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  • Writer's picturePinar Gen

Why We Do Not Like To Be Told What To Do?

...and why does your teenager mostly resist to your suggestions?

Have you ever had your child choose a completely different option after aking them about which available options they prefer?

-Would you like a grilled cheese or a chicken sandwich?

-Hamburger !

Why do kids have a tendency to do, choose or prefer the absolute opposite of your suggestions? Why do people in general have a tendency to go against the grain? Why do people not always want to get help?

Why do some propagandas fail?

I had a chance to observe high school students studying for the SAT and their relations with their parents during my stay in US. I’ve noticed that most of the time teens did the opposite of their parents’ suggestion for their good such as; “use your time wisely” so I wanted to figure a way for efficient parent-child communication in which the child’s independence is protected but at the same time suggestions or others’ (specificaly parents’) opinions are not opposed without consideration.

This tendency to go against the grain is called psychological reactance (Brehm & Brehm, 1981). “Reactance is usually activated when we feel that our freedom is threatened. When we perceive that someone or something is trying to influence us to do something against our will, reactance arises. Reactance motivates us to protect our own beliefs and views, and sometimes, to do the opposite of what we’re being asked to do.”(Cristel Antonia Russell Ph.D., 2021)

Some people are predisposed to oppose or reject any guidance that may be comprehended as a restriction of autonomy- an example case of this predisposition is my observation. Irritable or reactive people do not like outer influencers.

There is also a close relation between culture and “not liking to be told what to do”. At the very beginning of the Covid-19 Pandemic whether a mask should be used or not was a controversial subject in the US. Some groups even protested mandatory use of masks. I found these protests extremely interesting since protesting a health related law coming from authorities wouldn't have been the case in my original culture. This is how I got to experience the well-known American spirit of independence that marks a cultural tendency to protect one’s freedom, alongside a strong drive to be autonomous. In contrast, in more collectivistic cultures that tend to value the group over the individual, people tend to follow the rules without questioning their motives.

These cultural differences are visible in how parents teach their kids: parents in collectivistic cultures are more likely to teach their children obedience and respect for authority; whereas parents in more individualistic cultures, like the U.S., encourage their children to be more independent, to grow up to be autonomous, and to think and act for themselves (Park and Lau 2016).

Public health experts who want people to follow the rules and parents who struggle to get their reactant kids to do what they should do can learn a thing or two from advertisers’ playbooks. Advertisements can successfully persuade people to buy their products because they know how to seamlessly make their message resonate with us in ways that give us the illusion that it was our idea all along.

Advertisers prefer to motivate us to buy the product by the use of some methods such as; showing a famous person wearing/using the product, showing the product as if it’s limited in quantity...etc. Even highly reactant individuals can get "tricked" into these subtle influences because it is difficult to perceive indirect advertising messages as an order, and therefore, they are not a threat to freedom.

Well- of course wanting our child(s) to accept or agree with all our opinions/suggestions would be wrong and unhealthy. Rather, we should lead/guide them to develop their own personality (opinions, views...etc.). There are also some potential benefits of reactance. For instance; being aware and resisting someone trying to unduly influence us can keep kids (and adults!) from succumbing to peer pressure and not following blindly what advertisers signal to us. And yes, questioning authority can generate positive social change. I always prefer to help my child develop an overall awarness so they can make optimal decisions independently.



Cristel Antonia Russell Ph.D.

Brehm, S. S., & Brehm, J. W. (1981). Psychological reactance: A theory of freedom and control. Academic Press.

Dillard, James Price & Lijiang Shen (2005) On the Nature of Reactance and its Role in Persuasive Health Communication, Communication Monographs, 72:2, 144-168.

Hong, S.-M. (1992). Hong’s Psychological Reactance Scale: A Further Factor Analytic Validation. Psychological Reports, 70(2), 512–514


Russell, C. A., Russell, D. W., Boland, W. A., & Grube, J. W. (2013). Television viewing and American adolescents’ alcohol beliefs and drinking intentions: The moderating role of trait reactance. Journal of Children and Media, 8(1), 5-22.

Russell, Cristel A., Denise Buhrau and Anne Hamby (2020), “Reducing Television Influences on US Adolescents Who are High Reactance,” Journal of Children and Media, 14 (4) (forthcoming)


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