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Why won’t you do what you’re told?

As a child, I always did what I was told. (Mom, stop laughing, I’m trying to make a point here.)

But I can’t say I didn’t resent certain restrictions. And I’m not alone. Most people hate being told not to do something, and if they can’t see a good reason for it, may well go ahead and do it anyway–even if it’s detrimental to them.

Psychologists call this reactance, and as Steve Booth-Butterfield, an expert in the field of persuasive communication, explains in his online book Steve’s Primer of Practical Persuasion, it follows three sequential steps.

First, people perceive an unfair restriction. “Unfair” is the key word: we don’t have a problem with restrictions that make sense to us, like the “Do Not Eat” command on the side of those little bags of silica packaged with some electronics.

But if you think the restriction is unfair, you may become reactant: emotional, single-minded, maybe just a little bit irrational. The thing you are not allowed to do, which you never used to think about, suddenly become vitally important. This naturally pushes you to the final step, in which you act to alleviate your reactant state by either attempting to have the restriction removed or to get around it in some fashion.

A 1973 article in the Journal of Marketing Research blamed reactance for what happened in Miami in the 1960s when, for environmental reasons, the city banned the sale of detergents containing phosphates. In the weeks before the ban went into effect, stores reported a run on the phosphate-containing detergents. After the ban went into effect, city stores reported a drop in the sale of detergents, while stores outside the city limits reported an increase in the sale of phosphate-containing detergents. A lot of people apparently saw the ban as unjust, and even though they’d probably never thought about phosphates one way or the other before the ban was announced, they went out of their way to subvert it.

Another classic example is a cliché of sitcoms: a father tells his teenaged daughter she is not allowed to date the leather-and-chains-clad biker she just brought home…and thus drives her right into the boy’s tattooed arms.

And then there’s the husband-wife dynamic. Research conducted at Duke University, now appearing online in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, has shown that reactance can be triggered without us even being aware of it.

Tanya L. Chartrand, an associate professor of marketing and psychology, wanted to know why her husband, Gavan Fitzsimons (himself a professor of marketing and psychology) while “very charming in many ways,” has an annoying tendency to do the exact opposite of what she would like him to do.

For their experiment, Chartrand, Fitzsimons and Ph.D. student Amy Dalton asked participants to name two significant and controlling people in their lives: one who wanted them to work hard, and one who wanted them to have fun. Then, while the participants performed a computer-based activity, one or the other of those names was flashed on the screen too quickly to be consciously recognized. After that, the participants were asked to unscramble a series of anagrams.

The researchers discovered that people exposed to the name of the person who wanted them to work hard performed significantly worse creating words from jumbled letters than those exposed to the name of a person who wanted them to have fun. Not only that, but the more reactant the participant (as measured by other tests), the more strongly he or she responded to the subliminal cues.

Chartrand said the experiment shows that people with a tendency toward reactance may unconsciously and unintentionally do things that are counterproductive because they are trying, without even being aware of it, to resist someone else’s perceived encroachment on their freedom. They need to be aware of the situations and people who trigger reactance in them, and analyze their behavior to make sure they’re not doing something detrimental simply out of a sense of rebellion.

Thanks to this study, Chartrand said, her husband “should now be better equipped to suppress his reactant tendencies.”

Her husband saw it differently; he said the results showed “that reactance to significant others is so automatic that I can’t possibly be expected to control it if I don’t even know it’s happening.”

Normally I would conclude by stating which interpretation I prefer…but not this time.

My wife reads this column.

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