Reactance theory and Darwinism: An example of theoretical reduction.


Human Ethology Newsletter, Vol 8, issue 2, june 1993


One of the ideals usually embraced by scientists is theoretical reduction. This means explaining theories with a limited domain by more general theories. The ultimate goal would be that all theories are embedded in a logical network. When one looks at social scientific theories, this ideal seems very remote from the actual state of affairs. Most social scientific theories seem completely unrelated. As evolutionary theory is undoubtedly the most general (and the most successful) theory about life, it may play an important role in explaining and integrating social-scientific theories. I will now present an example of an explanation of a social psychological theory by evolutionary theory. The theory to be explained is called Reactance Theory, and it was first formulated by Jack Brehm in 1966. The theory deals with how people react to a loss of their freedom. Freedom is defined by Brehm as the number of behavior alternatives an individual possesses at a certain moment. A central hypothesis of the theory is:

-         If one or more of the behavior-alternatives which an individual possesses are eliminated, or threatened with elimination, the individual will experience ‘reactance’.

Reactance is defined by Brehm as a psychological state which results in an increased attractiveness of the behavior-alternatives which are eliminated, or threatened with elimination. This increased attractiveness of the behavior which is eliminated, or threatened with elimination, motivates the individual to defend or restore his freedom. If you have the possibility of drinking coffee or lemonade, and someone forbids you to drink the lemonade, the theory would predict that lemonade suddenly seems more attractive. You are then motivated to find a way to drink lemonade, and thus to restore your freedom of behavior. I will return to this idea, after mentioning another central hypothesis of the theory:

-         The less freedom an individual has, the more reactance he or she will experience when one of the behavior-alternatives is eliminated, or is threatened with elimination.

If you can drink only coffee or lemonade, and one of these alternatives is taken away, the reactance-emotion will be stronger than when you have the possibility of drinking coffee, tea, lemonade, beer, wine, milk, water, etc, etc. Brehm’s theory can explain a wide range of phenomena, for instance why children sometimes do the opposite as they are told, or why propaganda frequently is ineffective, or why someone may dislike receiving a favour. Experimental testing has been quite successful (See for a rather old overview: Wicklund 1974).

Brehm has made but one remark about why people seem to behave as his theory describes. He wrote that the reactance-emotion may have “survival-value” (Brehm 1966, p. 1-2). This explanation seems quite plausible. People and other organisms who are frequently in situations in which they can choose between different behavior alternatives are likely to have evolved a capacity for choosing what is most often best for their fitness. Moreover, creating, defending and restoring situations in which the individual is free to make a choice may in itself enhance fitness. Therefore, natural selection probably favored individuals who not only perceive when their freedom is threatened, but also act so as to defend that freedom. Brehm has described the psychological mechanism by which people (and probably many other species) are motivated to defend their freedom. That is, the attractiveness of behaviors varies with the freedom an individual perceives to possess.


However, in my opinion Brehm has described only part of this mechanism. If someone’s behavior-alternatives are drinking coffee or drinking lemonade, and the option of lemonade is eliminated, there are, logically speaking, two ways to motivate the individual to restore his freedom of choice. Brehm described the first: an increase of the attractiveness of the eliminated behavior – lemonade seems more attractive. The second way to motivate the individual is a decrease of the attractiveness of the behavior which is still available. If the possibility to drink lemonade is taken away, a sudden dislike of coffee increases the chance that the individual will try to find lemonade, and thus restore his freedom. It is interesting to note that in one of the first experiments conducted to test the reactance-theory (Hammock and Brehm 1966), this effect was unexpectedly found. As predicted by Brehm, the attractiveness of the behavior which was eliminated increased. But the behavior still available decreased in attractiveness, and this effect was even the strongest! Further testing seems desirable.


In this short article I have not given reactance theory the full attention it deserves. Instead, I have used this theory as an example of how a social scientific theory can be explained, and perhaps even corrected, by deducing it from evolutionary theory. In my view there are several social-scientific theories just waiting for a Darwinist explanation. Theoretical reduction is an interesting subject over which evolutionary theoreticists and social scientists can meet.



Brehm, J.W. (1966)  A Theory of Psychological Reactance. New York: Academic Press.

Brehm, J.W. (1972). Responses to Loss of Freedom. A Theory of Psychological Reactance. General Learning Corporation.

Brehm, J.W. & Rosen, E. (1972). ‘Attractiveness of old alternatives when a new attractive alternative is introduced.’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 20: 261-266

Brehm, J.W. & Mann, M. (1975). ‘Effect of importance of freedom and attraction to group members on influence produced by group pressure’. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 31: 816-824.

Brehm, S.S. & Brehm, J.W. (1981).  Psychological Reactance: A Theory of Freedom and Control. New York, Academic Press.

Brockner, J. & Elkind, M. (1985) ‘Self-esteem and Reactance: Further evidence of attitudinal and motivational consequences’. Journal of Experimental and Social Psychology, 21: 346-361.

Gannon, L., Heiser, P., & Knight, S. ‘Learned Helplessness versus reactance: The effect of sex-role stereotypy’. Sex Roles,  12: 791-806.

Hammock, T. & Brehm, J.W. (1966). ‘The attractiveness of choice alternatives when freedom to choose is eliminated by a social agent’. Journal of Personality 34: 546-554.

Minor, K.I. (1987). ‘Reactance and recidivism: Implications for probation policy and research.’ Perceptual and Motor Skills, 64: 1047-1050.

Wicklund, R.A. (1974). Freedom and Reactance. Maryland: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.