Brehm's Reactance Theory: Definition & Overview

Instructor: Sharon Linde

Sharon has a Masters of Science in Mathematics

Reactance Theory is something that probably happens to everyone, even if we don't know what it is. Read on to get a better understanding of your feelings and reactions to social pressure and learn about the man who introduced the theory, Jack Brehm.

Reactance Theory Basics

When I was in grade school, the girls were given a red ball to play with and the boys were given a yellow one. The teachers were very clear that these balls were to stay with the intended group and would come out every so often to check up on us. Even though the balls were exactly the same, we felt a strong urge to trade them out. In fact, we spent so much time and energy switching balls and monitoring the door watching for a teacher (so we could switch back in time), that I suspect we had little actual play time. Why did we do this?

The answer lies in what is referred to as reactance theory. This theory states that when people are restricted in some way they feel a strong need to resist and fight back to gain their freedom. Just as we traded the playground balls, people who are told not to do something often feel an urge to do the very thing they're denied.

Jack Brehm and Reactance Theory

American psychologist Jack Brehm first introduced reactance theory in an article published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1966. This and further work on the topic gives us a reason why people are motivated to rebel to forced decisions and tells us what motivates these behaviors.

American psychologist Jack Brehm
jack brehm

Brehm went on in his career to explain and expand upon the reactance theory, focusing on freedoms and the choices people make when their freedom is threatened.

Freedom and Reactance Theory

The basis of Brehm's reactance theory is founded on the removal of freedom from choices. As we saw with my childhood experience with the ball, our behavior in trading balls was pretty irrational. After all, the color of the ball didn't matter at all; they were otherwise exactly the same. We wanted to trade balls only because we were told not to -- our freedom was taken away.

Think of a time you felt your freedom to choose was taken away. How did you react? Your story may be a little different from mine, but all rely on a perceived freedom, or belief by the individual that a freedom does in fact exist. In my case it is the belief that we were free to choose whatever color ball we wanted. Think about your story -- how was your perceived freedom threatened?

The Nuts and Bolts of Brehm's Reactance Theory

Freedom and Brehm's reactance theory has two guiding principles:

  • The more important the person's freedom is perceived to be, the larger the reaction to the removal of it. In other words, if the freedom being threatened is perceived as very important to the individual, they will react on a larger scale than if the freedom is seen as not so important. The stronger the feeling of freedom, the larger the resistance to the limitations.
  • When several freedoms are threatened, the reaction is greater. For example, if our first grade teachers had also limited who could play with the ball, where we could play, and what the games were, the rebellion would have been stronger.

How do you see reactance theory in the image below?

This sign shows evidence of reactance theory. Can you spot it?
reactance theory

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