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When Do People Fight For Their Freedoms?

2012 January 17
by Eric Horowitz

People have different reactions when freedoms are put in jeopardy or taken away. Some people engage in “rationalization” — they convince themselves to see the new status quo in the most positive light. (This is likely due to the human tendency to put the best spin on our lives.) Other people engage in “reactance.” They come to believe the restricted freedoms are even more important, and they will do whatever they can to fight the new restrictions.

What accounts for the different reactions? A new study finds evidence that “absoluteness,” the degree to which the restrictions are permanent, is the driving factor.

Across two studies, participants responded to absolute restrictions (i.e., restrictions that were sure to come into effect) with rationalization: They viewed the restrictions more favorably, and valued the restricted freedoms less, compared with control participants. Participants responded in the opposite way to identical restrictions that were described as nonabsolute (i.e., as having a small chance of not coming into effect).

The researchers asked subjects how they felt about a law reducing speed limits. Subjects who learned the law was sure to be enacted felt more positive about it than subjects who learned the law would need to pass another vote. The effect was also strongest for people who drove more frequently, which rules out that the results were due to indifference about the restrictions.

As the authors point out, the positive takeaway from the study is that we can be optimistic about budding revolutions that create doubt about the future of certain tyrannical societies. The idea that a small opening can snowball into big change also dovetails nicely with research on power that shows the perception of illegitimacy greatly influences the motivation of the powerless.

On a more depressing note, this is yet another study that bodes poorly for our political system. If people withhold some approval of a law until they are sure it’s permanent, the best strategy in the face of legislative defeat is to refuse to accept the outcome (e.g. the repeal-and-do-nothing-else GOP healthcare plan.) Eventually we will have constant gridlock even with items that passed all the initial legislative hurdles that used to be sufficient for getting something done.
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Laurin, K., Kay, A., & Fitzsimons, G. (2012). Reactance Versus Rationalization: Divergent Responses to Policies That Constrain Freedom Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797611429468

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