Honey, Did You Hear Me?

June 1, 2007

New research findings now online in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology began with a professor's desire to understand why her husband often seemed to ignore her requests for help around the house.

"My husband, while very charming in many ways, has an annoying tendency of doing exactly the opposite of what I would like him to do in many situations," says Tanya L. Chartrand, an associate professor of marketing and psychology at the Fuqua School of Business.

When Chartrand envisioned an academic study of people's resistance to the wishes of their partners, parents, or bosses, her husband, Gavan Fitzsimons, became not only her inspiration, but also her collaborator. Fitzsimons is a professor of marketing and psychology at Duke who, like Chartrand, is an expert in the field of consumer psychology.

Working with Duke graduate student Amy Dalton, Chartrand and Fitzsimons studied the principle of "reactance," defined as a person's tendency to resist social influences that they perceive as threats to their autonomy. Their results suggest that people do not necessarily oppose others' wishes intentionally; rather, that reactance occurs even at what researchers call a "non-conscious" level.

In one experiment, participants were asked to name a significant person in their lives whom they perceived to be controlling and who wanted them to work hard. They were then asked to identify another significant and controlling person who wanted them to have fun. Next, the participants were given a series of anagrams to solve. As they worked, the name of one or the other of the people they named was repeatedly flashed on a computer screen. The name appeared just long enough for the subject to take it in on a subliminal level.

People who were exposed to the name of a person who wanted them to work hard performed significantly worse on the anagram task than did participants who were exposed to the name of a person who wanted them to have fun.

A second experiment used a similar approach to assess each participant's level of reactance. People who were more reactant responded more strongly to the subliminal cues and showed greater variation in their performance than people who were less reactant.

The researchers suggest that people who tend to experience reactance when their freedoms are threatened should try to be aware of situations and people who draw out their reactant tendencies. Not surprisingly perhaps, Chartrand and Fitzsimons take home slightly differing messages from their experiments.

Chartrand says her husband "should now be better equipped to suppress his reactant tendencies." Fitzsimons, however, says the results "suggest that reactance to significant others is so automatic that I can't possibly be expected to control it if I don't even know it's happening."