Reactance Bias

rēˈaktəns/ bahy-uh s

noun: the urge to resist or do the opposite of what someone tells you to do.

For the past several weeks, we’ve been considering Renewal of Our Mind and specifically, the role of ‘Cognitive Biases’ – unconscious ways that our mind processes information that can lead to systematic blind spots and errors in judgement. So far, we’ve explored our negativity bias, and our confirmation bias. Let’s take a look now at our “Reactance Bias”.

What Is It?

I feel resistance rise up inside me with surprising strength. It often happens when someone tries to persuade me to take a certain action or change my perspective on something. And the harder they try to shift my behaviour or thinking, the more resistant I become, strengthening my resolve to determine my own direction, regardless of the potential merits of their perspective or position. I don’t like to admit it, but if I’m honest, it sounds something like: “No, you can’t make me!

Where does that come from? Welcome to Reactance Bias.

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We can see reactance in children – the crossed arms, the defiant scowl, the resistant attitude – and we hope, as adults, we’ve outgrown such automatic responses to someone or something just because it challenges our own desires or preferences, but what is going on inside?

Reactance is about perceived freedom and autonomy. It doesn’t happen every time someone asks us to do something or consider a new perspective. Reactance occurs when we perceive that someone or something is restricting our freedom or limiting our of choices. When this happens, we become highly motivated to restore our freedom by proving that we are not being determined by anyone or anything. We become more and more immovable in our positions and this all happens outside our awareness.

Why does It Matter?

  • Reactance bias feeds fear-based motivation. When we maintain our position or refuse to consider alternatives just because we interpret that our freedom is threatened, we are reacting out of fear of loss; we fear we may lose our autonomy. Fear triggers our fight-flight responses and when that happens, we lose access to the part of our brain that is creative, trusting, and solution oriented; we lose the capacity for objectivity and clear thinking.
  • Reactance bias limits our choices. Ironically, in our attempt to exercise freedom of choice, when we automatically refuse to consider a specific option just because it’s different from what we were thinking, we end up eliminating the very freedom we were fighting for!
  • Reactance makes us rigid in context of change. Change dynamics require that we move out of our familiar ways and consider new perspectives. That can feel threatening. We live in a context of constant change, and while it’s true that not all change is good and some may need to be challenged, even that won’t happen in a productive way if our motive is fear and reactance. When resistance to change, or even the discussion of change, is sourced in reactance bias it restricts healthy interaction, whether it’s in a family, a team or organization.
  • Reactance inhibits co-creation. Co-creation is trusting and valuing that each person brings something of value to the table, and that in the synergy of working together toward a new vision, something bigger than any individual will emerge. We actually believe this is a spiritual reality – see I Cor. 12: 14-22 – and it requires each person to be vulnerable, lay down some of their independence, and be willing to consider something new.
  • Reactance can be immature. When I demonstrate resistance just because I think my freedom is being restricted, I’m being childish. We are called to a more effective, beneficial, community-serving way of interaction. If I have concerns or perspectives that need to be considered, we’ll all benefit if I can move past my automatic reactance and instead come to the table in objectivity and openness.

 What can we do about it?

  • Awareness. Always awareness is the first step. We can intentionally notice and maybe journal or keep a mental list of situations where this urge to resist rises up.
    • Is this because I’m feeling a threat to a perceived freedom?
    • What might be an alternative way to interpret this person or situation?
  • Respond instead of React. When I become aware that my reactance bias has been triggered, I may benefit from taking some time to breathe deep, identify my own emotions, and consider the truth of the situation. If I can choose my response, I can avoid becoming a puppet to my automatic reactance bias.
  • As a leader:
    • How can I intentionally be more open to consider and appreciate other perspectives so I don’t experience reactance in my leadership role?
    • Do I tell people what to do, or do I honor their autonomy by making requests and inviting their participation?
    • Do I trigger reactance in my team? Do I impose unnecessary policies and deadlines, or put pressure on my team to perform because I think this approach motivates people to do their best? Research shows that people who feel appreciated and whose autonomy is respected will almost always go beyond what is expected of them.
  • As a team member,
    • What can I do when I become aware that reactance bias is preventing me from cooperation?
    • How can I be more open to considering the positive benefits of changes that might feel threatening at first?
    • When this happens, can I be honest enough with myself to ask if I am being an obstacle to change or if this is keeping me from making my contribution to the team?
  • Accountability. Who can I ask to take this journey with me as I become more aware of my reactance bias and as I’m being transformed by the renewal of my mind?

Check out these links if you’d like to learn more about Cognitive Biases:



– by Cindy Schmelzenbach, Regional Member Care Coordinator