Have you ever found yourself wanting something you can’t have- seemingly only because you can’t have it? Have you ever found yourself eating more food than you wanted after being denied it – maybe because you wanted to take back control over your own decisions? If so, then you are not alone.

People want to see themselves as being in charge of their own decisions and behavior. Threats to their freedom of choice can motivate them to restore their sense of freedom and self-determination by acting against the rule as soon as possible. This is why having a coach or spouse be the food rule enforcer can lead to eating in secret. This may seem innocuous or silly to some, but for the person who is secretly rebelling it can be quite a guilt trip and feel shameful.

This is a phenomenon called “psychological reactance”- reacting to a rule (that infringes on your freedom of choice) by breaking the rule to feel back in control of making decisions. One obvious problem with this phenomenon is that setting restrictions or rules can backfire and actually increase the unhealthy habit. So what are health professionals and campaigns to do when advocating for healthy lifestyle changes!?

Due to reactance, dietitians and other health professionals have had to change their tone and way in which they give advice in order to connect with clients and better meet their needs. Long gone are the days when clients needed information on the topic at hand and many of them are coming to sessions having already researched what they want to know. Our role had morphed into more of a facilitator or coach to help keep the client motivated to make the changes they want to make. Recent research suggests that this more “gentle” approach is not only what the client may want but what they need to make changes.

The reactance phenomenon was recently studied and you can read the article here. The researchers looked at the difference between making eating-related rules as suggestions versus restrictions.
So, for example, stating ‘you should not eat unhealthy food’ versus stating ‘it is best not to eat unhealthy food, but ultimately the decision is up to you’. See the graphic to the left for more examples.

Results of this study indicate that “ironically enough, a restrictive rule may actually increase intake of food in situations where the rule is no longer in place or cannot be enforced”. The explanation they gave was that a restrictive rule evoked psychological reactance and participants ate more of the unhealthy food once the rule was no longer enforced.

They also examined if both ways of giving advice are effective in discouraging unhealthy behavior. Some professionals believe that a more flexible and gentle approach won’t push the client enough to make changes and follow rules. This study showed that both kinds of statements were equally able to discourage the unhealthy behavior. Therefore a suggested, more gentle rule does not minimize the problem behavior and may ultimately be a more practical alternative to a restrictive rule.

A great summary was written by the researchers: “a suggested rule still discourages consumption of a certain food, but it leaves the ultimate decision about eating the food up to the individual”.

SO next time you feel yourself rebelling against a rule- you may be catching yourself in the act of psychological reactance. Take a step backwards and try rephrasing the advice you were given to be more of a suggestion than a rule.