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Why We Hate People Telling Us What to Do

Understanding our brain's response to being told what to do.

Christian Fregnan/Unsplash
Source: Christian Fregnan/Unsplash

Imagine that you’ve just started a new diet, and you ask your partner to support you in your efforts by reminding you to cook healthy meals at home instead of eating out and do something active after work instead of watching Netflix. One evening when you are discussing what you should eat for dinner, you suggest ordering in. Your partner replies, “I thought you were on a diet. No eating out!”

Instead of thanking them for reminding you of your goals, you feel anger welling up inside of you. How dare they tell you what you can and cannot eat!

You are not alone. In fact, this angry reaction is one of the reasons why our efforts to reach our goals can fall short or even backfire. When people feel that their choices are restricted, or that others are telling them what to do, they sometimes rebel and do the opposite.

Scientists have a term for this: psychological reactance. Psychological reactance is our brain’s response to a threat to our freedom. Threats to freedom include any time someone suggests or makes you do something. Health communication experts note that reactance sometimes happens in response to health campaigns that tell people to quit smoking. Rather than reducing smoking behavior, these ads sometimes cause people to want to smoke more!

This strong reaction to a threat to freedom has two parts: feelings and thoughts. When reactance is happening in our minds and bodies, we have negative thoughts, and we often feel anger, hostility, and aggression.

People who strongly feel reactance in response to threats to freedom feel an urge to do something. That something can be restoring one’s freedom by rebelling against the advised or prescribed action. If told to wear your seat belt, you might leave it unbuckled on purpose. This type of reaction is called “direct restoration.” Other options include deciding to like the prescribed action; in other words, changing your mind about how you feel about seatbelts or thinking, “I wanted to start wearing my seatbelt anyway!” Or, lastly, denying that a threat to freedom ever existed in the first place.

As I’ve been researching this concept, I’ve become hyper-aware of my own psychological reactance. I’ve noticed that my brain has reactance in response to the smallest threats. For example, when my husband says, “What’s the plan for this evening?” instead of simply responding with “no plans” or with whatever the plan actually is, I find myself feeling a bit panicked, as if him asking the question is going to lock me into something I do not want to do.

The negative thoughts and anger that come along with reactance make it worth taking the time to notice when your brain engages in psychological reactance and attempting to reframe those scenarios so they do not feel like threats to freedom. If I can think differently about the question when my husband asks me “what’s the plan,” I might be able to spare myself from those brief, negative thoughts and emotions.

Reframing the experience so it is no longer a threat to freedom is one way we can try to avoid psychological reactance. We can try to remember that just because someone suggests something to us or asks us to do something, they are not necessarily trying to control us. Scientists are working on discovering other ways to avoid or reduce psychological reactance. One study found that telling participants that “they are free to decide for themselves what is good for them” after being told to do a specific health behavior, like flossing their teeth or wearing sunscreen, was able to reduce reactance (Bessarabova, Fink, & Turner, 2013; Miller et al., 2007). Other studies have found that inducing empathy or asking the threatened person to take the perspective of the person telling them what to do can help reduce reactance (Shen, 2010; Steindl & Jonas, 2012).

What do you do when you feel an urge to rebel or feel angry in response to others telling you what to do?

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Dillard, J. P., & Shen, L. (2005). On the nature of reactance and its role in persuasive health communication. Communication Monographs, 72(2), 144-168.

Bessarabova, E., Fink, E. L., & Turner, M. (2013). Reactance, restoration, and cognitive structure: Comparative statics. Human Communication Research, 39(3), 339-364.

Steindl, C., Jonas, E., Sittenthaler, S., Traut-Mattausch, E., & Greenberg, J. (2015). Understanding psychological reactance. Zeitschrift für Psychologie.

Miller, C. H., Lane, L. T., Deatrick, L. M., Young, A. M., & Potts, K. A. (2007). Psychological reactance and promotional health messages: The effects of controlling language, lexical concreteness, and the restoration of freedom. Human Communication Research, 33(2), 219-240.

Shen, L. (2010). Mitigating psychological reactance: The role of message-induced empathy in persuasion. Human Communication Research, 36(3), 397-422.

Steindl, C., & Jonas, E. (2012). What reasons might the other one have?—Perspective taking to reduce psychological reactance in individualists and collectivists. Psychology (Irvine, Calif.), 3(12A), 1153.

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