Does reactance theory explain the rise of Donald Trump?

The theory is based on the idea that humans tend to respond negatively to restrictions on their autonomy or freedom of choice.

Jon Miltimore | June 22, 2016

The theory is based on the idea that humans tend to respond negatively to restrictions on their autonomy or freedom of choice.

Psychological reactance, a theory pioneered by the late Jack Brehm,  is based on the idea that humans tend to respond negatively to restrictions on their autonomy or freedom of choice.​


Brehm summed up the theory as follows:


[P]eople become motivationally aroused by a threat to or elimination of a behavioral freedom. This motivational state is what is called psychological reactance. It impels the individual to restore the particular freedom that was threatened or taken away. It does not impel the individual to acquire just any freedom--only the one threatened or taken away will do.


Reactance is basically the idea that if you tell someone they “must” or “need” to do something, they are more inclined to do the opposite. 


Take this example from Sharon Lindle, a writer at Study.com:


When I was in grade school, the girls were given a red ball to play with and the boys were given a yellow one. The teachers were very clear that these balls were to stay with the intended group and would come out every so often to check up on us. Even though the balls were exactly the same, we felt a strong urge to trade them out. In fact, we spent so much time and energy switching balls and monitoring the door watching for a teacher (so we could switch back in time), that I suspect we had little actual play time. Why did we do this?


 


The answer lies in what is referred to as reactance theory. This theory states that when people are restricted in some way they feel a strong need to resist and fight back to gain their freedom. Just as we traded the playground balls, people who are told not to do something often feel an urge to do the very thing they're denied.


It occurred to me that reactance theory might help explain the highly surprising rise of Donald Trump.


Dr. Simon Moss, a psychology lecturer at Charles Darwin University, points out that reactance is observed as a response to dogmatic language. These include:


  • Imperatives, such as "must" or "need"
  • Absolute allegations, such as "cannot deny that..." or "This issue is extremely serious"
  • Derision towards other perspectives, such as "Any reasonable person would agree that..."
  • Threatening warnings rather than merely impartial, objective information​


See where I am going here?


Telling people they are forbidden from saying things they feel they have the right to say often provokes a strong response. And writers have pointed out that “the more important the person's freedom is perceived to be, the larger the reaction to the removal of it.”


We live, of course, during a time when people are increasingly told what they can and cannot say (see: here, here, and here).


Does this—society telling people they cannot express an opinion they feel they have a right to share—help explain the rise of Trump, a man who has gained a reputation for saying things (many of which make me wince) that he is not supposed to say?


Many pundits and political leaders in Trump’s own party have implied that polite Americans can’t (there’s that word again) vote for Trump precisely for this reason.


Could this suggestion perhaps only be reinforcing the (possible) reactance? It’s just a theory. I’ll be curious what readers have to say.


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Jon Miltimore is the senior editor of Intellectual Takeout. Follow him on Facebook.


[Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore-Flickr | CC BY 2.0



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