What It’s Like Inside the Head of a Reactant Person
9:58 AM Tuesday June 1, 2010
by Andrew O’Connell | Comments (7View)
“When I was younger, I used to go to cocktail parties and listen to what people were talking about and deliberately insert myself into conversations to argue positions that I didn’t believe in but that seemed entertaining to advocate. Sometimes to the detriment of my friendships.”
This is Gavan Fitzsimons of Duke’s Fuqua school, speaking about trait reactance, an issue that’s central to his current research, vitally important to businesses — and personally important to him.
“The reason I got into studying reactance years ago as a doctoral student is that it’s an issue I struggle with — my family would say ‘suffer from,'” he says.
Reactance, a burgeoning field of social-psych study, refers to the backlash response to a perceived threat to freedom. You can provoke reactance a million ways: By limiting people’s choices, as Wal-Mart did when it wiped more than 300 familiar products off its shelves last year; by telling people that they have to pay a tax on tea, as the British Parliament did in 1773; and even by doling out expert advice, as countless climate-change activists have been doing (thus the recent finding that numerous people are rejecting the concept of global warming).
But not everyone responds to freedom threats with the same level of vehemence. The biggest backlash comes from people with high trait reactance, which is more or less a very sensitive you’re-trying-to-control-me internal meter. Highly reactant people do the opposite of what authority figures expect of them.
“One of the agreement-or-disagreement items in our kit for measuring trait reactance in research subjects is the statement ‘I find contradicting others stimulating,'” Fitzsimons says. “That’s classic trait reactance. And that’s me.”
People with high trait reactance boycott stores that annoy them. They dump tea in Boston Harbor. They stop believing climate-change experts. They also have a tendency to get themselves into trouble in organizations.
“Reactance can be costly for the individual, there’s no question,” Fitzsimons says. “But there are some real positives in an organization to having someone bristle against the path that everybody is following. If everyone is yea-saying, you really want a reactant person around to say ‘Hold on a second, this is ridiculous’ and push for considering alternatives.”
He adds: “Of course, if you have too many people saying that, it becomes problematic.”
One of the issues he’s planning to study is the impact of reactant people on teams. “Our speculation is that a mix of high-reactance and low-reactance people leads to better team outcomes. We hypothesize that an all-low-reactance team will converge too quickly on a consensus opinion, and an all-high team will battle too much. In fact, it’s quite possible that from a societal perspective, it’s good for populations to be a mixture of high- and low-reactance individuals.”
And it’s probably good for high-reactance people to marry low-reactance people. “Having two people who are both highly reactant seems like a recipe for disaster,” Fitzsimons says. He speaks from experience: His wife, he says, “has mastered the art of managing me.”
Andrew O’Connell is an editor with the Harvard Business Review Group.