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.

To change customer behaviour, find the angles

Over the break I was able to dabble in one of my hobbies, stone carving – taking a hammer and chisel to a block of hard rock to see what emerges. I enjoy the challenge of changing its form from one state to another, which, on reflection, relates a lot to how we approach behaviour change.

I mean, how do we get from this, to that?

Before and after images of Bri's stone sculpture

Take the time to first understand

A mistake when carving is jumping in and assuming all stone will act same. In fact, each piece has its own weaknesses and strengths. I therefore first make a few tentative strikes to allow the stone to reveal something to me. Once the desired outcome forms in my mind I can work towards it.

This is how we can approach behaviour change too. Rather than jumping in with fixed assumptions, we first need to spend some time ‘noodling around’ to understand the person or people we are trying to influence. For this I use my “Empathy Map” which gets me into the mindset of the target audience and focusses me on the specific context in which the behaviour is occurring.

Overcoming inertia

A slab of stone is inert, immovable. This is how your customers or stakeholders can feel too – like whatever you try, they are not going to budge from their status quo.

It means when seeking to influence someone’s behaviour we must first recognise that asking them to change means giving up their current behaviour. Start by asking yourself, “what are they currently doing?” so you get a fix on what you are asking them to move away from. 

It’s all about angles

If you attempt to tackle a slab of stone by pummeling the centre it will do one of two things; resist until you are defeated, or resist until a fissure forms that destroys it. In either case, a blunt, frontal assault is ineffective.

Instead you have to use the angles, chipping away at the edges towards your objective.

Same goes for behaviour change. If you are too blunt or forceful, your attempts will be resisted. This is known as “reactance”, and has been found to reduce the effectiveness of ads like “Just Do It” for some consumers.  Telling someone they “have to change”, that “this will be good for them” or even providing a litany of facts and figures to justify the change is unlikely to be persuasive.

Instead, anticipate reasons for resistance to change and devise angles for addressing each barrier. There are three reasons people resist change:

  • Too lazy (apathy) – they can’t be bothered
  • Too confused (decision paralysis) – they might be interested but are confused as to what they need do
  • Too scared (anxiety) – they might be interested but worried about proceeding

It’s not all about force

While it takes a certain amount of force to chip into rock, it’s more about being precise and consistent, working with the stone rather than attempting to have it wield to your will.

With behaviour change, it’s not about how much money you spend or how loudly you communicate your message, it’s about small, well-considered “nudges”. A clear call-to-action button on a website can impact conversion more than a TV ad. An opt-out default on a form can change a whole country’s rates of organ donation. Moving fruit to within arm’s reach in a cafeteria can change how a whole workforce eats.

Process of elimination

American writer, philosopher and artist Elbert Hubbard said “The sculptor produces the beautiful statue by chipping away such parts of the marble block as are not needed – it is a process of elimination.”

Behaviour can seem very complicated, and a natural tendency is to try to add more and more to justify the request to change. But as with stone carving, behaviour change can be more effective through elimination – eliminating superfluous information, eliminating unnecessary choices, and eliminating “noise” that distracts from the objective.

Most of all, behavioural economics and my framework for behaviour change is about eliminating opinions about how to influence outcomes. By focussing your efforts on the three science-based reasons for resistance – apathy, paralysis and anxiety – you can eliminate speculation and more efficiently and effectively design for change.

Carve your results in stone

At the end of a carving I am left with a tangible, permanent representation of my efforts. I can sit back and admire the endeavour. The same cannot always be said of behaviour change, because life goes on and your attention will quickly turn to the next issue to tackle. That’s why it is important to measure the impact of your initiatives, creating a record of before and after so it doesn’t get lost.

This article also appeared in Smartcompany.

Study on reactance in advertising:

“Just do it! Why committed consumers react negatively to assertive ads”. Authors Yael Zemack-Rugar, Sarah G. Moore, Gavan J. Fitzsimons (2017)