Push Me and I’ll Resist: Reactance Theory

reactanceReactance Theory is a powerful theory to show just how valuable understanding theoretical concepts in everyday marketing activity is. The theory is heavily used in Social Marketing and also applicable to other marketing situations, for example, sales encounters. The basic idea is that if a perceived behavioural freedom is removed (for example by government legislation, warning signs or pushy sales tactics), the result is that the person who is being pushed will react by adopting or strengthening an opposing view or attitude. An example: I recently tried to cancel my mobile phone subscription with and get a code to move my number to a different provider. I’m out of contract, and cancelling it and moving the number was my right – or behavioural freedom. To do this, I had to chat to an advisor, who constantly refused to give me the code and instead came back with different offers to keep me with the company. In other words, the advisor was removing my behavioural freedom. This “ping pong game” lasted for over an hour – with the advisor constantly refusing to give me the code. At the beginning, I did not have any strong feelings towards the company, and would have stayed quite happily if the advisor offered a reasonable deal. However, after the refusal to give me the code I started to no longer care what the deal was; all I wanted was to cancel all contracts with this company. In other words, I was in a state of reactance, i.e. even if the advisor would have offered me a mobile phone free for life, I would have refused (i.e. single-mindedly asserting my freedom to move my number).

Is this effect powerful? Well, yes: For example, reactance has been linked to people starting smoking (Miller et al, 2006) – or indeed acting contrary to health warnings (Stewart & Martin, 1994). But also in commercial marketing there is plenty of evidence of reactance: For example, people avoid websites and develop negative brand attitudes towards brands using pop-up advertisements (Edwards, Li & Lee, 2002) – or even simply persuasive advertisements (Koslow, 2000). In other words, disregarding the possibility of reactance, even giving possibly logical and sensible advise or making persuasion attempts can lead to a boomerang effect.

So how can marketers prevent reactance? Well, the answer is remarkably straightforward: Do not remove the freedom. For example, in my “sales” encounter with the mobile phone company, the advisor could have given me the code first, and then talked about a deal to keep me. Similarly, for example, Allen Carr’s Easyway to Stop Smoking uses anti-reactance measures (yes, they can even occur when the reader actually wants to quit smoking!). In the Easyway method, Carr “forces” smoking onto the reader – thus eliminating the focus on remaining a smoker, while engaging the reader in a dialogue about how harmful smoking is. So simply ensuring that the person has the freedom to resist, or continue the behaviour, etc is usually enough to ensure that the receiver‘s focus is no longer on the behavioural limitation – and the receiver can engage rationally in making reasoned choices.

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