Don’t tell me what to do (if you want me to do it)

Do you ever have the urge to do the opposite of what is being suggested, even when it’s against your self-interest? You might be experiencing reactance; our tendency to bristle against attempts to constrain our freedom.

Reactance means we have to be very careful when influencing others, whether that means customers, the public or even our family!

Reactance in business

Reactance can be a problem in business. It may impact staff relations when a boss tells a staff member what to do, or a customer when a consultant pushes too hard for the sale. “You should definitely get the red one”, they might say, so the customer decides on black.

Online, customers may go out of their way not to click your ad that has popped up and interfered with their task. In fact, results of a Hubspot survey suggested 91% of online ads were considered intrusive and caused reactance.

Triggers for reactance include:

Reactance in health

Reactance is also a big challenge for health-related organisations. Telling us we shouldn’t smoke, drink or sunbake can backfire. As a general rule, any time we try to sell a “should do”, we risk reactance. 

One study on alcohol consumption asked undergraduates the extent to which health warning information impacted their attitudes and intended behaviours. They found a greater level of reactance was related to a greater perceived threat to their decision-making freedom. In another, reactance weakened how much smoker’s believed pictorial (vs. text) warnings motivated quitting.

Reactance in parenting

As anyone with kids would know all too well, telling them what to do can result in the reverse. Research suggests you might get away with it with younger children, but adolescents prefer certain products more when parents disapprove.

How to avoid reactance

The key to avoiding reactance is to position whatever you are asking from their point of view. Giving them a sense of control over the decision is key to them taking ownership. For instance, recommendations could be couched as follows:  “It’s your decision of course, but what I’ve found with other clients in a similar position is…”, or “Totally up to you, but if it were me I would…”.  Implied social norms can also help, along with ensuring your online customers feel they have control over their privacy settings. Or, if you are like me, point out how much you have in common because similarity has been found to reduce reactance too.

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