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Psychological Reactance

Brehm (1966) declared that people have a need for freedom. The need for freedom is activated whenever people feel a restriction put upon their actions or opinions. People usually respond to a restrictive force by fighting back against it, resisting attempts at influence. Brehm described psychological reactance as a force aroused by threats to a person's freedom. Psychological reactance is aroused whenever a person is given a direct order or told that an activity is not possible or not allowed. When pushed, people tend to push back. When told they cannot have something, people tend to want it.

What is psychological reactance? How did Brehm & Sensenig study it?

Brehm and Sensenig reported a simple experiment that demonstrated psychological reactance. In a game that required cooperation, a subject (actually a confederate of the experimenter) passed one of two notes to the other subject. One note suggested a possible course of action by listing alternatives and stating a preference. The other note directly requested a particular course of action, saying the partner "should" do something. Nearly 70% of the subjects went along with the suggestion in the first condition; less than 40% went along with the request in the second.

"Don't think of a white bear"

Dostoevsky, the famous author, played a "mind game" with his brother that demonstrates psychological reactance. He challenged his brother not to think of a white bear, then watched with amusement as his brother wrestled with the impossibility of fulfilling this request.

What childhood game shows reactance? How did Wegner and co-workers do research on it?

Wegner, Carter, White, and Schneider (1987) decided to document the phenomenon. They asked students to participate in a "stream of consciousness" experiment that required the students to speak everything that came into their minds into a tape recorder, for five minutes.

Just before starting one such session, some students were instructed to avoid thinking about white bears, but to ring a bell if the thought did enter their minds despite the prohibition. They rang the bell early and often. (Schmeck, 1987)

Are forbidden objects as irresistible as forbidden thoughts? Folklore supplies us with two different answers. Aesop's fable about the fox that could not reach a bunch of grapes, and then declared they were probably sour, predicts that a forbidden object will seem less appealing. That is what cognitive dissonance theory would predict, also. If a goal is unattainable; it will be devalued. On the other hand, "forbidden fruit" is often thought to be more tempting, as in the Garden of Eden. The theory of psychological reactance would predict that a forbidden object becomes more alluring.

How did the Allen and Allen research show "forbidden fruit" and "sour grapes" effects in different age groups?

Allen and Allen (1974) did a study with preschool and fourth grade children on the attractiveness of forbidden objects. First the child ranked five different toys for attractiveness. Then the researchers moved the toys to the side and pointed to the third-ranked toy (intermediate in attractiveness). The child was told he or she could play with all the toys "except that one." No explanation was offered.

The child's attention was then diverted from the toys for about three minutes by the experimenter's asking a few questions about the child's age, number of brothers and sisters, etc....After approximately three minutes, the subject was again asked to rank each of the five toys according to how much he liked each one at that particular time ("right now"). It was made clear to the subject that he could change the ranking of each toy in either direction or leave it unchanged. (Allen & Allen, 1974, p.872)

The results? Preschoolers ranked the forbidden toy less attractive ("sour grapes"). Fourth graders ranked the forbidden toy more attractive ("forbidden fruit").

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