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Trait Reactance

Trait reactance, sometimes called reactance proneness, is an individual difference variable that conceptually taps an individual proneness to psychological reactance. Psychological Reactance Theory (PRT, Brehm, 1966; Brehm & Brehm, 1981) predicts that when a perceived sense of autonomy is threatened, the individual will be motivated to reestablish that freedom. Whereas state reactance functions as an outcome variable, generally itself a precursor to message outcomes in its mediating role, trait reactance is conceptualized as an antecedent variable that guides message processing and reactions (Dillard & Shen, 2005).

PRT (Brehm, 1966; Brehm & Brehm, 1981) predicts that when a perceived sense of autonomy is threatened, the individual will be motivated to reestablish that freedom. 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" (Gardner, 2010, p. 14).

An individual's perceived freedom can be restored directly by engaging in the forbidden act (reactance restoration) or indirectly through several processes. Freedom can be restored by increasing liking 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). PRT has been employed to help 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, 2007), and exercise and diet for type 2 diabetics (Gardner, 2010).

Researchers exploring trait reactance have linked reactance proneness to high-risk behaviors such as adolescent tobacco use (Miller, Burgoon, Grandpre, & Alvaro, 2006), underage alcohol consumption (Allen, Sprenkel, & Vitale, 1994), and resistance to physicians' advice (Graybar, Antonuccio, Boutilier, & Varble, 1989). Although Brehm's (1966) original explication of reactance theory conceived of reactance as more dependent on features of the threat than on features of the individual perceiving the threat, health scholars, in particular, also employ trait reactance as a predictor of adherence to clinical recommendations. There is also evidence that trait reactance influences the relationship between controlling language in a message and outcomes such as and message acceptance. For example, Miller and colleagues (2007) reported that trait reactance, but neither gender nor age, was a significant covariate in the omnibus test of controlling language and lexical concreteness on multivariate measures of message persuasiveness.

Most research that measures trait reactance adopts the index from Hong and colleagues (Hong, 1992; Hong & Fraedda, 1996; Hong & Ostini, 1989; Hong & Page, 1989). Trait reactance is commonly operationalized as a four-factor model comprising emotional response toward restricted choice, reactance to compliance, resistance to influence from others, and reactance to advice and recommendations (Hong & Fraedda, 1996, p. 177). Trait reactance likely varies along dimensions of age, gender and ethnicity (Hong, Giannakopoulos, Laing & Williams, 1994; Woller, Buboltz & Loveland, 2007), suggesting that these variables could potentially impact the reactance process as well. Although findings regarding individual differences and trait reactance are not always consistent, there are indications that young adults and seniors, males, and some racial/ethnic minorities are prone to higher dispositional reactance.

Suggested measure:

The bulk of the conceptual and operational work has been conducted by Hong and colleagues (e.g., Hong, 1996; Hong & Fraedda, 1996, Hong & Page, 1989), Merz (1983), and Shen & Dillard, 2005. Hong and Fraedda (1996) obtained data from 3,085 residents from metropolitan Sydney, Australia, a sample that included both university and non-university individuals. Trait reactance was measured with a reduced, 11-item self-report index(a = .77).

Factor: Reactance to Compliance

  1. Regulations trigger a sense of resistance in me.

  2. I find contradicting others stimulating.

  3. When something is prohibited, I usually think, "That's exactly what I am going to do."

Factor: Emotional Response toward Restricted Choice

  1. I become frustrated when I am unable to make free and independent decisions.

  2. It irritates me when someone points out things which are obvious to me.

  3. I become angry when my freedom of choice is restricted.

Factor: Resisting Influence from Others

  1. I resist the attempts of others to influence me.

  2. It makes me angry when another person is held up as a role model for me to follow.

  3. When someone forces me to do something, I feel like doing the opposite.

Factor: Reactance Toward Advice and Recommendations

  1. I consider advice from others to be an intrusion.

  2. Advice and recommendations usually induce me to do just the opposite.

Respondents rated their agreement on five-point Likert scales ranging from 1=Strongly disagree to 5=Strongly agree.

Convergent and discriminant validity:

In their Australia survey, Hong and Fraedda (1996) measured six individual difference constructs, using the Self-Esteem Scale (Richardson & Benbow, 1990), the Satisfaction with Life Scale (Diener, Emmons, Larsen, & Griffin, 1985), the Religiosity Scale (Mol, 1970), the Trait-Anger Scale (Hong & Withers, 1982), the Locus of Control Scale (Lumpkin, 1985), and the Depression Scale (Kletingangas-Jarvinen & Rimon, 1987).? Convergent validity of the Trait Reactance Scale was shows with positive correlations with trait-anger and depression as well as negative correlations with life satisfaction and religiosity. Discriminant validity was shown with no significant correlation between both the locus of control and self-esteem scales with trait reactance.


Most studies that measure trait reactance with a version of the Hong trait reactance scale (14-item or 11-item) obtain solid reliability estimates (a=.77-.83; e.g., Dillard & Shen, 2005; Erceg-Hurn & Steed, 2011; Gardner, 2010; Miller & Quick, 2010; Quick & Bates, 2010; Quick & Stephenson, 2008).

Additional commentary:

The Hong reactance scale is perhaps the most commonly used scale to measure trait reactance in a normal population. Other reactance scales have been developed as well, although these are designed for clinical purposes (e.g., 28-item therapeutic reactance scale, TRS, by Dowd, Milne, and Wise, 1991). However, Shen and Dillard (2005) note that the TRS scale has not been shown to have unidimensional properties. Nor has it been designed for use in the general population.

Shen & Dillard (2005) also validated both the 14- and 11-item Hong scales and showed that although each scale is comprised of four first-order factors the Hong trait reactance scale also can be treated at the second-order as unidimensional with sufficient reliability.


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