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Why We Sometimes Do the Opposite of What We Are Told: Romeo, Juliet, and Reactance

Nov 5 2021 • 3 min read

According to a recent YouGov poll, William Shakespeare remains the UK’s third most popular writer (just behind JK Rowling and Terry Pratchett). His most popular play is Romeo and Juliet, which the majority of the UK population claim to have seen or read.

One of the most captivating elements of the play is the way that Romeo and Juliet act against the express wishes of both their families. And the fact that all parental attempts to keep the young lovers apart have the opposite of the intended effect, serving only to inflame rather than quell the protagonists’ love for one another.

Psychologists call this phenomenon reactance. It describes how we often react strongly against a perceived threat to our freedom or autonomy.

Reactance reflects our fundamental need for, as the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky put it: “independent choice, whatever that independence may cost”. It therefore typically consists of an emotionally-charged attempt to retain or restore such independence.

We see reactance in children when they intentionally do the exact opposite of what they are told – a type of behaviour that emerges as early as age two. And we often see it in adults when their previous freedoms are threatened or limited in some way. However, the strength of the reaction depends on several factors.

One is the perceived importance of the freedom that is being threatened – in general, the more important the freedom for someone, the more reactance is likely to be triggered by its removal.

The introduction of 30mph speed limits for cars in built-up areas in 1934 was, for example, vehemently opposed by motorists who felt that their ‘freedom of the highway’ was being unceremoniously removed.

Another important factor is the perceived impact of our behaviour on others. In other words, reactance is likely to be reduced if enacting our freedom carries negative consequences for those around us.

This helps to explain why the removal of basic freedoms (such as leaving our homes or seeing friends and family) during the early stages of the pandemic prompted relatively little reactance within the UK population.

These social effects have some important nuances. When it comes to encouraging pro-environmental behaviour, for example, telling people what others think it is appropriate to do has been shown to prompt greater reactance (in the form of less pro-environmental behaviour) than simply telling people what others typically do.

And this relates to our third factor, which is language and framing. Namely that the same message can result in very different responses, depending on how it is framed.

Here, it seems that strict commands can sometimes backfire. For example, in a famous study conducted in university toilets during the 1970s, more authoritarian language (“Do NOT Write on the Walls!”) aroused greater reactance in the form of more graffiti than less threatening requests (“Please, do not write on the walls”).

In conclusion, any measure that threatens or restricts people’s previous freedom in some way has the potential to arouse reactance – but just how much will depend on many factors.

There are times, for example when imposing a lockdown, where it may be appropriate for policymakers to restrict individual behaviour for the collective good. In these instances, minimising reactance means taking into account its subjective and context-dependent nature.

But there are many other cases where, according to the reactance research, persuasive strategies that do not restrict freedoms may be more appropriate than coercive ones that do.

Like, for example, when your teenager falls in love with someone from a rival family.

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