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State Reactance

State reactance is a situation-specific psychological state resulting from a motivation to reject the advocacy embedded in a persuasive communication. State reactance is a central concept in Psychological Reactance Theory (PRT), which specifically addresses a process that predicts individuals' resistance to persuasive messages.

PRT predicts when a perceived sense of autonomy is threatened, a person is motivated to reestablish that freedom (Brehm, 1966; Brehm & Brehm, 1981). According to reactance theory, individuals perceive a set of free behaviors (Wicklund, 1974), "such as whether or not they can smoke a cigarette or their ability to choose what they will eat for dinner. Challenges to these expectancies prompt an aversive motivational state, reactance" (Gardner, 2010, p. 14).

PRT helps explain resistance to choice-limiting messages in a variety of health contexts, such as smoking (Grandpre, Alvaro, Burgoon, et al., 2003), drinking alcohol (Dillard & Shen, 2005; Shen, 2010), illegal drug use (Shen, 2010), exercise promotion (Miller, Lane, Deatrick, Young, & Potts, 2007; Quick & Considine, 2008), sun protection (Buller, Burgoon, Hall, Levine, Taylor, et al., 2000), dental flossing (Dillard & Shen, 2005), condom use (Quick & Stephenson, 2007a), and exercise and diet for type 2 diabetics (Gardner, 2010).

Activation of psychological reactance may reduce the effectiveness of pro-health messages or worse, lead to boomerang effects. Indeed, PRT suggests an individual may behave counter to the recommended health behavior to restore perceived choice (Shen, 2010).

Specifically, when a perceived freedom is threatened with elimination, an individual is motivated to reestablish that freedom. Quick and Stephenson (2007b) argue individuals can restore a threatened freedom by one of three processes (reactance restoration): 1) boomerang effects (reestablish the threatened freedom), 2) related-boomerang effects (engage in behavior similar to the threatened freedom), or 3) vicarious boomerang effects (indirect restoration via observing others engaging in the threatened behavior).

An individual's perceived freedom also can be restored directly or indirectly by increasing one's affection for the threatened choice (Brehm, Stires, Sensenig, & Shaban, 1966; Hammock & Brehm, 1966), derogating the threat source (Kohn & Barnes, 1977; Schwarz, Frey, & Kumpf, 1980; Smith, 1977; Worchel, 1974), denying the existence of the threat (Worchel & Andreoli, 1974; Worchel, Andreoli, & Archer, 1976), or by exercising a different freedom to gain a feeling of control and choice (Wicklund, 1974).

There are several message features that seem to activate reactance. Among these features are: concrete language (Miller, et al., 2007), intensity (Buller, et al., 2000, Dillard & Shen, 2005), and explicitness (Burgoon, Alvaro, Broneck et al., 2002). The use of language that is perceived as controlling is perhaps the most commonly studied message feature, which appears to activate psychological reactance. Controlling language, -- ordering people to engage in specific healthy behaviors -- can be perceived as overly dogmatic and forceful (Quick & Considine, 2008; Quick & Kim, 2009; Quick & Stephenson, 2008). Even directive language, including terms such as "must" and "need," can be perceived as restricting attitudinal and behavioral choices (Gardner, 2010).

The effort by researchers to measure state reactance seemed impeded when Brehm (1966) suggested it was impossible to measure. Still, reactance is most often (and most usefully) conceptualized as a combination of cognitive and emotional responses to messages that are perceived to threaten an individual's freedom of choice. Dillard and Shen (2005) modeled the reactance process as a combination of cognitive and emotional responses, which they called an Intertwined Process Model (IPM). The IPM suggests self-reported negative cognitions (e.g., elicited negative thoughts about the message) and anger (four-item index of irritated, angry, annoyed, and aggravated) negatively predict how some persons respond to the attitudes and behaviors recommended in messages about flossing (do it) and binge drinking (don't do it).

According to PRT, reactance can be experienced only if an individual perceives a threat to a freedom or choice, which suggests a perceived threat to a freedom or a choice is a necessary condition for state reactance. In turn, the resulting measurement issue is whether perceived threat to choice should be included in a reactance scale or should be treated as an antecedent variable. Dillard and Shen (2005) included the perceived threat to choice as an antecedent variable in their IPM analysis, as did Quick and Kim (2009) and Quick and Stephenson (2008).

Gardner (2010) operationalized state reactance with four subscales, including perceived threat (the others were: counter-arguing, cognitive appraisal, and anger). Perceived threat was measured using Dillard and Shen (2005) four-item index (α = .83); counter-arguing was measured with a three-item index adapted from Silvia (2006, α = .94); cognitive appraisal was measured with a four-item index adapted from larger scales by Dillard, Kinney, and Cruz (1996) and Miller, et al. (2007, α = .87); and anger was measured with a four-item index (Dillard & Shen, 2005; Miller et al., 2007; Quick & Considine, 2008; α = .97). The decision about whether to include perceived threat to choice or freedom as a part of an overall state reactance index (or to treat perceived threat to choice or freedom as an antecedent variable) should be dictated by the theoretical and practical specifications of the researcher's particular interests or project requirements. In any case, perceived threat to choice or freedom should be measured.

Suggested Measure

State reactance can be measured with simple self-reported scales that can be used individually or in combination as a particular research requirement dictates. The indexes presented here are from Gardner (2010) but they were adapted from previous research (e.g., Dillard & Shen, 2005). These items work best when they are measured in response to specific messages.

Perceived threat to choice (Gardner, 2010, α =.83; Quick, 2011, α = .85)

  1. The message threatened my freedom to choose
  2. The message tried to make a decision for me
  3. The message tried to manipulate me
  4. The message tried to persuade me

Participants rated their agreement on seven-point Likert scales ranging from 1 = Strongly disagree to 7 = Strongly agree.

Counter-arguing (α = .94)

  1. Did you criticize the message you just saw while you were reading it?
  2. Did you think of points that went against what was being said while you were reading the message?
  3. While reading the message, were you skeptical of what was being said?

Participants rated their agreement on seven-point scales ranging from 1 = No, not at all to 7 = Yes, very much so.

Cognitive appraisal (α = .87)

  1. The message was pleasant (valence)
  2. The message got in the way of what I wanted (obstacle, reverse coded)
  3. The message was reasonable (legitimacy)
  4. The message was fair (legitimacy)

Participants rated their agreement on seven-point Likert scales ranging from 1 = Strongly disagree to 7 = Strongly agree.

Anger (α = .97)

To what extent did this message make you feel ...

  1. irritated
  2. angry
  3. annoyed

Participants rated their response on seven-point scales ranging from 1 = Not at all to 7 = Very strongly.


These four indexes form reliable sub-scales for the individual components of reactance, (perceived threat, counter-arguing, cognitive appraisal, and state anger) and also combine to form a highly reliable 14-item scale for state reactance (α = .95).

Although principal axis factoring detected two underlying factors (eigenvalues = 9.243, 1.360; % variance explained = 75.730) for the scale, this was due primarily to cross-loadings of the threat items across both factors (Gardner, 2010).

Additional Commentary

Quick (2011) tested two reactance measures in a controlled experiment. The two measures tested were derived from Dillard & Shen (2005) and Lindsey (2005). The Dillard and Shen measure was based on the conceptual distinction of reactance as a perceived freedom threat as well as the anger and negative cognitions that may accompany that perception. The freedom threat measure was the same as the four-item perceived threat to choice measure above, although Quick argues perceived freedom threat is antecedent to reactance. Reactance was measured with the four-item anger index above (α = .90) in addition to negative cognitions that participants generated in a thought-listing task immediately following message exposure. (These were coded using Dillard and Shen's four-step procedure, Quick, 2011).

The Lindsey (2005) measure was in relation to organ donation (α = .93):

  1. I am uncomfortable being told how to feel about ...
  2. I do not like that I am being told how to feel about ...
  3. It irritates me that the PSA told me how to feel about ...
  4. I dislike that I am being told how to feel about ...

Quick's test involved measuring the responses of 300 college students to either a non-freedom-threatening or a freedom-threatening print message about organ donation. Specifically, Quick examined the measures' reliability and validity. Reliability was assessed with a typical internal consistency measure (alpha). Convergent validity was assessed by examining its relationship to freedom threat and several outcome measures known to be associated with state reactance: attitudes (Morgan & Miller, 2002), motivation (with Quick & Stephenson's Reactance Restoration Scale, 2008), and source appraisal (Miller, et al, 2007; Quick, 2011). Quick compared the two state reactance measures in separate structural equation models. Overall, the structure fit was better for the Dillard and Shen measure than for the Lindsey measure.

Recently, there have been efforts designed to attenuate or eliminate psychological reactance in response to health persuasion by examining the effects of several message features. Such features include: autonomy-supporting language (Miller et al., 2007), temporal placement of controlling language (Miller et al, 2007), perceived interpersonal similarity (Silvia, 2005) and narrative engagement and other-referencing (Gardner, 2010). The latter elements seem particularly encouraging. Gardner found messages about exercise and diet in print that contained both narrative and other-referencing (motivation to engage in recommended behavior based on value of close others rather than of self) reduced reactance responses of type 2 diabetics compared to messages containing a non-narrative and self-referencing narrative.


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