Last Friday, the lockdown in Singapore was lifted. It was a glorious, sunny day. As I looked out of my window and saw a few people swimming in the pool (it was closed through the lockdown), my first thought was, “I’ll go for a swim this evening. It will be amazing.”
My second thought was, “Wait, that doesn’t make sense!”
- I hate swimming.
- I’m not a good swimmer.
- In the two years I’ve lived in this condo, I’ve never used the pool. Not once.
So what the hell happened there?
What happened was, I got some freedom back, and I loved it. Even if I’ve never actually used that freedom, and therefore, its value to me is precisely zero.
This was a benign example. But this yearning for freedom, even when we don’t actually need it, is an intense force driving our behavior.
The term for this is Psychological reactance. Here’s Wikipedia on the subject:
Reactance is an unpleasant motivational arousal (reaction) to offers, persons, rules, or regulations that threaten or eliminate specific behavioral freedoms. Reactance occurs when a person feels that someone or something is taking away their choices or limiting the range of alternatives.
As Dr. Robert Cialdini says in Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, this is a powerful impulse.
As opportunities become less available, we lose freedoms. And we hate to lose freedoms we already have.
This desire to preserve our established prerogatives is the centerpiece of psychological reactance theory.
According to the theory, whenever free choice is limited or threatened, the need to retain our freedoms makes us desire them (as well as the goods and services associated with them) significantly more than previously. So when increasing scarcity—or anything else—interferes with our prior access to some item, we will react against the interference by wanting and trying to possess the item more than before.
That’s why we have these videos of people rejecting masks in different parts of the US.
In this one, a protester thunders, “I will not be muzzled like a mad dog!”.
And the video in this twitter post has a few strange quotes:
- “They want to throw God’s wonderful breathing system out the door.” Umm, no.
- “You, doctor, are going to be arrested for crimes against humanity!” (for saying that people should wear masks).
- “The mask is literally killing people”.
That’s why young parents experience the “terrible twos”.
Around the age of two, children come to a full recognition of themselves as individuals. This newfound sense of autonomy also brings along the concept of freedom. And the child wants to explore and test (again and again) the boundaries of this freedom.
Much to the chagrin and frustration of the parents.
There’s this hilarious example in Cialdini’s book, about banned detergents in Florida.
Dade County (containing Miami), Florida, imposed an antiphosphate ordinance prohibiting the use—and possession!—of laundry or cleaning products containing phosphates.
A study done to determine the social impact of the law discovered two parallel reactions on the part of Miami residents.
First, in what seems a Florida tradition, many Miamians turned to smuggling. Sometimes with neighbors and friends in large “soap caravans,” they drove to nearby counties to load up on phosphate detergents. Hoarding quickly developed; and in the rush of obsession that frequently characterizes hoarders, families were reported to boast of twenty-year supplies of phosphate cleaners.
The second reaction to the law was more subtle and more general than the deliberate defiance of the smugglers and hoarders. Spurred by the tendency to want what they could no longer have, the majority of Miami consumers came to see phosphate cleaners as better products than before.
That’s also why book censoring doesn’t work.
Or rather, it works too well. It’s every new writer’s dream for their first book to be banned.
Readers not only want the book even more than before, the book also gets a halo effect of “truths they don’t want us to hear”.
Have you noticed other examples of psychological reactance? Of how we overvalue unimportant freedoms we’re about to lose? Hit reply or comment, and let me know!