As I make my living as a writer and editor, it is in my professional best interest to expand my vocabulary. Instead of saying someone was very sad, I might say that she was devastated. Instead of referring to the water as blue, I might talk about its azure hue. Through my journeys, I come across innumerable made up words like bigly and supposably. I thought that was also the case with reactance. And I thought wrong.
My initial reaction was similar to when I discovered the word “quean”. It’s probably just a mistaken take on the word “reaction” or “reactive” or “reactivity,” right? In truth, it is both different and more specific than that.
If you’re an electrician or engineer, you may already be familiar with electrical reactance and magnetic reactance. The former refers to an opposition in change in voltage or current, whereas the latter is related to magnetism. For the purposes of today’s discussion, we’ll put both of those technical terms aside.
The best way to understand this phenomenon is with a couple of simple examples.
Let’s say you watch a movie and you really enjoy it. You think it’s pretty good. Then, you go online and notice that it has horrendous ratings on Rotten Tomatoes. All of your Facebook friends tell you how horrible this movie is, pointing out all the things that are wrong with it.
Reactance occurs if this feedback simply strengthens your resolve. You begin to defend your position even more passionately, arguing that this is actually the best movie of the year. You’re motivated to voice your opinion, which is increasingly running even more contrary to that of the majority.
That’s reactance. It’s because you feel attacked or threatened, like a cornered animal. You fight back, even if you didn’t intend to fight in the first place. You fight to legitimize your position, maybe if only to justify it to yourself.
Parents and teachers will also recognize a very common form of reactance. No method is more effective in getting a child to do something than to tell him not to do it. If something is forbidden or some behavior is off-limits, it becomes all that much more attractive. Even if the kid had no interest in the thing in the first place, he’ll does now that he’s not allowed to have it. You’re infringing on his freedom.
If this all sounds terribly familiar, it probably should. Reverse psychology is perhaps one of the most common forms of reactance.