So, there's this thing called reactance. If you're like most people, you've probably never heard of it, and yet it has huge implications for your life.
Reactance is a psychological phenomenon -- in response to loss of a freedom, loss of choice, or a perceived loss of freedom/choice, people are quite likely to feel psychological reactance.
Psychological reactance makes you want to push back against the new restrictions, to fight and combat them, to reassert yourself and control over your world.
This can be in the form of direct resistance or pushback against the loss of freedom, and increased desire for the prohibited action.
But it does a lot of other things, too. Reactance causes people to like and enjoy whatever their threatened freedom is more than they liked it in the past, often permanently. Reactance causes people to want to reestablish freedom/control through similar types of behavior -- like increased eating of junkfood in response to being prohibited from drinking alcohol.
Reactance also generates hostility, making people dislike the person or institution perceived as causing the loss of freedom.
What's that mean for your life?
So. If one of your freedoms or abilities is threatened, you'll (1) start to like and want to do it more, (2) immediately wish to push back and reassert that freedom or ability, (3) feel motivated and compelled to do similar types of behavior, (4) dislike whoever/whatever you perceived imposed the restriction on you...
...therefore, your preferences and behavior are incredibly likely to be altered. And since we live in a world with opportunity cost, succumbing to psychological reactance can cause you to make worse, irrational decisions towards doing stuff that doesn't please or serve you!
Oh, and it gets worse.
If you're trying to help and guide people (perhaps as a manager, boss, or mentor), then you've got to be damn careful you don't trigger psychological reactance. Maybe someone you care about is doing something boneheaded and self-destructive, but they're going to feel aggression/dislike for you, and increased desire for it if you try to curtail it.
And it gets worse!
If you're working against a vampiric influence on someone, like a friend who falls in love with a prostitute, any attempt to sever such vampiric influences is likely to generate that same aggression, and increased feelings of desire (that might even become permanent).
(Call it a Romeo and Juliet thing.)
Does it get better?
An interesting phenomenon of psychological reactance is that most people seem to be unaware of it. There's tons of empirical evidence for the effect, but the majority of people don't realize it has a huge effect on their preferences.
...rather, they just want to do things, unaware of why.
But! But! Good news!
Awareness of psychological reactance can lead to diminished effect on you.
*You can stop falling for "just one more model" at car dealerships. (Loss of ability to buy == reactance. But really, there's another version of similar make and model somewhere.)
*Going-out-of-business sales don't have to compel you. (Some jurisdictions actually regulate against having furniture stores announcing a going out of business sale if they're not really -- furniture stores actually command higher prices at higher volume during these faux sales... don't buy into it.)
*Be very careful of telling someone not to do something. "Hey, you do whatever you want, I'm pointing out some consequences because I care about you, but it's your own call." (Careful with that too. Nothing's perfect here.)
*If you catch yourself chasing something forbidden or restricted, ask, "Is there anything unsexy but better for my life I'm neglecting?" (This doesn't work great, but helps.)
*If you find yourself facing restriction in one area of your life, voluntary or not, be vigilant that you might want to act out in similar ways without realizing where the motivation comes from.
*Likewise, if you're facing restriction in one area of your life, you might pick a healthy designated outlet that's somewhat similar. Try getting a stack of great philosophical comic books if you're quitting internet distraction addiction as a transition point. (Check out Frank Miller's Dark Knight Returns or the entire brilliant Lone Wolf and Cub series.)
Sebastian - awesome post. Im a big fan of your posts (particularly primadonna and joker) and have shared ikigai with dozens of friends. Reactance (and its implications) resonates with me deeply as a competitive person driven by a desire to overcom and conquer challenges. When i dont have an email inbox, writing assignment, big workout, or sales meeting to occupy my mind, i seek challenge in the rationalized selfindulgence of overeating. Ill try some of the tactics you propose. Thanks for being relevant.
Being a stay at home parent feels this way. I am so restricted in what I can do and when that I can see myself using all kinds of sub-optimal coping mechanisms. Uhm, thanks for giving me a name for it?
This is the first thing I thought of as well, but at the moment I can't think of any way to create a believable threat. You might have better success tricking your friends into being motivated or making better decisions.
Reactance is a motivational reaction to offers, persons, rules, or regulations that threaten or eliminate specific behavioral freedoms. Reactance occurs when a person feels that someone or something is taking away his or her choices or limiting the range of alternatives.
-- "Reactance (psychology), Wikipedia"
It's a damnable thing, a real thing, a useful thing to know of, and yet far too few people know of it.
People sure like to talk about it. It's usually used as an applause light, that is, something where the meaning isn't that important, it's just used as a signal that you should agree with the speaker.
Sometimes people make a distinction between "positive" and "negative" liberties or rights. Positive and negative aren't used in the sense of good or bad, more akin to the psychological sense of positive and negative reinforcement. Negative liberties are ones where in order to exercise them all you need is that nobody stop you from doing it, like freedom of speech, and positive rights are ones that require other people or society to help you exercise them, like the right to healthcare.
I don't think that distinction makes much sense. I'm unusual in that I think that a lot of the reason that countries like America seem so much freer than countries like the USSR (not to argue that they're not freer, just that the degree is exaggerated) is because in America a distinction is (nominally) drawn between governmental power and economic power, and for some reason we only consider misuse of governmental power to count as infringing on freedom. In the USSR or China or any other country with a very powerful government that is actively involved in the planning of the economy, the economic and governmental powers are obviously controlled by the same entity, so when somebody gets censored by the state-run media for advocating laissez faire capitalism, that's considered censorship. Contrast with in the USA, where the economic and political power are ostensibly separated and for whatever reason we only care about abuses of political power: you certainly don't see people advocating for hardcore Maoism here. You don't even really see anybody advocating for things that are very uncontroversial in rather similar countries, like single payer universal healthcare. There are definitely people who want these things, and want to advocate them in big public ways, but cannot, because the economic powers that be deny them the platform to do that. And this is not considered censorship.
I think that caring about whether something should be considered censorship, or a violation of X or Y right, is kind of a silly, outmoded way of thinking. Rights and liberties are not Aristotelian categories fallen from the heavens where it is Bad to do a thing that is a violation of a right, but if you can come up with a good enough argument for why it doesn't count as actually violating that right, then all of a sudden it's Good. That's ridiculous. What matters is whether or not the person was able to do the thing, not whether it was forbidden in a way that fits into your arcane rules about how to forbid things.
I have pretty much come around to think that freedom is being able to do what you want, and as a corollary to that, the only real freedom is economic freedom. Well, there are some others, but economic freedom is the most important, and you could argue that the others flow out of it, but that's kind of irrelevant. Now, I want to talk about economic freedom.