The more someone tells you to do something, the less you feel like doing it. It’s a law, apparently – the law of psychological reactance.
The reactance effect makes a lot of sense to me. I’ve been talking about it for years. It’s part of my explanation of why facilitated training is more effective than chalk-and-talk; why Clean Language works; and why self-organising is good for business.
Another way of putting the same idea would be, “When you’re telling, you’re not selling.” Or, think of Tom Sawyer when he refused to let the other boys help him whitewash the fence.
I didn’t know it had an official name until last week. But apparently psychological reactance has been widely studied since 1966.
In the excellent Instant Influence, Michael Pantalon says there have been literally thousands of studies demonstrating the effect. For example, students who were encouraged to avoid certain tasks suddenly became excited by them. People threatened with dire consequences if they didn’t floss their teeth… didn’t floss their teeth. And so on.
“The law of psychological reactance is hard to disobey,” he says.
To find a way round reactance, Pantalon’s Instant Influence model, like Clean Language, emphasises personal autonomy.
He suggests setting a choiceful pre-frame with anyone you want to influence. “This decision is really up to you. I have my own ideas but the choice is yours,” and so on.
That set me wondering: is that approach more or less “Clean” than just implying autonomy, as standard Clean Language protocols suggest?
What do you think? Please comment below.
- Thanks to Richard Kasperowski whose new book helped nudge me towards writing this post. His “High Performance Building Blocks” for teams have Positive Bias as the foundation stone, with Freedom (autonomy) coming next. Might reactance provide an argument for swapping them around?