Jonathan Freedman, and Psychological Reactance

Jonathan Freedman, psychological reactance is a very popular term in the anti-child-spanking community of parents. If you dig into the research behind the movement you will find his name. You will also find this study cited repeatedly. Freedman didn’t study how to change a child’s behavior in the moment. He studied how to influence lasting change.

Freedman knew that in 1965 most boys of seven to nine years obeyed their parents as a result of the threat of spanking. Spanking was the gold standard of parenting then. There was not an anti-child-spanking community, in fact it was just the opposite.

Spanking in Monaco

Consider this Sunday Dec. 12 1965 article in the Chicago Tribune titled Princess Grace Does the Spanking in Monaco.

-In a rare interview with this reporter, Princes Grace discussed how she raised her family.

“Children need much love and affection,”she said, “but also some discipline. “I’m rather severe with mine.”jonathan freedman, psychological reactance

Did Rainier ever apply a hairbrush to his offspring like ordinary fathers?

“Well, sometimes I use my hand on them,” she replied.

“Prince Albert,” his mother said, “already is being taught that it will be his duty one day to govern the principality,” and she added: “It is fairly easy to teach him. He is quiet, and thinks a lot.”-

He is Quiet and Thinks A lot

Any parent of a toddler knows what a relief those moments of silence can be. The article is not asking about the validity of spanking or if the family used spanking. It asked how did the family used spanking and who did it.

This occurred in the fractured era of Churchill’s death, LBJ’s Great Society, the start of the Vietnam War.It happened during the assassination of Malcolm X and the racial tensions in the American South with Dr. Martin Luther King leading the charge. In that backdrop, the validity of spanking was not on the forefront of societal happenings. The quick peace and quiet it brought must have been a huge relief.

But a small experiment happening in this pivotal moment in history would go on to influence the parenting style of the nation.

This excerpt from Readings in Managerial Psychology by M. Boje explains it best.

Jonathan Freedman

“An experiment by Jonathan Freedman gives us some hints about what to do and what not to do in this regard.

Freedman wanted to see if he could prevent second to fourth grade boys form playing with a fascinating toy. But only because he had said that it was wrong to do so some six weeks earlier. Anyone familiar with seven to none year old boys must realize the enormity of the task. But Freedman had a plan. If he could first get the boys to convince themselves that it was wrong to play with the forbidden toy, perhaps that belief would keep them from playing with it thereafter. The difficult thing was making the boys believe that it was wrong to amuse themselves with the toy-an extremely expensive, battery controlled robot. (This was in 1965)

Threats vs. Options

Freedman knew it would be easy enough to have a boy obey temporarily. All he had to do was threaten the boy with severe consequences should he be caught playing with the toy. As long as he was nearby to deal out stiff punishment, Freedman figured that few boys would risk operating the robot. He was right. After showing a boy an array of five toys he warned them, “It is wrong to play with the robot. If you play with the robot I’ll be very angry and will have to do something about it.” Then Freedman left the room for a few minutes. During that time, the boy was observed secretly through a one-way mirror. Freedman tried this threat procedure on twenty-two different boys, and twenty-one of them never touched the robot while he was gone.


So a strong threat was successful while the boys thought they might be caught and punished. But Freeedman had already guessed that. He was really interested in the effectiveness of the threat in guiding the boys’ behavior later on, when he was no longer around. To find out what would happen then he sent a young woman back to the boys’ school about six weeks after he had been there. She took the boys out of the class one at a time to participate in an experiment. Without ever mentioning any connection with Freedman, she escorted each boy back to the room with the five toys and gave him a drawing test. While she was scoring the test, she told the boy that he was free to play with any toy in the room. Of course, almost all the boys played with a toy. The interesting result was that, of the boys playing with a toy, 77 percent chose to play with the robot that had been forbidden to them earlier. Freedman’s severe threat, which had been so successful six weeks before, was almost totally unsuccessful when he was no longer able to back it up with punishment.

It is Wrong . . .

But Freedman wasn’t finished yet. He changed his procedure slightly with a second sample of boys. These boys, too, were initially shown the array of five toys by Freedman and warned not to play with the robot while he was briefly out of the room because, “it is wrong to play with the robot.” But this time, Freedman provided no strong threat to frighten a boy into obedience. He simply left the room and observed through the one-way mirror to see if his instruction against placing with the forbidden toy was enough. It was. Just as with the other jonathan freedman, psychological reactancesample, only one of the twenty-two boys touched the robot during the short time Freedman was gone.

The real difference between the two samples of boys came six weeks later, when they had a chance to play with the toys while Freedman was no longer around. An astonishing thing happened with the boys who had earlier been given no strong threat against playing with the robot. When given the freedom to play with any toy they wished, most avoided the robot, even though it was by far the most attractive of the five toys available (the others were a cheap plastic submarine, a child’s baseball glove without a ball, an unloaded toy rifle, and a toy tractor.) When these boys played with one of the five toys, only 33 percent chose the robot.

From the Inside

Something dramatic had happened to both groups of boys. For the first group, it was the severe threat they heard from Freedman to back up his statement that playing with the robot was “wrong.”It had been quite effective at first, while Freedman could catch them. Should they violate his rule later, though, when he was no longer present to observe the boys’ behavior, his threat was impotent and his rule was, consequently, ignored. It seems clear that the threat had not taught the boys that operating the robot was wrong, only that it was unwise to do so when the possibility of punishment existed.

For the other boys, the dramatic event had come from the inside, not the outside. Freeman had instructed them, too, that playing with the robot was wrong, but he had added no threat of punishment should they disobey him. There were two important results. First, Freedman’s instruction alone was enough to prevent the boys from operating the robot while he was briefly out of the room. Second, the boys took personal responsibility for their choice to stay away from the robot during that time. They decided that they hadn’t played with it because they didn’t want to. After all, there were no strong punishments associated with the toy to explain their behavior otherwise. Thus, weeks later, when Freedman was nowhere around, they still ignored the robot because they had been changed inside to believe the they did not want to play with it.”

Jonathan Freedman, Psychological Reactance

Freedman proved that, at least in young boys playing with robots, forcing them to act a certain way did not change their minds about acting that way. Threats only created the desirable situation in the moment, but it did not create lasting change. In fact, a natural, psychological reaction that we all experience probably had the opposite effect from Freedman’s demands. This natural occurrence is called psychological reactance…………Quick and Stephenson 2008 study proved that dogmatic language initiated psychological reactance. The following are examples of that language.

  1. Imperatives such as must or need
  2. Absolute allegations, such as  cannot deny that or this issue is extremely serious.
  3. Derision towards other perspectives, such as any reasonable person would agree that

We can see that demands get us the opposite of what we are after. In contrast, messages that are less dogmatic do not provoke psychological reactance such as.

  1. Allusions to choice such as you have the chance to or we leave the choice to you
  2. Qualified propositions such as there is some evidence that or their issue is fairly serious.
  3. Avoidance of imperatives or derisive language. Rather than saying, “Take out the trash,” say, “Please take out the trash.”

Psychological reactance explains why so many people have lost their influence on society. From Harry Markopolos, Dr. Ignaz Semmelweis, and possibly you. Are you making demands, or offering options? How much more influence could you have if you simply changed how you speak?

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