Psychological Reactance in College Students: Family-of-Origin Predictors. (Research)

By Buboltz, Walter C., Jr.; Johnson, Patrick et al. | Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Psychological Reactance in College Students: Family-of-Origin Predictors. (Research)


Buboltz, Walter C., Jr., Johnson, Patrick, Woller, Kevin M. P., Journal of Counseling and Development : JCD


The theory of psychological reactance proposes that when behavioral freedoms are threatened with elimination or reduction, individuals will be motivated to protect or restore their sense of freedom (J. W. Brehm, 1966; S. S. Brehm & Brehm, 1981). Attempts to restrict an individual's freedom often produce a reactive "boomerang effect," that is, an increase in the restricted behavior (S. S. Brehm & Brehm, 1981). In addition to directly engaging in the prohibited behavior, reactance can be expressed by observing others engaging in the behavior, by engaging in related behavior, or by engaging in aggression against the prohibitor (Dowd, 1999).

Whereas psychological reactance was originally theorized to be a social psychological, situation-specific construct, recent studies have shown individual differences in the tendency to be reactant (Buboltz & Woller, 1997; Buboltz, Woller, & Pepper, 1999). In other words, people with certain personality characteristics seem to exhibit a greater tendency to be reactant in relation to their freedoms being restricted than do others. For example, high levels of reactance have been associated with paranoid, borderline, sadistic, and antisocial personality patterns (Huck, 1998). Highly reactant individuals also experience higher levels of stress and tend to use coping styles designed to relieve the emotional impact of stress (Palmentera, 1996). In summarizing the results of several studies (i.e., Dowd & Wallbrown, 1993; Dowd, Wallbrown, Sanders, & Yesenosky, 1994), Dowd (1999) stated that reactant people tend to be autonomous, dominant, lacking in self-control, not particularly tolerant, not particularly interested in making a good impression, and not seeking to care for others or to be cared for by others.

In addition to being related to certain personality characteristics, psychological reactance has been posited as a client variable mediating the process and outcome of counseling (Dowd, 1999; Dowd et al., 1988; Dowd, Milne, & Wise, 1991; Dowd & Seibel, 1990; Horvath & Goheen, 1990; Tracey, Ellickson, & Sherry, 1989). In particular, it has been hypothesized that highly reactant individuals would be difficult to handle in counseling; that is, they would be more likely to miss sessions, to be late for sessions, to be less satisfied with their counselor, to resist counselor directives, and to react strongly to perceived threats to their freedom (Dowd, 1999). Although not conclusive, research seems to support the notion that highly reactant individuals are challenging as clients. High levels of reactance, for example, have been associated with a greater number of "no shows" at counseling sessions (Morgan, 1986), higher levels of symptom severity (Bischoff, 1997), and more resistance to following counselor directives (Bischoff, 1997). Reactant individuals have also been found to view their counselors less favorably and to receive more negative ratings of global improvement from their counselors (March, 1993; Seibel & Dowd, 1999). Thus, psychological reactance seems to play a role in the therapeutic process and may be an important variable for counselors to consider.

Dowd and Seibel (1990) proposed a theory of the etiology of reactance that focuses on the importance of parenting skills (i.e., consistency, unconditional acceptance, and support of separation and autonomy) in developing an optimal level of reactance in children, which is theorized to foster healthy identity development. Dowd and Seibel defined an optimal level of reactance as autonomy and a separate sense of self without excessive reactivity. Autonomy from primary caretakers is necessary for healthy identity development; however, reactive expression of autonomy is ineffective in developing a true identity. Thus, children need to be supported in their efforts at developing autonomy and, at the same time, to be given the reassurance of a secure base in order to develop an optimal level of reactance, which fosters flexible autonomy and healthy identity development. …

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