How one of the most underrated, underappreciated concepts in psychology is holding you back.
by Nir Eyal
When researchers make a joke in the title of an academic paper, you know what’s inside is going to be good.
Here’s the title I’m referencing: “A 50-year review of psychological reactance theory: Do not read this article.”
How did you feel when you read the phrase “Do not read this article”?
If you thought “now I’m definitely going to read the article,” then you got the joke and experienced the phenomenon described in the paper: psychological reactance.
Psychological reactance is our knee-jerk negative reaction to being told what to do.
It’s why when you were a teenager and your mom told you to put on your jacket before going out, you’d probably not put on your jacket — just ’cause. Only later did you realize you should have taken your mom’s advice as you hear your teeth chattering in the cold.
It’s the reason you bristle when your manager asks you to do a task and you grumble to yourself about being micromanaged. Later you realize the task was critical to winning that big project and you promoting your career.
We hate the feeling of being bossed around, even when doing as we’re told is good for us.
According to researchers, almost everyone has this mental reflex against being told what to do. It kicks in whenever we feel that our freedom or autonomy is threatened.
We often do things against our best interests because we want to protect our freedom to behave the way we want.
Psychological reactance isn’t inherently bad. If people are too compliant, they’re vulnerable to manipulation. But psychological reactance can, at times, prevent us from doing things that we should do, sometimes even things we want to do — like be helpful to others.
Recently, as I was clearing the dishes from the dinner table, I asked my daughter if she could wash the dishes. “I was going to, dad!” She said. “But now that you asked me to, I don’t want to anymore.” Ahh, reactance strikes again! I should have known better.
Psychological reactance can sabotage you in bizarre, even ironic ways. For example, that knee-jerk impulse of “don’t tell me what to do!” can kick in even when it’s you telling yourself what to do.
You may have scheduled time for something that you legitimately want to do — say, working out or reading a nonfiction book. But when it comes time to start exercising or sit down to read per your schedule, you might feel a bit of reactance.
Even though you yourself are the one who’s telling you what to do, you may still react against being told what to do. Crazy, right?
This occurs because, at the moment, it doesn’t feel like you telling yourself what to do. Rather, it’s you from the past, when you made your schedule, telling yourself what to do right now.
Psychologists tell us this paradox is why we’re often hypocrites — saying we’ll do something, but when the time comes, we don’t.
But there’s hope!
Now that you understand psychological reactance, you have the power to recognize and disarm it. Instead of flaking on commitments because of a knee-jerk feeling, you can change your perspective on the situation.
To disarm psychological reactance, you need to change the way you talk to yourself. Instead of thinking you “have to” do something, tell yourself you “get to” do it.
By changing the dialogue, you empower yourself. Now you’re in charge. You’re not being told what to do; you’re choosing to make time for something that matters to you.
Your freedom isn’t being threatened; it’s being exercised.
Disarming psychological reactance takes practice, but it’s worth learning how to deal with this uncomfortable feeling that all too often leads us off track.
Try changing the way you deal with reactance and until then — whatever you do, don’t share this article!