Reactance Theory

In 1966, American psychologist Jack W. Brehm introduced the world to Psychological Reactance Theory in his seminal book A Theory of Psychological Reactance. This theory, which has since become a cornerstone in psychology, has significantly influenced the fields of psychology and marketing. Brehm described psychological reactance as an unpleasant motivational arousal that occurs when people perceive a threat to their free behaviors (Brehm, 1966).

Psychological reactance is essentially a reaction to perceived limitations on an individual's freedom of choice (Brehm & Brehm, 1981). When people feel that their freedom is being curtailed, they experience reactance, a motivational state that compels them to regain their lost freedom (Clee & Wicklund, 1980). This theory revolves around four key elements: perceived freedom, threat to freedom, reactance, and restoration of freedom (Miller et al., 2007).

Real-world examples of reactance are abundant. For instance, the urge to touch an exhibit when faced with a "Do Not Touch" sign or a child’s inclination to do the opposite of what they are told are classic examples of reactance in action (Drew, 2023). Several postulates underpin Brehm's theory, the first being that freedom is a fundamental human motivation (Brehm, 1966). The theory further posits that any threat to this freedom leads to psychological reactance, and the intensity of this reactance varies depending on the importance of the threatened freedom and the individual’s characteristics. If regaining this freedom seems easy, reactance is low, and effort correlates with perceived difficulty. High motivation occurs with moderate difficulty in restoring freedom, but if it appears impossible, reactance motivation drops, similar to the loss of positive emotions when a goal becomes unattainable (Miron et al., 2006).

In advertising, understanding and applying Psychological Reactance Theory can lead to more effective and ethical campaigns. By considering the principles of reactance theory, advertisers can create messages that resonate with consumers while respecting their need for autonomy, thus avoiding negative reactions that may arise from overly personalized or forceful messaging (White et al., 2007). For instance, while consumers are interested in personalized ads, they can react negatively to overly personalized ads, necessitating a balance in how personalization is approached (De Keyzer et al., 2021).

Reactance theory offers two primary approaches for advertisers: Reducing and increasing reactance. On the one hand, reducing reactance involves providing highly relevant and personalized ads that respect consumer autonomy. On the other hand, increasing reactance can be strategically used, for example, by suggesting that a product might become unavailable or restricted in the future, thus creating a sense of urgency and desire for the product.

Research on reactance in advertising shows that the distinctiveness of a message and the presence of justification significantly impact consumer responses. When justification is absent, consumers are less likely to respond positively to messages that are high in distinctiveness (White et al., 2007). This finding underscores the importance of context and framing in advertising messages to manage reactance effectively.

The effectiveness of reactance-based advertising strategies can also vary across different cultural contexts. For instance, in collectivist cultures, where group harmony and conformity are valued, overtly personalized advertising might trigger more reactance compared to individualistic cultures, where personal autonomy and individual choice are more pronounced. Similarly, individual differences in personality traits, such as the need for uniqueness, can influence how people respond to advertising messages that either conform to or challenge social norms (Reynolds-Tylus, 2019). An ethical consideration in using reactance theory in advertising involves balancing persuasive intent with respect for consumer autonomy. While triggering a mild level of reactance can be a powerful motivator, excessive manipulation of consumer choice can lead to ethical concerns and potential backlash (De Keyzer et al., 2021). Therefore, it is crucial for advertisers to be mindful of the psychological impact of their campaigns and strive to maintain a balance between influence and intrusion.

The digital age presents new challenges and opportunities for applying reactance theory in advertising. With the rise of social media and online platforms, advertisers now have unprecedented access to consumer data, allowing for more targeted and personalized advertising strategies. However, this also increases the potential for reactance, especially as concerns over privacy and data misuse grow (De Keyzer et al., 2021). Advertisers must navigate these waters carefully, using reactance theory not only to enhance the effectiveness of their campaigns but also to build trust and maintain a positive relationship with their audience.

In conclusion, Psychological Reactance Theory offers valuable insights for advertisers aiming to connect with their audience in a meaningful and effective way. By understanding the nuances of human motivation and the desire for freedom, advertisers can craft messages that resonate with consumers, trigger the desired response, and avoid unintentional resistance. As the field of advertising continues to evolve, the principles of reactance theory remain a vital tool in the advertiser’s arsenal, helping to navigate the complex interplay of persuasion, autonomy, and consumer behavior.


Brehm, J. W. (1966). A theory of psychological reactance. New York, NY: Academic Press.

Brehm, S. S., & Brehm, J. W. (1981). Psychological reactance: A theory of freedom and control. New York, NY: Academic Press.

Clee, M. A., & Wicklund, R. A. (1980). Consumer behavior and psychological reactance. Journal of Consumer Research, 6(4), 389-405.

De Keyzer, F., Dens, N., & De Pelsmacker, P. (2021). How and when personalized advertising leads to brand attitude, click, and wom intention. Journal of Advertising, 51(1), 39‑56.

Drew, C. (2023). Psychological reactance: 10 examples and definition. Retrieved from

Miller, C. H., Lane, L. T., Deatrick, L. M., Young, A. M., & Potts, K. A. (2007). Psychological reactance and promotional health messages: The effects of controlling language, lexical concreteness, and the restoration of freedom. Human Communication Research, 33(2), 219‑240.

Miron, A. M., & Brehm, J. W. (2006). Reactance theory - 40 years later. Zeitschrift Für Sozialpsychologie, 37(1), 9–18.

Reynolds-Tylus, T. (2019). Psychological reactance and persuasive health communication: A review of the literature. Frontiers in Communication, 4, 56.

White, T. B., Zahay, D. L., Thorbjørnsen, H., & Shavitt, S. (2008). Getting too personal: Reactance to highly personalized email solicitations. Marketing Letters, 19, 39-50.