Why controlling peoples' sense of freedom can trigger an angry motivation to regain it

Nudging is a powerful way to change behavior. But when you push people too hard, you may end up making them do the very opposite of what you intended.

Zemack‐Rugar, Y., Moore, S. G., & Fitzsimons, G. J. (2017). Just do it! Why committed consumers react negatively to assertive ads. Journal of Consumer Psychology

When companies nudge too hard, reactance is often the fall-out, having devastating, unintentional consequences...

Let's take a look at how reactance works, a recent study showing it in action and, most importantly, how you can design smarter nudges that avoid triggering it.

How does reactance work?

Andrea, who wants to book a holiday, will help us explain the dynamics of reactance:

1. We possess certain behavioral freedoms

In this case, Andrea possesses a behavioral freedom to choose a relaxing holiday without undue stress or uncertainty.

2. Reactance is triggered when these freedoms feel threatened

Heading online to try and book her holiday, Andrea is faced with highly assertive language and a heavy-handed approach to using scarcity to drive her to book.

This misuse of behavioral principles is threatening her ability to choose and book freely.

3. We're then motivated to protect or regain our freedoms. Both directly...

By doing the exact opposite of what we've been asked (known as the Boomerang Effect). Bookeazy's pushy approach makes Andrea want to push back. Instead of booking now, Andrea feels a burning desire to restore her freedom to choose without unwelcome influence. Given this, the act of defiantly closing the tab feels better than booking.

4. ...and indirectly, in an angry or offended fashion

On top of that, Andrea reduces her discomfort and further restores her freedom by warning others of the bad experience and potential threat to their own freedoms.

To top it all off, the bad news for Bookeazy is that other websites that don't make her feel this way become more attractive as a result (Hammock & Brehm, 1966).

In a nutshell, this is how reactance works, with the amount of reactance felt dependent on a large number of factors, but dictated primarily by both the perceived importance of the freedom and the size of the threat to it.

Let's now have a quick look at a recent study in the advertising world to see it in action, before looking at a checklist of things you can do to avoid triggering it.

The study

84 people were told of a known clothing brand, for which they either had an existing loyalty to or not.

Each person was then shown an ad for the brand, written either assertively or non-assertively.

They were then asked how much of a $25 gift card they'd spend, based upon the ad.

The study found that, as well as liking them less, both groups contributed less money after viewing an assertive ad next to a non-assertive ad. Loyal customers were especially put off by the assertive ad, spending almost half the amount.

This study shows that brands need to be careful with their tone of voice, especially among their most loyal customers. Tailoring one's communication style to consider reactance and taking into account the heightened sensitivity of existing customers is a good start.

What else can companies do to prevent angry, unintended consequences when attempting to nudge behavior? Thankfully, there's a whole bunch of research that looks at how to avoid reactance.

Let's take a look!

Even a small gap in the prison wall heightens our desire to escape.

How to avoid triggering reactance

• Crucially, consider consumer feeling (Miron and Brehm, 2006).
Ensure that for any changes made, ask yourself whether there will be a meaningful impact on customers' existing sense of freedom. If so, reactance may be triggered.

• Be mindful of how you are using behavioral principles
We've noticed an increasing use of faux-scarcity to create an uncomfortable sense of urgency as well as an aggressive use of defaults that aren't in customers' best interests, especially when engaging in supposedly relaxing activities like booking holidays. If ever there was an industry that ought to understand this, it's an experiential one.

• Highlight certainty (Laurin, Kay and Fitzsimmons, 2012)
Reactance is more likely if we feel that there's even a small possibility that we could restore our freedom. Even a small gap in the prison wall will heighten our desire to escape.

A good example is Brexit; if it was inevitable that the UK would be leaving and there was zero chance of staying, then the nation would seek to rationalise the situation and arguments that we should 'just get on with it' would hold more weight. Lingering uncertainty, however, has led to growing motivation on both sides to reclaim the freedom to have a final say on the future of the UK.

• Accommodate autonomy (Miller et al., 2007)
Having a feeling of choice can reduce the sense that our freedoms are being taken away from us. Combine autonomy with certainty (above) by communicating the certitude of inevitable action while seeking out other areas where you can give back control.

• Use humor (Shen and Coles, 2015)
Being playful with your language has been shown to reduce reactance. Research shows that difficult requests can be made less painful when we use a softer, lighter tone.

• Forewarn of the potential threat (Richards and Banas, 2015)
If you're planning a big change that will clearly trigger reactance, tell people beforehand. Giving time for the news to sink in will reduce reactance when the change does come about.

• Use narrative (Moyer-Gusé and Nabi, 2010)
Communications presented as a story (as opposed to a news broadcast) have been shown to increase identification with story characters, increase persuasion and reduce feelings of reactance. In the context of the Moyer-Gusé and Nabi study, intentions to have safe sex were significantly boosted by doing so. Consider framing your communication as a story over a simple news item.

• Reframe losses of freedom as gains (Cho and Sands, 2011)
Research shows that reactance is more likely when we feel we are losing something. Instead, focus on communicating the positive impact of the change.

• Create relatability (Förg et al., 2007)
We are more likely to feel reactance if information is delivered by an authoritative figure. Instead, consider having your message come from a relatable layperson, characteristically similar to your core customer.

• Use as a motivator
Far from being a purely negative concept, Brehm states that reactance is an internal motivational tool that we use to free ourselves. It can be used in campaigns to stimulate people to aspire to unlikely successes with against-all-the-odds stories that can challenge existing cultural norms and biases.

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  • Aspirational membership schemes and belonging The category size bias provides a credible explanation for why we human beings tend to associate with large groups that are viewed favourably by society. Being part of a large and “desirable” social group can make others believe that we also possess the many qualities of its members. For small businesses, it suggests that forming or being a part of a consortium or large and high quality networking group can dramatically elevate your brand image.
  • Communicating category sizes to nudge effectively Highlighting the differences between the large and small categories is highly likely to enhance the effect of the Category Size Bias. For instance, for software companies, stating that there are 10 features in the premium version versus 4 in the free version will help nudge a decision towards the premium version

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  1. The findings from this braingem can nudge better healthcare choices, encourage consumption of a given product, and lead to more confident consumer decisions.
  2. We mistakenly believe that items in larger categories have a higher probability of being picked than ones in smaller categories, despite all items having an equal chance of being picked.
  3. We’ll spend or gamble more money on items put in larger categories.
  4. We’re more likely to take action from tasks when they’re in a bigger list, over a smaller list.
  5. We once we put something into a group, we perceive it to adopt all the characteristics of that group. This suggests that small companies should foster alliances with similarly-principled, more established companies.
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