4 Ways to Combat Reactance

Last week we discussed Reactance.

Reactance is people’s natural resistance to your suggestions. People prefer the known, they don’t want to change the status quo. If you suggest a change…

“What makes you so smart!?”

As people of influence, how do we combat people’s natural resistance to being told what to do?

This past weekend I attended a kid’s birthday party with my 5 year old daughter.

The party is at a gymnastics gym in the suburbs. Short and sweet and cake and we’re outta there. The staff takes care of everything, pretty good setup with minimal fuss for the parents.

"Friends :-)" by @BK, Flickr, CC-By-2.0
“Friends :-)” by @BK, Flickr, CC-By-2.0

If you haven’t been to any kid parties lately, at the end of the party, all of the kids get little grab bag of toys from birthday kid as a thank you for attending.

Today, the bag includes a small plastic slinky (that wouldn’t ever work on a staircase) and some other… stuff.

Separately, this gym gives everyone an helium balloon with a flier marketing the classes they offer. Pretty smart I’d say, sending the kids home with dreams of trampolines and trapeze!

Ok, party’s over, we hop into the car to head to dinner. On the way, my daughter immediately gets her balloon string tangled that plastic slinky.

Within moments… she’s howling with frustration, stuck in her car seat, asking for my help…

while I’m driving!

“Calm down love, I’ll fix it when we get to Grandma’s house,” gets me exactly nowhere.

The perfect opportunity for Reactance! I suggest one thing, to remain calm… and she goes the exact opposite way.

The howling continues. She is not calming down.

Reverse Psychology Never Works! (does it?)

One method to combat reactance that you may be familiar with is Reverse Psychology. This is when you intentionally push someone the opposite direction of what you’d like them to do:

  • Let’s not look at that car, it’s just a bit over your price range
  • I don’t think you’ll enjoy the party, you might not know people

It often relies on a negative in the idea being expressed. As we know from previous posts, this method puts the positive idea in someone’s brain. If this person wants to spite you…

they might just do the opposite of your suggestion!

Adults believe Reverse Psychology doesn’t work on them.

They think they can see right through it. And maybe they can.

Meanwhile, they’re still thinking about both sides of the equation, that positive thought that you put into their brain.

It has to be said, Reverse Psychology is manipulative. Manipulation isn’t the best way to gain long-term compliance, customers, or friends. There are better ways to fight Reactance.


When a single authority recommends something without being asked, the other person’s natural reactance is to say,

“What makes you so smart? I’m smart, too, and I choose this other option!”

When many authorities are in agreement, however, the argument becomes much more persuasive.

“9 out of 10 dentists recommend Sensodyne toothpaste!”

This helps overcome reactance especially well among women. Women are generally more social in  nature and look to build their consensus when coming to a decision. This is why the consensus-of-experts method is used in ads targeting the people (women) who have traditionally purchased household goods.

Logical Decisions

Men are less convinced by what numbers of experts have concluded. They generally prefer to come to their own conclusions. Pushing them towards a specific outcome can bring out their reactance.

The approach to consider is to provide information they can use to make their own decision. Proper framing will help to put one argument in a better light than the other. Expand the frame of understanding to help encompass their experiences to tie them to the decision you’re looking for. Make sure to highlight benefits and don’t push too hard.

Story Telling

Persuasion, at its best, is giving someone the reasons to understand a different view and to accept that for themselves.

Story telling allows people to identify with the characters. The put themselves in the story and sympathize with the difficulties. You’re not telling a person what he or she needs to do, but about what worked for yourself or for the character.

During a story, people tend to tune out everything else around them…

including pain!

When you tell stories, people’s brains get hooked.

Their neurons light up at up to five times as much as a non-story situation.

Brain chemical activity, including cortisol (stress) and oxytocin (social bonding), increases as if the event is happening in real time.

The more vivid you can tell the story, including emotional elements, the more persuasive it is.

When my daughter’s balloon was stuck in that slinky, I started telling a story from one of our favorite books, Zen Socks by Jon Muth.

The story is about a young man wanting to become a great swordfighter. In his haste, his master suggests it could take a lifetime. Patience and deliberate practice is the key, not an attempt to rush to the finish.

My daughter has heard this story dozens of times. I only had to start reciting my version and she was instantly listening. Her mind was pulled away from her tangled slinky. Her demeanor instantly changed to patience and peace in her body.

We finished the story, chatted about whatever else, and arrived at our destination 10 minutes later. Within a few more moments, I fixed the tangle, everyone was calm, and problems were solved.

Story telling is persuasive. I need to improve my storytelling. Maybe you do too?

I now have a secret source of stories I’ve started using with my kids that I’ll share with my email list readers. These stories give me a framework to build around, giving me some freedom from the demands of creatively coming up with a new structure on the fly.

If you’re not already on my email list, you will find the signup page here. You’ll receive tips and information about being more persuasive and influential to your own brain and the brains around you.

If you’re asking me, “What makes you so smart?” — I don’t have an answer. I’m not so smart. I’m just interested in reading and learning and sharing what I didn’t know before. If that interests you too, you can sign up here.