It’s not common that a person likes being told what to do. Most people will bristle at having orders barked at them, or even being told a decision they’re about to make isn’t the best one. The term for this is psychological reactance, which is our neurological response to having our freedom and autonomy threatened in some way. We can even overcompensate when someone tells us what to do or even just makes a suggestion. There have been studies which find we’re more likely to do something we weren’t originally even thinking about doing, because someone told us not to do it.

Anti-litter campaigns have had difficulty with this. Presenting their message as “Don’t Litter” has been met with resistance, and in some cases, has caused littering to increase. A different approach, such as signage simply showing the monetary fines for littering, or messages such as “Help keep Our Town Beautiful” have been much more successful. They’re not telling someone not to do something. Instead, they’re reaching toward our desire to be a part of a community effort toward something good.

Earlier I spoke about someone telling me I needed a parachute before jumping out of an airplane, and me being so psychologically resistant that I would really have to tell myself to do so even though I know it’s probably a good idea. People who might overreact to feeling like their autonomy is being threatened tend to do the opposite out of spite.

In a Psychology Today article entitled “Why We Hate People Telling Us What to Do,” Dr. Elizabeth Dorrance Hall wrote succinctly on this concept:

People who strongly feel reactance in response to threats to freedom feel an urge to do something. That something can be restoring one’s freedom by rebelling against the advised or prescribed action. If told to wear your seat belt, you might leave it unbuckled on purpose. This type of reaction is called “direct restoration.” Other options include deciding to like the prescribed action; in other words, changing your mind about how you feel about seatbelts or thinking, “I wanted to start wearing my seatbelt anyway!” Or, lastly, denying that a threat to freedom ever existed in the first place.

We desire autonomy, and the idea that someone else might be governing us makes us react to potentially helpful information in a negative way. Teenagers will often do the opposite of what their parents say, purely because they are seeking their own autonomy and freedom. Astute parents do more than just say “No.” When it’s an important enough concept to get across, they make the effort provide helpful information to help the child understand the reason or reasons behind that “No.” This is definitely not easy, and it is not always immediately successful. The child’s brain has not yet formed the ability to understand long-term consequence. At times, all those parents can do is plant a seed for that concept and hope it will take root later. A child, especially a teenager who feels they are approaching adulthood and know what they need to know, will engage in direct restoration. They will do this sometimes even knowing that the advice they are receiving is good advice, but is still a threat to their autonomy.

There is an entire scene in the musical The Fantasticks which plays on this problem. The fathers of the protagonist characters are feuding, so they put up a wall between their houses and forbid the kids from seeing each other. Of course, this makes the kids want the relationship even more. It turns out that the feud had been a ruse all along. The fathers actually want the kids to fall in love, so they purposefully told them it wasn’t permitted. Soon this plot is revealed when the fathers meet in secret, patting each other on the back for their cleverness. They then sing the song “Never Say No.”

The next time someone asks you a question about your plans, or makes a suggestion regarding something they believe would be good for you, take a moment to step outside of yourself and examine your natural emotional reaction. Do you immediately accept the information, or do you feel resistance to it?

Understanding this can help you to control how you feel about someone else offering you advice. I frequently suggest asking questions about information you are receiving. In the case of someone making a suggestion, or even giving you an order, the question that you can ask yourself which might help the way you feel is, “How is this infringing upon my freedom?” You have autonomy over yourself. If you choose to be selectively apathetic about the information and/or its source, you can then step away from its immediate impact on your emotional state. You can avoid psychological reactance by understanding that no one can actually tell you what to do. You have ultimate power over your life. If someone makes a suggestion to us, they are not trying to wrestle control of our life from us. It could even be possible that their information is useful.

Putting yourself in the shoes of the person making the suggestion can also be helpful. Asking questions about their motivation for making the suggestion, such as: “Why are they telling me this? How do they benefit? Are their motives altruistic or selfish? Are they interested in helping me, or are they trying to control me for their own gain?” These are questions we are much less likely to be able to get to, if we are in a state of psychological reactance. We can easily choose to be apathetic about them and their motives, because in the end, they don’t actually have power over us.


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