Reactance Theory

Today we’re going to talk about the cognitive bias known as the Reactance Theory. You’re probably really familiar with this, even if you don’t recognize the name. It’s something we often think about with children or with teenagers… we’ll get to that. It’s really simple to understand, but it’s actually quite complicated to use and implement on a daily basis as we think about being good leaders or good managers.

This theory basically says that people don’t like being told what to do. Surprise, right? Of course not. But it’s like what happens when we give people a limited amount of choices? So if you give people three choices and tell them whatever you do, do not do these two things or don’t do this one thing, people feel like their freedom is being threatened. And if their freedom is being threatened, they often choose the thing that you didn’t want them to do, even if it’s not in their best interest, even if it’s not the best choice, and even if it’s not even something they really wanted to do.

We can often see this very, very easily when it comes with little kids, with this idea of reverse psychology where we tell the child, “Whatever you do, don’t clean up your room,” or “Don’t eat your dinner,” and then they go and do it because they have a very simple way of approaching that problem. As they get older and they become teenagers, we kind of forget some of this, and of course, we tell them, “Whatever you do, don’t hang out with that person,” or “Don’t go to that party,” and then they end up doing it, right? Because we’ve limited their choices. As people get older, and they move into the workplace and become adults, we make this assumption that they’re going to be much better about how they make their decisions. But that doesn’t always happen.

As leaders, what we can do to really combat this Reactance Theory problem, is to make sure that we are helping people choose what they want. And if they can’t, then we’re giving them choices that we’re willing to live with —maybe two or three things they can pick from. But making sure that we don’t word things so we’re telling them whatever you do, don’t do this thing, because then they will feel like they kind of want to do it. This is akin to somebody eating the food inside the refrigerator with the label on that says, “Do not eat this. It belongs to so and so.” And then they eat it. That’s reactance, they’re being told not to do something and they feel like their choices are being taken away from them.

Now, if it’s really, really bad behavior, it shouldn’t be tolerated. But as leaders, we can kind of avoid even getting in that situation by making sure we’re giving people choices. Or inside a team and group meetings that we are allowing people to figure out what part of the project they would be best able to help with. So again, they’re choosing what they want to do. They choose the job, they choose to apply for a job, and they are choosing to be in that position and they are choosing to take on those responsibilities, and so that part’s easy. But as we start to get into this more finite stuff, we have to think about not pigeonholing people and giving them essentially only one door to walk through, when really, we should be asking them what they think is the best solution or the best choice. And if they don’t know, we can make suggestions, we can offer information.

I’ve seen so many bad leaders say, “You can’t do this, and you can’t do that, now go figure out what you’re going to do.” And then people react in a way we don’t want them to. So think about how you can use this as a kind of as extra credit. Make sure that really sophisticated people are not manipulating you by intentionally doing this to you, knowing you’re going to choose something because it presents you in a certain way. So be really, really kind of aware of yourself when you make decisions. Don’t make a decision just because you feel like your freedom of choice has been taken away and you’re being passive-aggressive.