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Don't Fence Me In

How psychological reactance makes shelter-in-place instructions worse.

Kelly vanDellen, used with permission
Sidewalk Closed Sign
Source: Kelly vanDellen, used with permission

Normally I’d be spending every April weekend I could hiking with my husband in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. After several weekends in a row of the 2-3-hour drive (each way), my husband and I would eventually bargain with each other to spend a lazy weekend at home. On this lazy weekend, I might catch up on a little work, sleep in, and go to a barre class. I might begrudgingly go to the grocery store.

So why is it that in that April I’m doing something that matches that lazy weekend almost exactly (my barre studio has moved to virtual online classes) but feels completely different? Granted, part of the difference is that I don’t need a break; I’m not exhausted from traveling and hiking.

But the other part of it is that I’m not really choosing to stay home. I’m being told to stay home.

Most people really don’t like being told what to do. It’s called psychological reactance. And some people really don’t like it.

I am notably high in psychological reactance. You tell me to do something and the last thing I want to do is that. During the 18 months I dated the man who became my husband before we married, my mother never commented about our relationship. It was clear she was perfectly content we were dating, but it didn’t make a lot of sense. He was perfect for me and we had been friends for several years before we began dating. When I finally asked her why she never acted more excited, she was quick to say she had learned her lesson with me: She didn’t want to push her positive opinion on me and ruin the good thing we had.

Maybe you’re like me. When people tell you what to do, can you feel an undercurrent of rage, an itchiness to run out and do the opposite? The more attractive the thing is you want to do, the more negative arousal you likely experience in response to being controlled in that area. The more I want to hike, the more frustrating it is for me to be told to stay home. And right now, I really want to hike.

Many different people and institutions can tell us what to do (or not do). Government control, like the shelter-in-place orders and facility closures we are currently experiencing, is one. And then there is what we psychologists and sociologists call social control. Social control refers to anything someone does to try to convince someone else to engage in a different behavior. It can be hard to be told what to do by your government, but it can be even harder to be told what to do by your friends.

Common reactions to social control include doing the exact opposite thing that your friends or loved ones want, or hiding your behaviors from them. The more your romantic partner pesters you about eating vegetables, the less you want to do it. The more we pester our neighbors and loved ones about social distancing or self-isolating, the less they may want to do it.

Social control is often well-intentioned. The more people care and worry about their loved ones’ health, the more they try to influence them.

If you watch someone else behave this way, you can see how silly it is. Eating your vegetables is a good idea. Social distancing is critical for getting and keeping the spread of COVID-19 under control. Can you imagine if a friend came to you and complained that their loved ones wanted them to eat more vegetables? Or that their kids wanted them to stay home to avoid getting COVID-19? You might advise them about the social factors underlying the influence: Maybe their partner is nagging them and that’s annoying. Maybe their kids really aren't listening to the whole story. But in the end, you’d give your friend advice that involves eating the vegetables. And staying home.

We know better than to run off and do the opposite of what our government, friends, and loved ones are telling us to do. Next time you get that itch to react, try one of these things:

  1. Try to take this outsider’s perspective on your own behavior. Are you acting foolish just to prove your independence? If you think your friend would be silly for acting the way you are, maybe you should reconsider.
  2. Find an alternative way to express your independence. This is definitely the time for pink hair, dancing to your favorite band, or being a little quirky in the way you do best.
  3. Turn the rule into an internal motivation. Instead of viewing closures and cancellations as happening to you, think about all the reasons you really care about complying with advice. Focusing on the way the behaviors match your personal goals will make it feel more autonomous and take some of the edge off the instructions.

I hope you’re hanging in there. With National Parks Week coming up, I’m feeling extra itchy. I won’t be coloring my hair pink but I just might spend some time remembering why I’m staying home in the first place.


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vanDellen, M. R., Boyd, S. M., Ranby, K. W., MacKillop, J., & Lipkus, I. (2016). Willingness to support partner’s smoking cessation: A study of partners of smokers. Journal of Health Psychology. 21, 1840-1849.

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