Boomerang Effect


In social psychology, the boomerang effect refers to the unintended consequences of an attempt to persuade resulting in the adoption of an opposing position instead. It is sometimes referred to as ‘the theory of psychological reactance,’ stating that attempts to restrict a person’s freedom often produce an ‘anticonformity boomerang effect.’ The tactic of reverse psychology, which is a deliberate exploitation of an anticipated boomerang effect, involves one’s attempt of feigning a desire for an outcome opposite to that of the truly desired one, such that the prospect’s resistance will work in the direction that the exploiter actually desires.

The first study on the subject in 1953 noted that it is more likely under certain conditions: When weak arguments are paired with a negative source; When weak or unclear persuasion leads the recipient to believe the communicator is trying to convince them of a different position than what the communicator intends; When the persuasion triggers aggression or unalleviated emotional arousal; When the communication adds to the recipient’s knowledge of the norms and increases their conformity; When non-conformity to their own group results in feelings of guilt or social punishment; and When the communicator’s position is too far from the recipient’s position and thus produces a ‘contrast’ effect and thus enhances their original attitudes.

Social psychologist Jack Brehm first raised attention to the phenomenon, a fait accompli that might conceivably create dissonance if an event has led to the opposite behavior predicted at a prior point. He conducted an experiment to examine the behaviors of eighth graders eating a disliked vegetable. About half of them were told that their parents would be informed on the vegetable they ate. Then liking the vegetable was measured before and after the procedure. The results show that for kids who indicated little or no discrepancy between serving and actually eating the disliked vegetable at home, they should experience little or no dissonance in liking the vegetable from the low to the high consequence condition. They thereby concluded that the greater was the individual’s initial dislike, the greater was the pressure produced by the experiment to increase his liking. There was also larger resistance to change the attitude when the initial attitude was more extreme. However, they argued that in this experiment, the pressure to reduce dissonance increased more rapidly with increasing discrepancy than did the resistance against change.

Reactance is a motivational reaction to offers, persons, rules, or regulations that threaten or eliminate specific behavioral freedoms. Reactance occurs when a person feels that someone or something is taking away his or her choices or limiting the range of alternatives. Brehm argued that when a person thinks that his freedom to support a position on attitude issue is eliminated, the psychological reactance will be aroused and then he consequently moves his attitudinal position in a way so as to restore the lost freedom. He told college students to write an essay supporting one side of five issues and led some of them believe that their persuasive essays might influence the decision on those issues. Therefore, the people who had the impression that their preference was taken into account in the decision regarding which side they would support on the first issue showed attitude change in favor of the preferred position, while others who are concerned with their freedom lost move toward the intended position held by the communicator. This experiment resulted in various links in the chain of reasoning: (a) when a person’s freedom is threatened, his motivational state will move toward restoration of the threatened freedom; (b) the greater the implied threatened freedoms, the greater the tendency to restore the threatened freedom will be; (c) the reestablishment of freedom may take the form of moving one’s attitudinal position away from the position forced by others.

Social psychologist Leon Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory (the idea that people feel discomfort when they hold conflicting ideas, beliefs or values) can provide an explanation and a prediction of both the intended and the unintended influence of persuasion communication on attitudinal change. First, suppose that dissonance is aroused in regard to some unspecified cognition. According to Festinger’s the dissonance could be reduced by a change in the cognition. Now suppose the resistance to change is great because the actual event cannot be changed and its meaning is ambiguous (for example, the person is strongly committed to the original cognition position), then the person will resort to other forms to reduce or eliminate the dissonance. In this latter form, one can solve the discrepancy problem through the addition of elements consonant either with the original cognition, in which produced the boomerang effect. The expected ‘unintended influence’ arises when the communicator tried to persuade the other of the worth of his own position by becoming even more extreme in that position.

Psychologist Arthur R. Cohen asked his subjects write a strongly persuasive essay to the partners with an opposite side of attitude on an issue, who are actually confederates. The subjects here thus act as the communicator to bring their partners over to their own sides. The subjects were also asked to rate the partners’ likability and friendliness before they read ‘their partner’s essay’ returned. Cohen used attitude change of the partners as the manipulation of dissonance where he randomly allocated his subjects into high-dissonance group and low-dissonance group. The results exposed strong boomerang effects for high-dissonance group. He also found out that the response to the likability and friendliness of the partners are relevant. The data showed that the difference between dissonance conditions was largely confined to and exaggerated for those subjects who originally rated their partners to be relatively more likable and friendly.

Cohen’s study on boomerang effect has broadened the scope of persuasive communication from merely the recipient’s reaction to the persuasive message to the communicator’s attempt to influence the target. Dissonance theory suggests that the basic issue is under what conditions a person strengthens his original attitude as a way of reducing some attitudinal inconsistency. Cohen suggested that, one can reduce the dissonance via boomerang when dissonance is created (a) with a strong commitment to convincing the other person, (b) with no anticipation of a further influence attempt, and (c) with no easy chance to repudiate the other person. His results on the likability have strengthened the interpretation as the low-dissonance group who found their partners likable and friendly move toward them in the attitudes more, while likability only increased dissonance for the highs. In other words, the dissonance can be reduced by becoming more extreme in the original position, thereby increasing the proportion of cognition supporting the initial stand and decreasing the proportion of dissonant cognition.

A study found that consumers are resistant to loyalty programs, finding that (a) contractual bonds provoke reactance effects, (b) social-psychological bonds increased neither reactance nor perceived utility of the program, (c) economic bonds raised perceived utility to a certain threshold level, from which the reactance effect dominated afterwards. Their results helped managers to evaluate the effects from implementing consumer retention measures and advised a cautious and limited application of loyalty programs. Researchers have reported that some public health interventions have produced effects opposite to those intended in health communication such as smoking and alcohol consumption behaviors, and thus have employed various methods to study them under different contexts. Certain factors presumed to activate norms favoring helping actually result in decreasing helping. First, when individuals perceives the framing of a help appeal to have excessive statements of need, they become suspicious and concern the motive and the true severity of the original request (i.e., mistrust). Reactance theory was used to provide the second explanation. Individuals would respond to threatened freedoms by either acting counter to the attempted social influence, or declaring themselves helpless. The third type involves undermining internalized benefits by external sanctions.

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