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The Risk of Reactance as Motivation


Have you ever done something just because somebody said you couldn’t?

In the 1970s, two researchers named Pennebaker and Sanders conducted an experiment that involved writing on bathroom walls. They put signs in two different student bathrooms: one sign demanded that students not write on the walls under any circumstances; but the second kindly requested “Please don’t write on these walls.”

You probably guessed the results. Students reacted most significantly to the rude-sounding, demanding sign--by writing all over the walls. And they did it just because they could.

When you do something that is forbidden, you may be demonstrating reactance as your motivation. Reactance is a drive to do something you’ve been told (threatened) not to do.

Why do we demonstrate reactance?

There are lots of sophisticated theories about reactance, but one that seems pretty clear is that things that are forbidden to us seem to take on more importance. In fact, reactance theory is sometimes called “forbidden fruit” theory.

We may respond with reactance because we humans just don’t like it when somebody takes away our freedom to choose how we behave.

Aren’t you sometimes tempted to do things that aren’t good for you? There have been students to show that many teens are more likely to demonstrate risky behavior simply because they’ve been told not to.

What does reactance have to do with homework?

It doesn’t take super intelligence to see that reactance can hurt us in the long run. Reactance can get us into all sorts of trouble. Including academic trouble.

If your mom tells you have to stay home and study for the SAT, or study for a big test coming up, or practice for a competition, or do your homework, and you rebel—ask yourself why. Are you resisting because you feel she’s trying to take away your freedom?

As we mature into young adults our motivations mature as well. Reactance as a motivating force can really be self-destructive. When we mature emotionally we start to understand this.

Be smart and don’t be tempted to do something (or resist something) just because you can. It only hurts you in the long run.

Pennebaker, J., and Sanders, D. “American Graffiti: Effects of Authority and Reactance Arousal.” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 1976, 2, 264-267.

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