Reactance, sometimes known as psychological reactance, is the response to a loss of behavioral freedom, or to the perception of threats to behavioral freedom. For example, when pressed to perform a task in a new way, we sometimes feel an urge to perform that task in the customary way, or perhaps, in any way at all that differs from the prescription. Some feel this urge even if the prescription is aligned with their customary approaches. They react to being required to follow direction, even if they usually do it that way on their own. As a second example, when we're directed not to do something, we sometimes experience a strong urge — at times, a compulsion — to do that very thing, even when we had no prior desire to do it.
The widespread understanding of the concept of "reverse psychology" is evidence that most of us understand reactance at a very visceral level.
Reactance theory was first developed by J. W. Brehm in 1966. Here are its basic elements:
- People are free to choose from a range of free behaviors which are acts they can imagine doing, or refraining from doing.
- People are likely to experience reactance in response to constraints on their ability to choose (or abstain from) free behaviors, or when they perceive threats to their freedom to choose.
- The magnitude of reactance increases with the importance of the behavior.
- Reactance is cumulative. Loss of a collection of free behaviors creates reactance more intense than the reactance associated with any one of the collection.
- People can experience loss of a single free behavior as a threat to other free behaviors.
Reactance plays a role in a range of workplace phenomena. One of the more obvious is organizational change, where it might account for what many call resistance. But one of the more fascinating and paradoxical is the role of reactance in both the need to micromanage and the reaction to being micromanaged.
- Reactance as micromanagement
- Some managers experience the managerial role as a constraint on their freedom to perform the tasks that belong to their subordinates. In a state of One of the more paradoxical
manifestations of reactance is
its role in both the need to
micromanage and the reaction
to being micromanagedreactance, they feel irrepressible urges to intervene in the work of their subordinates, because they — the managers — feel that only they can perform those tasks at the level required.
- Reactance as a response to micromanagement
- Most of us have strong negative responses to micromanagement. When we're micromanaged, we feel insulted, degraded, and even abused. Some of us are driven to anger, which can lead to behavior far less acceptable than the micromanagement itself. Certainly micromanagement is bad management, but almost as certainly, reactance is involved in the behavior exhibited by some of those who are micromanaged.
For more about psychological reactance, see Psychological Reactance: A Theory of Freedom and Control by Sharon S. Brehm and Jack W. Brehm. New York: Academic Press, 1981. Available from Amazon.
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Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
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- Workplace speech and writing sometimes strays into the land of pretentious but overused business phrases, which I like to call high falutin' goofy talk. We use these phrases with perhaps less thought than they deserve, because they can be trite or can evoke indecorous images. Here's Part III of a collection of phrases and images to avoid. Available here and by RSS on July 18.
- And on July 25: Exploiting Functional Fixedness: II
- A cognitive bias called functional fixedness causes difficulty in recognizing new uses for familiar things. It also makes for difficulty in recognizing devious uses of everyday behaviors. Here's Part II of a catalog of deviousness based on functional fixedness. Available here and by RSS on July 25.
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Beware any resource that speaks of "winning" at workplace politics or "defeating" it. You can benefit or not, but there is no score-keeping, and it isn't a game.