Finding the Right Message: Reverse Psychology and Reactance
The longest running off Broadway Musical, The fantastic onesIt tells the story of two neighbors who want their young adult children to fall in love with each other. Using reverse psychology, the fathers build a wall between their houses and forbid their son and daughter to meet. Spoiler alert: the tactic works and the couple falls in love.
Making someone want something they can’t have is a form of reverse psychology. Reverse psychology is used regularly spark reactance. It is a psychological phenomenon where people perceive individual freedom as threatened and then take action to preserve or protect that freedom.
Communication scientists and public health officials consider reactance when designing public health campaigns. The right message can prompt a person to quit smoking, wear a helmet, or have an annual mammogram. But it’s not an exact science, and a poorly worded message can lead people to double down on the behavior officials are trying to change. Problematically, campaign creators don’t know if their efforts worked until long after they’ve received the message.
Behavior Change Messages
1966 the psychologist Jack Brehm proposed the theory the reactance. He noted that if you avoid threatening behavior change, a person will not feel the need to protect that behavior.
Health communication scientists have taken this concept and applied it to behaviors they want people to stop, such as: B. smoking. They’ve also used it for behaviors they want people to adopt, such as a yearly mammogram. The public health campaigns are designed to encourage change without making people feel threatened enough to persist in the behavior in question.
Social scientists have found that the way a message is worded can make all the difference. Some messages are designed to do this on purpose Communicate the positive aspects make a change to avoid reactance. For example, an anti-smoking campaign can highlight what the person gains from quitting the habit: positive changes include saving money or not shivering outside during a smoke break. Therefore, the campaign does not focus on the loss of quitting smoking, but on the gains that occur after quitting smoking.
Studies have found this too Communicate negative aspects can work in some situations, especially when it comes to health screenings. The fear tactic works because experts don’t ask a person to stop a behavior or make a permanent change. They urge a person to take a preventive measure to protect themselves from a future threat.
But message frame has limits. Studies have shown that it matters who is delivering the message and whether the freedom in question has the power to hurt others or just the individual. In some situations, a person can agree with the message, but only for a short time.
Studying reverse psychology during the pandemic
During the Covid-19 pandemic, some people believed that wearing a mask at school, work or business is a violation of their personal freedom. These people reacted when they felt threatened by mask requirements and tried to restore that freedom.
A 2020 study in health communication studied the “Mask Up or Pack Up” campaign at Penn State University to see if the campaign induced reactance. The campaign promoted the idea that wearing masks, social distancing and participating in contract pursuits could help keep infection rates down. The messages stressed that if people didn’t mask up and infection rates rose, the school would have to pack up and return to virtual learning.
The campaign was intended to portray the virus as a threat to student freedom and mask-wearing as something that could mitigate the threat. The campaign was communicated via posters on campus and online videos. The students also learned they would receive warnings or sanctions if they did not comply with the pandemic guidelines.
Researchers surveyed 681 college students who lived on or near campus during an eight-week period in fall 2020. In addition to collecting demographic data, the researchers asked questions about how often the students did not wear a mask or saw others without a mask.
To measure reactance, the survey asked students to agree or disagree with statements such as “The campaign is trying to control me” or “The campaign is trying to pressure me.”
60 percent of respondents described the campaign as an attempt to pressure or control them. They reported both feelings of anger and instances of reduced masking. The authors found that the campaign elicited reactance and did not elicit the behavior change the creators intended. The students didn’t mask themselves, so the school packed up. After Thanksgiving, classes resumed virtually and in-person classes for the spring semester of 2021 started from afar.