Society for Personality and Social Psychology: Character & Context
All of these mandates have become so commonplace over the past months that we have stopped paying attention because most people are doing all of these things. But looking back at people’s responses to these public health messages reveals something slightly different: In reaction to the pressure to conform to public health guidance, some Americans seemed to go out of their way to violate each and every one of these recommendations.
These reactions seem to underscore a fundamental human truth—people generally do not like being told what to do. This observation lines up with a classic idea from social psychology, called psychological reactance. When people perceive that they have the freedom to do something, like breathe unmasked air, having someone restrict it causes swift and strong rebellion.
My colleague and I wondered whether this is always the case—do people always react negatively when their ability to act freely and autonomously is threatened? One thought is that people’s responses to these freedom threats could be based on their level of certainty and security with what’s going on in their lives.