People don’t like being told what to do. There’s even a word for it: reactance. “Psychological reactance is a negative emotional state that we feel when we’re not in control of our behavior,” says Jonah Berger, author of The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind. “Anytime we feel like someone else is trying to persuade us, or shape our behavior or actions or attitudes, we essentially put up an anti-persuasion radar.”
This can be useful in many ways. It’s the reason that advertisements don’t empty our bank accounts, and why we don’t (usually) fall for scams. But reactance can also be counterproductive and work against you, especially when you’re trying to convince someone to change their mind or do something—like wear a face mask in public. With that in mind, here are four ways to shift people’s behavior without triggering their reactance.
Give people a choice: With choice, people feel in control, thus keeping their reactance at bay. For example, when a leader gives people a mandate, people often think about all the reasons they don’t like the mandate. But if a leader gives them two options — say, Option A or Option B — their minds do something different.
“Rather than sitting there going, ‘Well, let me think about all the reasons I don’t like A,’ the person sits there going, ‘Well, which one do I like better? A or B?’ And because they’re thinking about which one they like better, they’re much more likely to make a choice.”
Let people create their own options: Let’s say you want to get people to work harder and put in more hours. If you instruct them to do it, they may resent you. And if you give them two options — work more, or work less — they’re unlikely to make the choice you want.
So now what? Berger’s answer: Present the problem, and let them develop the solutions. When proposed solutions come up that appeal to your needs, try to foster them further.
Highlight the gap: Want to change someone’s behavior? Instead of telling them what they’re doing wrong, Berger says, “point out a gap between their attitudes and their actions — or what they are doing and what they might recommend for someone else.”
In Thailand, one ad agency executed this strategy to get people to stop smoking. It sent children into the streets with cigarettes and had them approach smokers and ask for a light. In response, the smokers started lecturing the children. “If you smoke, you die faster,” one adult tells a child. “Don’t you want to live and play?” Once the adult’s lecture was done, the kid would hand over a card and walk away. The card said: “You worry about me, but why not about yourself?” Hidden cameras filmed the exchanges, which eventually made its way into ads, which quickly led to a 40 percent increase in calls to an agency that helps people stop smoking.
Use social pressure: People may be stubborn, but they don’t often like to be out of step with their peers. “Just pointing out what the norm is — saying, ‘Hey, just so you know, this is what people are doing’ — can often be a way to get around reactance,” Berger says.