‘Do this’ I say – But You Don’t!

Ever asked someone to do something and felt that the more you asked them to do it – the more they resisted actually doing it? Well I am sure we have all experienced this a number of times haven’t we? Even when people do carry out what we ask them to do we see that sometimes their heart is just not in it, and they are doing it – just because they were asked to – and not because they really want to!

It was very recently that I realized the reason for this is inbuilt into our psyche.

Law of Psychological Reactance

Jack and Sharon Brehm brought forward this theory in 1966 – which says that ‘Reactance’ happens when someone feels that we are taking away their power of autonomy or making choices for themselves and therefore are forcing them to do something. When this happens – the natural response seems to be to resist this and actually try to do even the opposite of what is being asked to do.

The feeling of limiting autonomy could be felt even when where there are choices – but the respondent feels that we are imposing the choices they can make and therefore limiting the alternatives. In other words – the choices are there – but they feel they are – our choices and not theirs – and therefore their autonomy is being limited.

So reactance is where respondents are motivated to regain their perceived loss of freedom – which results in them doing something entirely opposite to what is being suggested. Thereby proving that they are in charge of themselves and have autonomy for their actions and behavior.

Experiment on University Students

This was demonstrated by an experiment done on University Students. They were first shown a range of Group Problem Solving tasks and then asked to rate them according to how interesting they found each one to be, e.g., High, Low, or Neutral. They were then asked to engage in whatever they felt to be the most interesting – let’s say this was Task A and what they ranked lowest was Task D. After some time of doing this – they were given a break – and during the break someone taking part in the research but pretending to be a student – would come over and talk about what tasks they found interesting and would particularly praise the task the student was engaged in before (Task A) and suggest that they don’t pick something else (Task D) – but actually pick the one that the student was engaged in any way (Task A) in a forceful manner.

Article #26-3What was found was that – after this conversation even if the student had previously found Task A interesting – they didn’t want to do it anymore and felt compelled to engage in Task D. In other words they wanted to do – what they had been previously discouraged to do – and didn’t want to do what they had been encouraged to. And this was what the researchers called the Law of Psychological Reactance.

Saman wearing jeans to a wedding

Let’s look at another example as well. Saman’s cousin is getting married and the family is invited for the wedding. Everyone in the family are wearing formal clothes and Saman’s mum asks him to wear his best pants and not his jeans. Suddenly the Jeans seem really attractive to Saman and a big argument ensues because of his mums insistence that he not wear them. Saman protects his freedom by doing what his mum told him not to do.

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain

Article #26-2In this well known story Tom gets his friends to finally paint the fence for him – by somehow making it sound really attractive and showing them he is having fun – and purposely refusing to allow them to ‘have fun’ by painting the fence as well. Finally when his friends really beg him to allow them to ‘paint’ as well – he relents and thereby gets his work happily carried out for him.

Reverse Psychology

This is also what is more commonly known as Reverse Psychology. Get people to do what you want – by making that seem more attractive but not allowed or prohibited.

How do we get around this?

When asking someone to do something – it would be best if we stress that they still have autonomy and control and give our ideas as suggestions and not commands. Better still would be to state the problem we are trying to solve or the goal we are trying to achieve and then get their ideas as to what can be done to achieve this – gently leading them down the path we want them to take – with well-focused questions – by which finally we get the behavior that we desire. Of course this may take more time initially but I think it is time well spent – if finally we get the result we want instead of having to go back and forth many times.

So in the example with Saman – we could say something like ‘Saman, you are really smart so why don’t you decide what to wear so that people can really admire you. You can decide for yourself but if the choice was mine I would suggest you wear your formal pants.’ And then leave Saman to decide for himself without additional pressure. Food for thought. But in order to really be good at this – as with anything else – trial and error and practice would be essential.


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