Limiting Psychological Reactance
Psychological Reactance Defined
This is a psychological theory developed in 1966 positing that people will react in specific ways if/when they perceive limits to their normal behavioral freedoms. Simply put, if I tell you something and it limits a freedom you take for granted, you will tend to lash out or behave in some sort of extreme, often irrational, manner to regain a sense of freedom.
For example: even if I hate my job and want to quit, if I show up one day and am fired, I will feel as though someone has limited my freedom -- in this case my freedom to choose whether or not I continue working here -- and in order to regain that normal sense of freedom -- that I am in control of my life and destiny -- I will likely react in some sort of illogical way: perhaps I will blame you personally, or I will yell at you, or I will act violently etc., all in an attempt to regain a sense that I am in control of my environment.
Although it's a cognitive effect (the effect happens in our brains), it's worth noting that it often manifests itself physically, beginning most likely with a rush of adrenaline.
This is of course tied to the traditional “fight or flight” wiring of the mammalian brain and nervous system. Think about what happens when a lion tries to limit the freedoms, so speak, of an antelope: the antelope's survival mechanism kicks in, mainly in the form of adrenaline, and the body floods the muscles with enough strength to regain freedom. Or not, in which case Mr. Antelope, he dead.
Ergo (that's Latin for "soooo..."), you'll notice that when you fail a student or fire an employee or break up with a boy/girlfriend/spouse/love-monkey etc., this person will usually begin fidgeting and tapping his/her foot, or perhaps begin sweating. This is because:
a) That person’s brain now sees you as a lion. Lookout!
b) The adrenal gland floods his muscles so they can fight or flight. Let’s roll!
c) The instincts are screaming for defensive action. "Kick him in the head!! Kick him! Kick him really hard! Run away! Bash his ugly face in with your laptop!"
However, in the urban Serengeti of our lives, we must channel these primitive instincts in some other way. Such as insulting the other person.
Limiting and Channeling
Knowing that people feel this way when they are given bad news, we can use a couple techniques to limit, avoid, or minimize the damage.
First, Choices: Since we're talking psychology here, we can minimize the lack of freedom by using You Attitude. When delivering the news, I can avoid blaming you so that you don't feel defensive. I can also give you choices. Remember, the cause of reactance is a sense of limited freedom: thus I structure the message so that you choose the possible outcomes.
So that you do not choose a solution I won't like, I can give you options from which to choose.
Second, Bait, Switch and Channel: Next, I want you to go do something to address your problem. Even if there is no hope for a solution, I can help you feel more secure -- and free-er, less controlled -- by giving you some tasks to take care of.
When possible, I will try to have you pursue these choices physically so that you literally use up your adrenaline: I'll encourage you to walk over to another office to look for a solution or pursue your choices.
I will give you a reason to act immediately so that your attention is directed not at anger or despair but at the solution. If I tell you to address the problem tomorrow it will likely be too late: you will have already acted out or at least begun directing your attention toward reactance (such as revenge) rather than the solution.
In short, I want to give my audience the impression that he maintains a degree of control over his destiny and have him point his fight or flight instinct in a positive direction, rather than in a potentially damaging one.