Resistance to Persuasion & Reactance Bias.

Resistance to persuasion describes the tendency for humans to automatically resist persuasive attempts without logical and rational consideration of the consequences.


The notion that choices are not always our own may well be an uncomfortable thought but it is indeed very accurate. Persuasion is a vital part of communication and it occurs many times without us even noticing (as any behavioural scientist will tell you). However, If we do ‘detect’ that our freedom of choice or autonomy are being challenged, it is human nature to resist. This resistance to persuasion makes absolute sense, a loss of our autonomy can leave us vulnerable and open to threat, we are programmed to stay in control of situations to aid our survival. Yet the trade off is that ‘resistance’ can also lead to bad choices. In the scenario whereby a persuasive message is there to help you, resisting this message or countering it (reactance) can lead to a poor choice.

Reactance is the type of Resistance to Persuasion that generates the most interest in healthcare. Reactance is not simply resistance to persuasion but a motivation to think or act in a contrary way.

Medical Communication Example

Often referred to as a ‘Boomerang Effect’, Reactance is a sub group of Resistance whereby humans are not just resist an attempt at persuasion but will then be motivated to think or act in a contrary manner.  This phenomenon is frequently observed in healthcare, where messages intending to have positive behaviour changes actually achieve the opposite effect.

In the 1990’s T-Bone steaks were outlawed because of the increased risk that they carried Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE) (mad Cow Disease). Eating these infected cuts of meat would leave a person vulnerable to contracting variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD) a fatal brain disease in humans. The rationale and steps taken by the government make absolute sense and were there to protect the general public, however many people rebelled and overtly consumed these cuts of meat. These people were so motivated by ‘resistance’ of a threat to their freedom of choice and autonomy, that they overlooked the risk to their health.

The Reactance Bias was has garnered great attention in public healthcare messages and findings regularly show that healthcare messages will often trigger Reactance and achieve the opposite affect that which was intended. One such study 1,535 college students received persuasion attempts to reduce their levels of alcohol consumption. One message delivered to half of the population was very dogmatic and ‘policed’ the consumption of alcohol. The second message was a neutral message simply recommending they reduce alcohol consumption. At follow up the drinking levels in those college students to have received the ‘high threat’ message, was significantly greater than those in the ‘low threat’ group. The explanation is that the ‘reactance bias’ had been triggered. Bensley, L. S., & Wu, R. (1991). The role of psychological reactance in drinking following alcohol prevention messages. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 21, 1111–1124.

The most obvious implication is that the boomerang effect should be taken into account before the launching of a mass communication campaign that is aiming for behavioural change. (Ringold D. J. (2002). Boomerang effects in response to public health interventions: some unintended consequences in the alcoholic beverage market. J. Consum. Policy 25, 27–63. )

Example of Utility


Neutralising Resistance to Persuasion can be achieved by recommending as opposed to ‘policing’. Statements like “the decision is yours” or “whatever decision you come to” will disarm resistance to persuasion even when persuasion is still intended. A “STOP SMOKING NOW” campaign may be more successful were it labelled “How to Stop Smoking” This provides a sense of freedom in the decision disarming reactance. Interestingly, people will often justify a resistance to quitting smoking with the optimism bias, insisting that they are unlikely to get lung cancer as it does not run in the family.


‘Reverse Psychology’ is a term we commonly associate with the naive. Often we use this technique on children who have not learned that this is a double bluff and the thing we are being told not to do, is the thing that the person really wants us to do. This loses its effect when a person is aware of the tactic and realises that the threat to their autonomy is actually the ‘reverse’ of what is being requested. “Don’t try reverse psychology” are words that parents of teens may be familiar with and it signals the loss of an important weapon in the war of parents vs children! (I joke, kind of.)

This approach to using the Resistance to Persuasion Heuristic, should not be ruled out. Provided that the ‘reverse psychology’ is undetected but the persuasive attempt is detected, a message can achieve the desired outcome. For example ‘An article entitled “Why the Government Does Not Want You To Quit Smoking.” may actually motivate the reader to quit smoking more than an article entitled “Why the Government Want You to Quit Smoking”. This would be used with caution as this could also play into the hands of the Confirmation Bias, strengthening the person’s smoking bond.