather than our emotions here, and employ some effortful critical thinking rather than some relatively effortless shortcuts to thinking like ‘desire the opposite thing to what they want us to have’. (Some may assume that the latter is critical thinking but they’re actually applying heuristics or rules of thumb – instead of waiting for whatever will be said and then assessing it, one has already decided ‘whatever they’re going to say, I’m going to ignore or reject it’.)
Doing the contrary thing to what’s being suggested isn’t necessarily being freethinking. Anti-conformity is not always the same thing as not conforming – for instance, voting ‘no’ as a protest vote just because the incumbent government wants us to vote ‘yes’ is not the same as voting based on whatever we’ve determined is the best or right choice for ourselves via critical thinking, whether that happens to be a ‘yes’ or a ‘no’. Although being antagonistic can make one stand out and possibly position oneself as a rival to an incumbent leader in order to further one’s own ambitions (for why should the group change leaders if even you believe that everyone should agree with the current leader?) – being antagonistic is not the same thing as being a good leader either. We should make the best or right decisions for the team regardless of who comes up with an idea.
So it’s not really being independent-minded or freethinking to not follow one herd just to blindly follow another. This results in a divisive political landscape too, where opposing sides don’t really want to engage in productive debate with each other because they favour their own side’s ideas simply because it’s not the other side’s ideas i.e. it’s ‘us versus them’.
Woof! Argue for and against the claims, not the people or groups whom forward or support them… or erm on second thoughts don’t :J.