Psychological Reactance: pressuring your customers is counterproductive

by danique verweij (braingineers)

Everyone who has ever traveled the world must be familiar with those touristy markets where pushy merchants overzealously try to sell you their goods. Before you know it, they shove their products into your hands, leaving you no time to consider your purchase. Perhaps you would have wanted to buy something, but the insensitive sales approach causes you to refrain from buying. This is a typical example of ‘psychological reactance’, and besides marketplaces, there are a ton of online examples of this tough conversion killer. 

Psychological reactance occurs when one is influenced too strongly and as a result, experiences restrictions in their freedom of choice. Clee & Wicklund have described this phenomenon as a ‘boomerang effect’: when experiencing coercion, people have an increased tendency to restore their freedom of choice (1980). The more we feel forced into doing something, such as purchasing a product, the more we will try to resist it.

Brand loyalty increases pressure

Research has shown that if loyal consumers ignore assertive marketing messages coming from a brand that they are initially drawn to, they can experience feelings of guilt. This in turn, can lead to a decrease in brand interest, and even cause consumers to ascribe less value to the associated products and services (Zemack-Rugar, Moore, & Fitzsimons, 2017). It seems that there is a fine line between effective marketing and pushiness. So, how do you find the right balance?

Psychological reactance in eCommerce

Prevailing online examples of psychological reactance triggers are intrusive pop-ups that contain an assertive message or a call-to-action. They often use verbs that are commanding in itself, such as: buy, do, call or visit, and give the impression that refusal is not an option (Edwards, & Joo-Hyun Lee, 2002). This can be considered the ideal breeding ground for resistance, especially when the user has to click the pop-up in order to close it. Another such example is ‘retargeting’, which happens when the same advertisement keeps popping up over and over because you clicked a specific product once. Annoying right? Well, that is psychological reactance for you.

Finally, the creation of scarcity can also lead to resistance against a certain product or service. We are all familiar with messages like: “Last chance!”, “Only two left!, or “This offer only lasts another five hours!”. Whereas this tactic can be effective, it also holds a substantial risk of psychological reactance. The Dutch Authority for Consumers and Markets, among other agencies, has already started regulating ‘artificial scarcity’. Still, the efficacy of such marketing tactics is determined by the consumer. 

How do you measure online reactance?

With the latest technology in neuromarketing research, the right balance to avoid online reactance can be found. Through neuro usability research, for instance, Braingineers measured the emotional customer experience of an online advisory tool. This tool had been developed to provide users with insights and information about the nutritional value of their breakfast. By answering questions about breakfast habits and the types of food, users were able to determine the appropriate nutrient intake for them personally. Then, in the final stage of the journey, specific products were recommended. However, the emotion data showed that when users noticed that the only products presented were from the associated brand, this came as an unpleasant surprise. It did not correspond with the user’s expectations and they felt highly influenced by the tool, which resulted in a decrease in customer trust. To solve this problem, the tool was optimized by including multiple other products in the recommendations. 

How do you prevent psychological reactance? Four tips

Product recommendations can be experienced as logical and call-to-actions can be rather effective, but only if the right balance is found. Therefore, we want to give you four tips on how to minimize psychological reactance:

1. Position yourself independently to increase your credibility. It is understandable that you do not promote your direct competitors, but do not be too obvious when demonstrating self-regard.

2. Do not push too hard on one specific option. Giving advice is perfectly acceptable, but offer other, perhaps slightly less suitable options as well. By providing improved visualizations of the alternatives available, the preferred option seems less imposed. 

3. Research shows that people experience much less psychological reactance if a marketing message is framed as a gain instead of a loss (Cho & Sands, 2011). Rather focus on what a consumer receives, instead of what he or she loses. 

4. Use the BYAF-technique (“But you are free”). Stressing the fact that the consumer is free to choose. When people experience that they are not being influenced by outside forces, they seem to be more interested overall. The freedom to say no increases the feeling of autonomy, which leads them to say yes more often. Proper use of language, in contrast to the aforementioned examples, would be: “It is your choice.” or “You decide.”. 

Keep in mind that psychological reactance might arise in your sales funnel, and feel free to use these insights to your advantage. 


Carpenter, C. (2013). A Meta-Analysis ofthe Effectiveness of the “But You Are Free” Compliance-Gaining Technique.

Cho, H., & Sands, L. (2011) Gain-and loss-frame sun safety messages and psychological reactance of adolescents. Communication Research Reports 28, no. 4 (2011): 308-317.

Clee, M., & Wicklund, R. (1980). Consumer Behavior and Psychological Reactance. Journal of Consumer Research, 6(4), 389-405. 

Edwards, S., Li, H., & Joo-Hyun Lee. (2002). Forced Exposure and Psychological Reactance: Antecedents and Consequences of the Perceived Intrusiveness of Pop-up Ads. Journal of Advertising, 31(3), 83-95.

Zemack-Rugar, Y., Moore, S. G., & Fitzsimons, G. J. (2017). Just do it! Why committed consumers react negatively to assertive ads. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 27(3), 287-301.

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