Simply stated, reactance refers to people’s tendency to rebel or do the opposite when they feel like someone is trying to take away their freedom or limit their choices. Researchers have studied this mechanism extensively. They have also found that it works in the opposite direction, too — attempting to persuade people to do something can actually backfire and make them less likely to do it, resulting in an unintended boomerang effect.
As I mentioned in that piece, a famous example of reactance in action is the ineffectiveness of early anti-littering programs.
Studies found that if the wording on trash receptacles was too strong (for example, “Don’t You Dare Litter”), people were much less likely to use them. In some cases, not only did the sign fail to reduce the amount of littering, people actually littered more than if there were no sign at all!
Oh boy. That’s no good.
Reactance Is Playing a Part When People Refuse to Wear Face Masks
So people don’t like being told what to do — even if it’s in the public interest. This also has dire implications for public health.
A recent study looked into reasons why people might possess negative attitudes towards face masks. It would seem that the problem is basically two-fold:
One factor is that many anti-maskers generally do not feel that masks are not effective in preventing COVID-19.
But interestingly, this was not the only major contributor. Psychological reactance also played a part. These individuals resented feeling like they were being forced to do something.
Another interesting finding in the study: An overwhelming majority — 84% — reported that they wore masks. The anti-masking portion of respondents only made up 16% of the sample. The researchers note that this is consistent with other samples on this issue.
Anyway, the role of psychological reactance in mask wearing is an important one, since individuals not only rebel but those highest in psychological reactance tend to become angry and double back down on their beliefs when they feel like their freedoms are being challenged — creating an incredibly difficult cycle.
This means that normal public health campaigns, just like those early anti-littering programs, can have the opposite effect on those who need them the most.
The researchers suggest an emphasis on choice, rights, and freedoms could help counteract those effects in public health campaigns: “You have a right to wear a mask to stay safe. Don’t let anyone take away your right.”
This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.