People are more likely to resist or reject well-intentioned proposals, advice, or gifts when it feels like their freedom is being threatened in some way.
For instance, I hate receiving clothes for gifts—clothing is mostly a matter of personal taste. I’ll grin and bear it. I may even wear said clothes once or twice just to please the giver.
Turns out that my indifference isn’t atypical. Psychological studies of the gift-giving process indicate that giving clothing gifts involves greater risk than with other kinds of gift objects. The chosen gift may not match the recipient’s self-image, identity, or dress style.
The so-called Reactance Theory explains why giving gifts and offering uncalled-for advice could rankle so much. According to the American Psychological Association,
Reactance theory is a model stating that in response to a perceived threat to—or loss of—a behavioral freedom, a person will experience psychological reactance (or, more simply, reactance,) a motivational state characterized by distress, anxiety, resistance, and the desire to restore that freedom. According to this model, when people feel coerced into a certain behavior, they will react against the coercion, often by demonstrating an increased preference for the behavior that is restrained, and may perform the behavior opposite to that desired.
Reactance can come into play when you’re persuading someone to buy a specific product at the grocery store, forbidding a child from using a mobile phone at school, or insisting that an employee perform some detestable task for the boss.
Idea for Impact: Think twice before you do anything that, though meant well, may threaten another person’s sense of behavioral freedom. People who are threatened thus usually feel uncomfortable and angry—even hostile.
In gift-giving, offering advice, or any other attempt at social influence, know your limits. Beware that it’s not always easy to recognize the limits until you overshoot them.