Psychological reactance and trust: Turning emotional responses on their head


There’s a common issue that anyone experiences when they try to insist that someone do something. The other person often resists and does just the opposite.

Jonrobert Tartaglione in The Neuropsychology of Influence and Decision-Making explains the reason for this contradiction — and suggests three strategies to overcome it.

At first glance, reactance may seem shortsighted and reactionary; a contrarian, almost childish response when an individual may end up cutting off their proverbial nose to spite their face. However, once one digs past the more superficial layers, it becomes clear that the rationale that underlies reactance is actually quite principled.

In a world full of social actors constantly attempting to persuade and convince others to do what is best for them, an individual who permits him — or herself to be easily coerced risks victimization. Thus, when one feels their freedom (of choice or behavior) is being threatened, a motivational state to restore that freedom is catalyzed. Reactance is a mechanism by which an individual reasserts their autonomy — their right to choose for themselves — thereby signalling to others that they will not be easily manipulated.

The cures to this problem include:

Arguing against self-interest

You can win points by presenting a case AGAINST your own interests. A good example of this process in dramatic form is the old movie Miracle on 34th Street, when Kris Kringle sends kids seeking toys not available at Macy’s to Gimbels, the direct competitor. The result (at least dramatically) — customers were so impressed they vowed to buy every toy they could at Macy’s.

Two-sided messages

Here, you present the other side first, and then add a “however” to give your perspective.

By simply presenting the other side, you gain credibility. But there’s a right and wrong way to deliver two-sided arguments. The right way is to structure your delivery so each point for the opposing side is countered by a point for your side. This “weakness-before-strength” tactic is made especially potent if your bridge the two arguments using a transitional word, such as “however” (Cialdini, 2016). This word signals that the point made for the opposing side is about to be undermined, and readies the audience to accept the counterpoint as fact.


In this context, you present a weakened form of argument likely to be presented by a competitor. The effect; when the competitor presents the argument him/herself, it is likely to be much less successful.

Innoculation messages stimulate a sense of thread in the potential client (i.e., here’s what they are going to do to try to persuade you), enhance counter-arguing (i.e. the client naturally produces more arguments against the point being raised) and ultimately catalyzes resistance.

These are powerful techniques, I believe. No matter how much you may think your argument/product/service and message are the “best”, unless you can disarm the reactance, your message will often be used against you. You will effectively persuade people not to do business with your competitors.

But I can’t convince you of that argument, can I?

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