I always thought it was just me that hated being told what to do, which is one of the reasons I’ve been a business owner / self employed for most of my working career. What’s worse that being told what to do though? For me it’s being told how I feel. How can anyone know how I feel any better than myself? I mean, I know if I’m angry, right? Then I realise how often I’m guilty of doing this myself. But why do we actually hate being told what to do?
It’s called psychological reactance. This is our brain’s response to a threat (perceived or real) of our freedom. These threats include any time someone suggests or makes you do something. Telling people to quit smoking = fail. This can activate psychological reactance and make someone want to smoke even more. Running a more passive smoke free campaign however might be a smarter angle (also because “quitting” related to giving something up, rather than becoming “free”). Reactance triggers negative thoughts, which can lead to negative feelings, such as anger / aggression.
People who strongly feel reactance in response to threats to freedom feel an urge to do something. That something can be restoring one’s freedom by rebelling against the advised or prescribed action. If told to wear your seat belt, you might leave it unbuckled intentionally. This type of reaction is called “direct restoration.” Other reactions might include deciding that you were going to do that action anyway; “I wanted to start wearing my seat belt anyway,” Or denying that a threat to freedom ever existed in the first place.
COVID-19 reactance ring a bell?
One study found that telling participants that “they are free to decide for themselves what is good for them” after being told to do a specific health behaviour (such as flossing or wearing sunscreen) was able to reduce reactance (Bessarabova, Fink, & Turner, 2013; Miller et al., 2007). Other studies have found that inducing empathy or trying to take the perspective of the person telling them what to do can help reduce reactance (Shen, 2010; Steindl & Jonas, 2012).
This might not help you to cope with being told what to do or how to feel, however it might help you to understand why.