Why So Many People Don't Listen to Warnings

There's a psychology behind it.

Why So Many People Don't Listen to Warnings

A volcano is about to erupt. The stock market is about to crash. A bunch of soldiers are hiding inside a Trojan horse. A dangerous disease is spreading. A tsunami is coming. You get wind of a terrorist plot.

What happens?

You see it in almost every disaster movie. Everyone blows off the warnings. They dismiss the scientists as quacks. Even worse, they get angry. They refuse to evacuate. They start protesting and rioting over the very things that are supposed to protect them. And despite all these movies where politicians and the public ignore warnings up until the very last minute, we as a society continue to do the exact same thing in real life.

The most famous stories in the Bible just happen to show us what happens when you ignore warnings. You die in horrible ways.

Even when the threat turns out to be very real, a majority of the public will continue to mock and ridicule the handful of us who make a reasonable effort to protect ourselves. They continue to get angry over the slightest suggestion they should pay attention to a threat.


A psychologist at Duke University named Jack Brehm figured out this problem in the 1960s. He called it reactance. He published a handful of articles about it followed by a book titled A Theory of Psychological Reactance. His book inspired 60 years of research on the topic. It even informed the popular psychological trick known as reverse psychology.

Brehm discovered something you've seen a lot over the last few years. When you try to influence someone's actions, they resist. When people feel a threat to their perceived independence, they get angry.

They try to restore their freedom.

They might ignore the warning. They might make fun of you. They might pitch a fit. They might punch you in the face.

It depends.

Everyone has their own reactance scale. It lives on a spectrum. At one end, you have collectively minded people. They tend to focus on the greater good. They're more likely to give up certain freedoms if it means avoiding death and destruction. On the other end, you have rugged individualists who see almost every warning or suggestion as a threat to their personal freedom.

Here's the weird part:

An individualist will get angrier if a friend or relative tries to influence their behavior in a way that threatens their sense of personal freedom. They're also more likely to resist advice or information coming to them through anyone promoted as an expert or authority figure. You'd think the opposite would be true, that individualists would be more inclined to listen to people in their ingroup. Nope, their thinking isn't rooted in logic.

It's rooted in narcissism.

The harder you try to influence them, the worse it gets.

They only become more aggressive.

Brehm even found that you can't even do a favor for someone on the extreme end of the spectrum. They'll feel pressure to return the favor.

They hate that.

People can also feel vicarious reactance.

In other words, they'll get angry if they see someone else getting angry about perceived losses to their personal freedom. They'll defend someone else's right to do something stupid, simply because it's their right.

Censoring or restricting someone's freedoms can often enhance the attractiveness of that freedom. It's the forbidden fruit at work. Take something away, and that's suddenly all they want to do. Tell them to wear a seatbelt. Tell them smoking is bad for them. Suddenly, it's the cool thing to do.

You can trigger someone's reactance overtly by using controlling language. But you can also trigger it indirectly, even accidentally. If someone happens to associate a request or a warning with something negative in their life, like a controlling spouse, then they're less likely to listen.

A lot of people get a real kick out of ignoring warnings. They enjoy disregarding advice from experts. They love harassing and ridiculing those of us who do take threats and warnings seriously.

Individualists only tend to take warnings seriously when a threat becomes absolute. They wait until the volcano erupts. They wait until the waves crash ashore. They wait until the flames lick their skin. Only then do they react, and it's usually a panic-driven response to save their own hide. They don't do anything to help anyone else, and their panic almost always causes a lot of problems for everyone else. As one internet troll told me, they were waiting for people to fall down in the street choking with disease before putting on a good respirator. And of course, as many of us know, it's far too late by then.

There's a cultural component to reactance.

You see less reactance in more collectivist societies. You see more reactance in individualist societies. I think we can all agree that western countries, especially the U.S., pride themselves on their individual freedoms. Every single day, Americans celebrate their right to act stupid and do dangerous things. It's getting to be a real pathology over here.

So, what can you do?

The research suggests you have to be as indirect and neutral as possible when trying to influence someone's behavior.

Even then, you might fail.

Again, it depends. You can be direct with some people. And with others, there's pretty much nothing you can do. You just have to leave them alone. We've seen how well neutral, indirect attempts work at getting individualists to change their behavior. Maybe you'll avoid making them angry, but they'll likely just ignore you, even laugh at you.

So as we stare down another pandemic, along with all the other consequences of an overheated planet, don't be shocked at all the reactance you see. Don't be surprised when you see people wanting to cuddle with birds and drink unpasteurized milk, simply because someone told them it's a bad idea right now. By trying to help someone, you triggered their reactance.

There's one lesson here:

All you can really do is present people with important information, and then let them make their own decisions.

If they make stupid decisions simply because they can...

Stay away from them.

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