Lockdowns, curfews, politics and psychological reactance

Jack Brehm

Professor Jack Brehm (1928-2009) was an American psychologist. He graduated from Harvard and attended graduate school at the University of Minnesota, working with Leon Festinger (best known for his cognitive dissonance theory and social comparison theory). Brehm’s PhD dissertation research established the free choice cognitive dissonance paradigm and was the first dissonance study to be published. His psychological reactance theory shows how people can respond when freedom or a feeling of freedom is being taken away or feels like being taken away. The first publication on this subject already was in 1966. It was reviewed by Miron and Brehm in 2006.



Psychological reactance

I quote an article called ‘Understanding psychological reactance‘ by Christina Steindl, Eva Jonas, Sandra Sittenthaler, Eva Traut-Mattausch and Jeff Greenberg. The article has many references and I did not want to leave them out to not do the authors wrong, but the text itself is enough to get an idea on what psychological reactance is.

Reactance is an unpleasant motivational arousal that emerges when people experience a threat to or loss of their free behaviours. It serves as a motivator to restore one’s freedom. The amount of reactance depends on the importance of the threatened freedom and the perceived magnitude of the threat. Internal threats are self-imposed threats arising from choosing specific alternatives and rejecting others. External threats arise either from impersonal situational factors that by happenstance create a barrier to an individual’s freedom or from social influence attempts targeting a specific individual ().


The unpleasant motivational state of reactance results in behavioural and cognitive efforts to reestablish one’s freedom, accompanied by the experience of emotion. People who are threatened usually feel uncomfortable, hostile, aggressive, and angry ().


On the behavioural side, threatened people may exhibit the restricted behaviour (direct restoration) or may observe others performing a related behaviour (indirect restoration). They may aggressively force the threatening person to remove the threat or they may behave in a hostile and aggressive way just to let off steam (aggression). On the cognitive side, people may derogate the source of threat, upgrade the restricted freedom, or downgrade the imposed option (change in attractiveness; e.g., ). However, despite the well-explored consequences of reactance, there has been little exploration of reactance as a state per se. Reactance leads to behavioural, affective, and cognitive effects, but what exactly causes these effects?



There has been done a lot of research on causes and how to measure the prevalence and intensity of psychological reactance and it needs more study for better understanding, but a few things are clear:

  1. A person’s (feeling of) self matters a great deal. Character, personality, cultural, historical and social elements, as well as being individualistic or collectivistic have a significant influence on how strong the reactance will be.
  2. The way of approach also matters. It makes a big difference if the freedom threat feels like a forced one or an inevitable one no one can be blamed for as suppressor so clearly. A higher cause for the greater good can outclass a need for personal freedom. But even the latter can result in violent resistance when the reason why is articulated bad or not at all. A worst case scenario could be a bad tempered violent character being confronted with a sudden loss of freedom which is not being communicated at all, at a bad moment and applied with force. Kind of a recipe for an explosive impact.



Lockdowns, curfews and politics

Since a few days we are having a curfew rule in my country due to the pandemic. I already was and still am upset when I see people aggressively protest against certain rules that simply are needed in my view to keep as much people as safe as possible, health wise. But seeing riots and extreme violence against health care employees and the police force made my blood boil today. Normally I am not fond of seeing too much armed forces in the public area. I even don’t like to see my own husband in his military suit too much, because it has this ‘Dress to impress’ effect easily and we don’t need that do we?  And yes, I know health also concerns a mental health state and I know how lockdowns and uncertainty about studies, jobs, businesses etc. ask a lot of most people and drive them into a negative state of mind, but it even so never will justify any use of physical or verbal violence. It can be explained and understood, and it deserves a sensible response when it comes from despair, but when it comes from an impossible and unrealistic DEMAND to maintain total freedom for the sake of a personal agenda being more important than anything else, I really only can feel contempt. If that makes me intolerant then so be it. Just telling you how it makes me feel.


Yes, our personal freedom is under attack. But not because dictators or anything close to that playing wicked games. Our personal freedom is under attack by a rotten virus we were not well prepared for despite years of warnings it would come one day. If anything could be said in response on the need for extreme measures no one likes, it is that politics all over the world failed to take measures in time against a pandemic. But that’s how humans all are, not only politicians. What we don’t see or fear we neglect. Until it is too late and comes for us, not bothered by any obstacles, because we were convinced to be safe. Like an accident first has to happen before safety measures are being taken to improve a dangerous crossroad. We are lazy, ignorant and foolish. Not everyone, but in general this is how it works. To not mention how talented we are to blame others rather than take our own responsibility. These rioters, these so called heroes for freedom find it legitimate to threaten others, wound them, throw knives at them, burn a test location down and harass reporters. They take away freedom of space, public safety and more  to gain their own bloody personal freedom back. How is that fair, legitimate and NEEDED?


If this kind of response were uncommon I maybe would be less upset. But it tends to be not is my feeling. Also before the pandemic extreme violence against authorities like health care and police regularly was present. It seems to become a more and more a common way of response and not only in my country. I am not against all forms of disobedience. I am not pro every use of police force. I encourage critical thinking and forming your own independent opinions very much. But mindless violence for the sake of having fun with a riot is completely unacceptable. When you use Twitter to call for a riot you are a hooligan. When you burn down an essential test location you are a hooligan. Such acts are not OK and not helpful.




No mercy at all?

When I look at the psychological reactance theory and take out my personal being upset I should feel some mercy maybe. As in  . . . they are humans being driven by how they feel, attracted by something they consider upsetting and/or exciting and not able to resist against the use violence in response. But that would implicate I would have to pardon all users of violence and no one ever being accountable or responsible for their acts. As if we all are slaves of our poor minds and our acts just being the outcome of that. Sorry, no, that’s too simple and easy. There are limits to being a victim of your own mind. Big limits. It’s why we have and need a justice department, and psychologists, to make a good analysis and conclusion. And most people simply are fully responsible for their own behaviour/acts, also when you had a difficult childhood or something like that. To be not responsible takes a lot more than having had a hard time in your life or a friend asking you to take part into a bad act. I do understand it makes people more vulnerable when life is tough and how seemingly never ending pressures can generate explosions of violence in certain minds and/or circumstances, but understanding and explaining are not the same as approving it, plus there are gradations in violence, from mild to extreme, with the mild ones easier to understand and forgive.


So, yes, let’s assume psychological reactance is a good tool to explain and understand violence during corona time, or during election time recently in the USA, or any likewise violence in other countries. Then to me it seems a matter of urgency to know how to deal with it and more importantly how to prevent it where it concerns violent outbreaks. I don’t have an issue with people resisting against whatever in a peaceful way, but the theory I highlighted is not about that. It specifically showcases the unpleasant, disruptive emotional state of minds with possible likewise behaviours. I  have no answers myself on how to deal with it or how to prevent it. I mean, sure I can call for patience, respect and sense, or I can write a blog on it, like I did just now, but that won’t solve or add anything substantial really. A blog for me is nothing more than reproducing my own mind into text, talking with myself (to channel and process my thoughts and feelings) and through myself at whoever feels like reading it and maaaaaaybe finds it useful in some way.  But this is so much bigger than my personal arena of words. It is on a huge world wide scale and all seems to be a catalyst for making it worse. Social media being a ticket to promote and share violence. Every event being exposed under a looking glass, blowing it up to a giant scoop people find a good enough reason to go mad at for days or weeks. Politics being poisoned by populists. Anarchy for the fun of it. Reject every single measure because it makes you a guru. Conspiracies contaminating sensible debates. Etc etc. It is not so easy to have a ‘one size fits all’ solution anyway. It is not a fix, a badge on a wound, it is more like a complex body with organs that need to work together well to survive, but all got infected by life threatening invaders. Hmm yes, a virus as well  . . .




No hope at all?

I guess I only can hope for the corona pandemic to end asap in the first place. Maybe it will make people too busy with enjoying their life again. To forget to have a reason to act irresponsible. But well, not very realistic, I am almost sure of that, or at least for only a limited time. So I better focus on smart people who actually can change the world into a better place by their insights and presence. The ones who make societies less dangerous, more balanced. The rare ones who are able to reunite what has been broken. The ones not needing big words to do big things. The ones bringing back being grateful by acting grateful. Because if there is one thing I do not see at all in the people using  the act of violence at this moment, it is gratitude. To still be alive, to live in a part of the world where there is no dictatorship, to have a home, a house, food and clothes and so many other basic things they take for granted. Like having a professional health care that would save their life after a riot gone wrong or covid deciding to threaten it.




It’s all about  acts

Showing my discontent on users of violent acts maybe sounds judgemental when in the middle of a stressful period with little perspective for it to be over soon. But I am in the first place watching the acts. Not the persons itself specifically. It’s about behaviour and acts and I can dislike those without disliking the person behind it automatically as well. I am aware some of them really will suffer for their own good reasons. And I am sorry they do. When it appears to be organised violence more than personal drama however my tolerance is low to zero, depending how they got involved. But in ANY case of resistance against corona measures, violence is a disproportional and not ok response. You want personal freedom? Then don’t violate the safety of other people in public or even private spaces and don’t make them your hostage or leverage against their will. Show responsibility you actually can handle freedom instead of needing violence to create it and reinstate it for your own little space and at the cost of others. Act in a way you deserve it.




Pacifist huh?

Nope. I find it complex to preach total non-violence when you actually do live in a place where extreme violence is used to suppress you. I speak of places where a life can be taken just like that. Where killing is a way to shut you up, where power is abused to make you suffer willingly, knowingly and relentlessly. In such cases I can understand the act of violence as choice to resist and reinstate personal freedom much better. Especially when it would generate a revolution that would free an entire society. When it concerns innocent children it also adds to being less rejective of the use of violence, if it guarantees their freedom. I am not a 100 percent pacifist when it comes to such situations. I tend to question pacifism when it means wait and see  . . . do nothing and hope for the best. Diplomacy is choice number one yes, but diplomacy can take ages or be abused to just keep it going while creating a deceptive sense of willingness to improve. I think in some cases a violent act is a hard but needed way out that will cost less than maintaining a status quo for god knows how many more years. But I would suck as soldier or special forces whatever myself. To use the act of extreme violence will definitely change you, and anyone. To face that and be ok with that to do it yourself to someone else  . . . .  it makes me shiver. I think I only could when I would feel endangered enough, in a clear ‘me or the other’ scenario. But even then, it would shake me up dramatically and probably change me forever into a totally different person is my guess. Violence is horrible. Period. If it is the only or best way out, the situation must be really horrific as well.  In all other cases  . . .  stay away from it. Please  . . .




I take in account I myself am affected by the lockdowns and such in my own way as well. It is likely to influence my own response on seeing the present violence. To feel more upset, to be more sensitive to what I consider inappropriate, injustice, dangerous and undesired. Maybe less patient, less forgiving and more anxious and restless than average. I really do not know how to know that of myself in an honest unbiased way. My blog can be considered a form of psychological reactance as well maybe, being upset and pretty hard on acts of violence.


I never was or will be a person with a what they call ‘rich’ social life. It’s just not what woos me so to speak. Having too many people in my personal space makes me feel uneasy. Tiring, boring, disturbing, intrusive and irritating, that’s how it feels. It really drains my brain. So yes, a socially withdrawn introvert like me has a more easy time with lockdowns I am sure. Being an extravert who feels energised by many social activities, you have bad luck for almost a year already. I admit I cannot know how it feels for such persons. I only can try to imagine it. It is possible my blog feels insensitive to them. But having bad luck because needing social activities more than I do still does not justify the use of violence. Maybe we all are trapped into a system of psychological reactance on each other. Maybe it will fade away somewhere this year. Maybe there is such a thing as self-healing societies after a crisis. We will see  . . .


But yes, I felt compelled to resist (in words) against the use of mindless disproportional violence that affects my own feeling of freedom, Because living in a society with this kind of violence threatens that. More than a lockdown and curfew do. Those are needed and not forever, even if it feels like that for many. Maybe I am the living example of the subject I chose in this blog. Resisting against other people’s resistance with freedom at stake and trying to reinstate it. I trust you can see a difference between my resistance and the resistance I resist at. Only my keyboard got hurt maybe, because of having to follow my pace in writing,, which can be quite relentless when into something. That being said I conclude with this: ‘I do not own THE truth, because there never is one truth. If life was that easy  . . . wow, we maybe could save the world after all then.’ But jeez, act with some sense. Not any truth will do bad on that.




P.S. 2

I think governments and all who are involved in taking measures due to corona, probably would benefit to make more use of psychological insights they can gain from professionals like Jack Brehm. To know a measure is good and needed is one thing, to articulate it well on the political stage is another thing, but to know and anticipate the impact on society itself is equally or maybe even more important. If a measure is not executed well it can have an opposite effect or at least lose a substantial part of the intended effect. To blame society is an option and sometimes also will be the most sensible one, but when there are signs things could and should have been prepared better it is fair to also blame oneself for having done a bad job. Not deliberately I am sure, but because lack of knowledge or misjudging the effect and timing. I am not sure yet if this is the case here, but it annoys me to see how this curfew now generates a lot of physical interactivity and causes the measure to be not as effective as it was supposed to be. It also puts people at risk (police force) who do not deserve that in an already difficult time they have.


For Dutch followers an extra link, in case you like it better in your own language and not needing my personal views^^

Psychologische reactantie



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