In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Resisting Persuasion

  • Introduction
  • Core Texts
  • Journals
  • Persuasion Knowledge and Ad Literacy
  • Overcoming Resistance by Narrative Persuasion

Communication Resisting Persuasion
Marieke Fransen
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0127


The failure of realizing attitudinal or behavioral change by persuasive attempts is often attributed to bad message design, inappropriate use of communication strategies, or detrimental characteristics of the source. However, it has been acknowledged more and more that message receivers may also play an important role in accounting for the absence of attitudinal and behavioral change. Upon exposure to a persuasive message, people may experience psychological reactance because persuasive messages are perceived as a threat to freedom. This experience of psychological reactance often motivates people to adopt strategies that help them in resisting persuasion. Studying psychological reactance and strategies used to resist persuasive attempts is important in gaining a comprehensive understanding of persuasion processes. It may help explain, for example, why many health, marketing, and political campaigns fail to obtain the anticipated effects. This article provides an overview of theoretical and empirical literature regarding reactance and resistance toward persuasion. First, psychological reactance and resistance toward persuasion will be defined. Then, strategies that audiences adopt in resisting persuasion will be addressed, followed by techniques that may help audiences to resist persuasion. Moreover, related variables such as persuasion knowledge and skepticism will be discussed, and the article ends with a section on overcoming resistance by narrative persuasion.

Core Texts

Several books, book chapters, empirical articles, and theoretical articles have been written on the nature and effects of psychological reactance and resistance. McGuire 1964, on inoculation theory, was one of the first works to discuss the topic of resistance toward persuasion, defining it as a person’s ability to withstand a persuasive attack. McGuire was particularly interested in the question of how to increase resistance toward persuasion. Brehm 1980 proposes and discusses the (more general) theory of psychological reactance. This theory offers an explanation for people’s motivation to resist persuasion. Psychological reactance is defined as a motivational state that one experiences upon threats to attitudinal and behavioral freedoms. It is argued that any message aimed at changing one’s attitudes or behavior is perceived as a threat to freedom because it limits or eliminates freedom of choice (Brehm and Brehm 1981). This experienced threat of freedom often motivates people to restore their freedom by resisting the persuasive message. Burgoon, et al. 2002 provides an excellent overview of research on reactance theory in the field of communication. Clee and Wicklund 1980, a theoretical article, addresses the many applications for reactance theory, particularly for the field of consumer behavior. Other motivations for resistance are discussed in Jost 2015 and Knowles and Riner 2007. A more detailed overview on how people actually resist persuasion and how resistance can be overcome can be found in Fransen, et al. 2015b and Knowles and Linn 2004. In Knowles and Linn 2004, resistance toward persuasion is discussed from several perspectives and offers an overview of research that is conducted in this field. Fransen, et al. 2015a provides an overview of different resistance strategies and relates them to the different motives people might have to resist persuasion. In van’t Riet and Ruiter 2013 resistance strategies in the context of health communication are discussed. In Friestad and Wright 1994, the authors’ Persuasion Knowledge Model (PKM) proposes that people develop persuasion knowledge about the tactics and strategies marketers use in their persuasive attempt. They explain how this knowledge provides message recipients with control over the persuasive situation, which may subsequently foster resistance toward the message.

  • Brehm, Jack W. 1980. A theory of psychological reactance. Social Psychology. New York: Academic Press.

    In this book, the theory of psychological reactance is proposed and defined. It explains the consequences of eliminating or limiting people’s freedoms. This book offers great insights into why people may exert resistance toward persuasion. Chapter 6 on persuasion and attitude change is especially relevant in the context of persuasive communication. Originally published in 1966.

  • Brehm, Sharon S., and Jack W. Brehm. 1981. Psychological reactance: A theory of freedom and control. New York: Academic Press.

    This book is a further refinement of Brehm’s original theory on psychological reactance. In this book, unresolved issues in reactance research are addressed. The question of whether reactance effects are a direct reflection of the motivational state or whether they are caused by mediating cognitive processes is discussed.

  • Burgoon, Michael, Eusebio Alvaro, Joseph Grandpre, and Michael Voulodakis. 2002. Revisiting the theory of psychological reactance: Communicating threats to attitudinal freedom. In The persuasion handbook: Developments in theory and practice. Edited by James Price Dillard and Michael Pfau, 213–232. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.

    DOI: 10.4135/9781412976046.n12

    This chapter presents an extensive review of research on reactance theory. The authors stress the importance of studying psychological reactance in the field of social influence and persuasion, providing suggestions for further research. The chapter is very helpful in acquiring a familiarity with the theory of reactance and the research that has been conducted in this area.

  • Clee, Mona A., and Robert A. Wicklund. 1980. Consumer behavior and psychological reactance. Journal of Consumer Research 6.4: 389–405.

    DOI: 10.1086/208782

    Very valuable theoretical article in which the authors illustrate the many possible research applications for reactance theory, particularly in the field of consumer behavior. They explain and discuss the theory as well as the research on reactance theory, proposing further research directions.

  • Fransen, Marieke L., Edith G. Smit, and Peeter W. J. Verlegh. 2015a. Strategies and motives for resistance to persuasion: An integrative framework. Frontiers in Psychology 6:1201.

    DOI: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01201

    In this theoretical article, the authors propose a framework in which they relate different motivations for resistance to persuasion (threat to freedom, reluctance to change, and concerns of deception) to different types of strategies that people use to resist persuasion. A valuable article to get more insight on different processes explaining why and how people resist persuasion.

  • Fransen, Marieke L., Peeter W. J. Verlegh, Amna Kirmani, and Edith G. Smit. 2015b. A typology of consumer strategies for resisting advertising, and a review of mechanisms for countering them. International Journal of Advertising 34.2: 6–16.

    DOI: 10.1080/02650487.2014.995284

    In this conceptual article, the authors propose a classification of different types of resistance strategies (avoidance, contesting, and empowering) and propose various resistance-neutralizing persuasion tactics that may help to overcome the identified types of resistance strategies.

  • Friestad, Marian, and Peter Wright. 1994. The Persuasion Knowledge Model: How people cope with persuasion attempts. Journal of Consumer Research 21.1: 1–31.

    DOI: 10.1086/209380

    This often-cited theoretical article proposes the Persuasion Knowledge Model (PKM). This model describes how people develop persuasion knowledge (topic, agent, and persuasion) and how this knowledge is used to cope with persuasive attempts. This is the first model to include audience members’ persuasion knowledge in order to provide a more detailed view of the persuasion process.

  • Jost, John T. 2015. Resistance to change: A social psychological perspective. Social Research: An International Quarterly 82.2: 607–636.

    In the context of climate change this article describes resistance to change from the perspective of modern experimental social psychology. The roles of political ideology and system justification motivation in increasing skepticism and resistance to scientific information on climate change are discussed and some empirical evidence is presented.

  • Knowles, Eric S., and Jay A. Linn, eds. 2004. Resistance and persuasion. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    From different perspectives, this edited volume discusses resistance toward persuasion. It contains theoretical and empirical chapters that are written by leading scholars in the field. The book offers an overview of the research in resistance by focusing on the “nature of resistance in persuasion” and “strategies for overcoming resistance.”

  • Knowles, Eric S., and Dan D. Riner. 2007. Omega approaches to persuasion: Overcoming resistance. In The science of social influence: Advances and future progress. Edited by Anthony R. Pratkanis, 83–114. Frontiers of social psychology. New York: Psychology Press.

    In this book chapter, the authors discuss three motivations for people to resist persuasion: resistance to the influence (reactance), resistance to the proposal (skepticism), and resistance to change (inertia). In addition, they discuss persuasion strategies to overcome resistance.

  • McGuire, William J. 1964. Inducing resistance to persuasion: Some contemporary approaches. In Advances in experimental social psychology. Vol. 1. Edited by Leonard Berkowitz, 191–229. New York: Academic Press.

    DOI: 10.1016/S0065-2601(08)60052-0

    This chapter is often perceived as the starting point for research into strategies that increase resistance toward persuasion. The author reviews general approaches to resisting persuasion and introduces the inoculation approach. Furthermore, the author’s initial experiments on inoculation theory are presented and discussed.

  • van’t Riet, Jonathan, and Rob A. Ruiter. 2013. Defensive reactions to health-promoting information: An overview and implications for future research. Health Psychology Review 7.1: 104–136.

    In this article, the authors discuss several resistance strategies in the context of (threatening) health-promoting information. They make a distinction among avoidance, denial, cognitive reappraisal, and suppression and discuss the different effects the use of these strategies have on emotional experiences and health-conducive behavior.

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