Perceived Freedom Threats and Our Reactions

Perceived threats to our behavioural freedom or autonomy–even inconsequential and trivial threats–provoke instinctive and often unusual reactions.

This reactance, as it is known, must be considered in a business context (and is often completely ignored), argues Andrew O’Connell in Harvard Business Review, noting the many unexpected ways we react to perceived freedom and autonomy threats.

What’s amazing is the range of things that people interpret as potential threats. There’s the basic implied infringement on autonomy–[summed] up as “We don’t like being told what to do.” But there are a lot of other things we don’t like: Limits on our choices, messages telling us we’re doing something wrong, insistent wording, lectures from on high, suggestions from a boss, helpful advice from a spouse, attempts to persuade us, or incursions in our personal space. A privacy threat (see: Facebook) is implicitly a freedom threat because it potentially limits a person’s autonomy in deciding who gets to see what.

Perceived threats to our freedom stimulate autonomy-reasserting reactions. For instance, forceful language often backfires because it is interpreted as an attempt to stifle the receiver’s freedom to maintain his or her own opinion. One study found that a message containing the phrase “There is a problem and you have to be part of the solution” triggered reactance, not acceptance, of the idea in the message. Another found that strong language in an anti-smoking message (adolescents were the target) stimulated increased curiosity toward cigarettes.

Some of the reactions are surprising: In one experiment, subjects responded to the sense of confinement in a narrow aisle in a store by choosing a greater variety of products.

via Simon Bostock, pointing to another interesting article that I’ve mentioned previously: How thinking about whether we will do a task (“Will I…?”) rather than telling ourselves to do a task (“I will….’) increases the likelihood of us actually undertaking it and how successfully we will perform it.