Inner reactance: a critical piece of the addiction puzzle

Reactance is “A motive to protect or restore freedom…it arises when someone threatens our freedom of action” (Myers, 242).

When Eaton Behavioral Health Manager Darby Monks and I sat down to brainstorm this topic, we uncovered a familiar example when the conversation turned towards friends who are particularly pushy about their taste in music and movies.

“You have GOT to see this movie! You will LOVE it!” a friend exclaims for the thirtieth time, only contributing to my resolve to do the exact opposite, triggering a simple form of reactance. Perceiving that my autonomy is threatened, I become mildly agitated and stubborn in my aversion to seeing the movie, listening to the song, whatever. I am the master of my own free will and identity, so I’ll decide what I love and what I don’t!

This kind of reactance can also occur when a film, song, or event is extraordinarily popular to the point where participating in it could be construed as a threat to autonomy. Why would I enjoy something just because everyone else does? Do I look like a sheep?

As a result of this, perhaps I miss out on seeing a film that really would have rocked my socks. This is the precise reason I have not seen or read the Harry Potter series, which now that I ponder about it, I would most likely think is awesome.

Darby and I both admitted that we had experienced similar scenarios many times, but had not labeled the phenomenon until now. Of course reactance applies to other, more consequential interpersonal situations as well, and might even be related to those melodramatic outbursts that we humans have from time to time You know, the ones that leave us scratching our heads, wondering what the crud just happened.

Alas, what I want to delve further into today is not just reactance in the interpersonal sense.

I propose that inner reactance occurs when we choose to alter or moderate ourselves in ways that we, on some level, perceive as a threat to our autonomy and free will.

Intrapersonal (or inner) reactance can result in an exaggerated drive to engage in the behavior or pattern that we hope to moderate, and I believe that this phenomenon is a vital key to understanding possible aspects of why some people continue to engage in addictive behaviors even after making an adamant choice to do otherwise.

Let’s take a closer look at this process and use alcohol misuse as an example.

The sequence starts in the bottom-left.

The process starts with the conscious decision to consume alcohol. This is a reasonable expression of free will.

In some situations drinking becomes an endearing past time, perhaps in a social context, even integrating with a person’s sense of identity. The kudos I used to get for drinking all of my friends under the table definitely reinforced intoxication as a part of my identity, due to my being applauded, recognized, praised. However, continual and frequent drinking is not without its consequences, and those consequences are eventually recognized as choices are re-evaluated.

If the current course of action is deemed inappropriate, a person may make an executive decision to eliminate or moderate a behavior, thereby creating a condition of self-imposed limitation. This limitation triggers intrapersonal reactance if it is perceived as a threat to free will and autonomy. As a result, a person who has made a strict decision of executive function to bring about the cessation of drinking may be overtaken by an inexplicable drive to continue on with that behavior that has been targeted for modification; and the behavior may be carried out in increasingly exaggerated, overcompensatory ways.

My hypothesis is that intrapersonal/inner reactance is a relevant component in a network of factors that contributes to unwanted self-abusive behavior.

One plausible reason for the formation of intrapersonal (inner) reactance is through the frequent utilization of interpersonal (social) reactance as a defense mechanism.

For instance, if a child or teenager is under constant scrutiny by their parents, the quest to establish an autonomous identity may be hindered and interpersonal reactance may ensue in the form of rebellion. If reactance becomes the default defense mechanism when autonomy and free will are compromised, then it is logical that an inclination towards intrapersonal reactance could follow throughout the life course.

This especially interesting in the case of addictions to substances, where the initial choice to use is often connected with reactance towards parentally-imposed limitations (parents who make very strict rules about never drinking). However, the possible eventual inability to produce lasting cessation is connected with reactance towards self-imposed limitations.

Almost poetic…

Essentially, intrapersonal reactance happens when an executive decision is made that does not resonate on all levels of self, which subsequently produces inner conflict. This being the case, the question to explore is of how to get our decisions to resonate on those deeper, trickier levels as to not produce inward dissonance. How do we unify the intention and desire of our inner components, getting the logical and the primal parts of the brain on the same page, thereby nullifying that perceived threat to autonomy?

For now, let’s call this the objective of full-spectrum intention.

So, what do you think? Fail to hesitate to grace me with your ideas, feedback, arguments, musings, revelations, etc. As for me, time to hunt down a copy of Harry Potter (or not).


Myers, David G. Exploring Social Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2012. Print.

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