Antecedents of reactance to a UV exposure intervention: individual freedom threat and criticism

Dykstra, Jennifer
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Health communications are often unsuccessful at reducing risky behavior. Reactance theory was tested as an explanation for the mismatch of healthy belief and unhealthy behavior. Reactance theory predicts psychological distancing and rebellion due to a freedom elimination or restriction. Prior research on reactance theory in the health domain has not distinguished between criticism for previous risky behavior and threatening a freedom, and has not considered a freedom threat for one person versus multiple people. Both of these dimensions, criticism and type of threat, were tested. College students were told they had extensive damage from exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light (e.g., sun tanning), and then were provoked with a persuasive health communication instructing a reduction in UV exposure and regular use of sunscreen. Experimental conditions differed on whether participants were criticized for their damage or whether the environment was to blame. Conditions also differed on whether participants believed the health message was specific to them (individual threat) or whether multiple people received the message (general threat). Regression analyses were used to test for reactance; self-esteem, prior tanning behavior, and gender were tested as moderators. Reactance was operationally defined as a lack of decrease in willingness to tan from pre-test to post-test. Hypotheses were partially supported: individual freedom threat did lead to reactance, especially among frequent tanners and participants with high self-esteem. The role of criticism in producing reactance was less supported. Future research should make both criticism of prior risky behavior as well as the persuasive attempt of the heath communication more salient. Future research should also avoid inducing hypocrisy, which increases compliance and reduces reactance. However, results of the current study did provide mild support for the dual roles of criticism and individual freedom threat in creating reactance to a persuasive health message.