The reason why you hate being micromanaged by your boss is the same reason why, as a kid, you refused to put your coat on when your mom told you to bundle up. We’re all wired with a knee-jerk “don’t tell me what to do!” response called psychological reactance—and it can kick in even when it’s you telling yourself what to do or trying to motivate yourself.
Saturday Night Live recently captured this tendency with a skit about the “Pelotaunt,” getting riders to workout not through encouragement, but through passive aggression. A woman in the spoof says, “If I hear the phrase, ‘You can do it!’ I literally won’t.” But when her coach taunts her instead, she pedals faster to prove them wrong.
That’s psychological reactance in action: Our desire to protect our sense of autonomy is so strong that we’ll even do the exact opposite of what we’re told just to prove a point. The SNL ad is obviously fake, but real advertising can teach us how to disarm our tendency to rebel indiscriminately. After all, advertising is intended to move people to action. Sometimes, ads can motivate us to action by gliding under the reactance radar—and we can do the same to ourselves by understanding how to work with, not against, our hatred of being bossed around.
1. Offer the Right Rewards
When my daughter was younger and we’d ask her where she wanted to go to eat, her instant response was almost always, “McDonald’s!” She insisted it was because the food was “so yummy,” but we knew that what she really wanted most of all was the toy that came with the meal—though over time, we went to McDonald’s enough that it really did start to seem like the yummiest food in town.
That’s “temptation bundling,” or using the rewards from one behavior to incentivize another–get a customer to come for the toy, then get them to fall in love with the burger. And we can use the same strategy to build healthy habits, too.
In a well-known study, Katherine Milkman at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School demonstrated the effectiveness of providing a reward to disarm reactance. To incentivize people to exercise in the gym, Milkman gave some volunteers an iPod loaded with audiobooks they could only listen to while they worked out. She picked page-turning books like The Hunger Games and Twilight that she knew would keep people wanting to hear more. The only way they could keep listening to the story was to keep exercising. And indeed, the people who had the iPod were 51% more likely to go to the gym than those who did not.
As I describe in my book, Indistractable, I went through something similar: Listening to audiobooks while exercising helped me get in shape for the first time in my life. I started to actually enjoy exercise, because I kept coming back to it. I initially came for the reward of listening to interesting audiobooks, but over time, I started to enjoy the routine. This motivation trick finally disarmed my psychological reactance and my lifelong resistance to exercise by using rewards effectively.
2. Leave Room for Refusal
One of the best ways to get people to say yes is to remind them that they’re free to say no. By affirming that you can refuse my request, I’m giving you control, so you don’t have to wrest it back.
In one notable experiment, people were presented with one of two requests: to fill out a survey or to lend their cell phone to a stranger for a phone call. In both cases, people were significantly more likely to comply with the request when it came with the caveat that they were “free to say no.” (Listen for this trick next time you’re talking to a salesperson—it’s standard practice.)
You can adapt this tactic by giving yourself options. For example, if your goal is to exercise at a certain time, give yourself the choice to “refuse.” Maybe you can choose between a bike ride, swimming, or lifting weights. When you put that event on your calendar, you can write something like, “Bike ride (but can swim or lift weights instead).”
This hack disarms reactance because rather than constraining yourself to a single rigid requirement, you’re simply focusing on your options. Many parents have figured out that they can use the same principle to temper their kids’ reactance: Rather than telling a toddler exactly what to wear (only to be met with hostility), show her two or three options. More often than not, she’ll be perfectly happy to choose between them.
Our decisions get more complicated when we grow up, but our desire to exercise our agency doesn’t go away. Build flexibility and choice into your overall plan, and you may find yourself feeling more agreeable.
3. Change the Narrative
The most sophisticated marketers position their products and capabilities as “magic” for slaying a “monster”. They’re not telling you what to buy; they’re teaming up with you against a common enemy.
The narrative is the key. By default, when someone tells you to do something, you’ll feel a little adversarial. But when that request or instruction is framed in a way that positions you as the hero of the story, you feel much less resistance.
For example, if you manage your schedule with a practice like timeboxing, reactance can make you feel like your calendar is the adversary. Of course, it’s not. The real enemy is distraction. Distraction is anything that’s not what you intended to do, and it moves you away from your goals.
The more you internalize this, the more you’ll be able to disarm that self-harming reactance against your own plans. Instead of flaking on commitments because of a knee-jerk feeling, you can change your narrative. Your freedom isn’t being threatened; it’s being actualized. You’re choosing which life you lead, instead of letting life happen to you. You’re hacking back against distraction, and you’re winning.
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