boomerang effect

n social psychology, the boomerang effect refers to the unintended consequences of an attempt to persuade resulting in the adoption of an opposing position instead. It is sometimes also referred to “the theory of psychological reactance“, stating that attempts to restrict a person’s freedom often produce an “anticonformity boomerang effect”.[1]

Hovland, Janis and Kelly[2] first recorded and named the boomerang effect in 1953, noting that it is more likely under certain conditions:

  • When weak arguments are paired with a negative source.
  • When weak or unclear persuasion leads the recipient to believe the communicator is trying to convince them of a different position than what the communicator intends.
  • When the persuasion triggers aggression or unalleviated emotional arousal.
  • When the communication adds to the recipient’s knowledge of the norms and increases their conformity.
  • When non-conformity to their own group results in feelings of guilt or social punishment.
  • When the communicator’s position is too far from the recipient’s position and thus produces a “contrast” effect and thus enhances their original attitudes.

Later in 1957, Hovland, Sherif and Harvey[3] further discussed the necessity of understanding these unintended attitude changes in persuasion communication and suggested possible approaches for analysis via underlying motivational processes, psychophysical stimuli, as well as ego-involving verbal material. Jack Brehm and Arthur Cohen were among the first to provide theoretical explanations.

Jack Brehm[4] first raised attention to the phenomenon a fait accompli that might conceivably create dissonance if an event has led to the opposite behavior predicted at a prior point. He conducted an experiment to examine the behaviors of eighth graders eating a disliked vegetable. About half of them were told that their parents would be informed on the vegetable they ate. Then liking the vegetable was measured before and after the procedure. The results show that for kids who indicated little or no discrepancy between serving and actually eating the disliked vegetable at home, they should experience little or no dissonance in liking the vegetable from the low to the high consequence condition. They thereby concluded that the greater was the individual’s initial dislike, the greater was the pressure produced by the experiment to increase his liking. There was also larger resistance to change the attitude when the initial attitude was more extreme. However, they argued that in this experiment, the pressure to reduce dissonance increased more rapidly with increasing discrepancy than did the resistance against change, which verified Festinger’s cognitive dissonance theory.[5] In a follow up,[6] Sensenig and Brehm focused on the boomerang effect in experiments and applied Brehm’s psychological reactance theory[7] to explain the unintended attitudinal change.

Sensenig & Brehm[8] applied Brehm’s reactance theory[9] to explain the boomerang effect. They argued that when a person thinks that his freedom to support a position on attitude issue is eliminated, the psychological reactance will be aroused and then he consequently moves his attitudinal position in a way so as to restore the lost freedom. He told college students to write an essay supporting one side of five issues and led some of them believe that their persuasive essays might influence the decision on those issues. Therefore, the people who had the impression that their preference was taken into account in the decision regarding which side they would support on the 1st issue showed attitude change in favor of the preferred position, while others who are concerned with their freedom lost move toward the intended position held by the communicator.

This experiment resulted in various links in the chain of reasoning: (a) when a person’s freedom is threatened, his motivational state will move toward restoration of the threatened freedom; (b) the greater the implied threatened freedoms, the greater the tendency to restore the threatened freedom will be; (c) the reestablishment of freedom may take the form of moving one’s attitudinal position away from the position forced by others.

Jack Brehm and Sharon Brehm later developed psychological reactance theory[10] and discussed its applications.[11] They also listed a series of reactions reactance can evoke in addition to the boomerang effect, which include but not limited to related boomerang effect,[12][13] indirect restoration[14] or vicarious boomerang effects.[15][16]

The dissonance theory by Leon Festinger[17] has thrived the progress of social psychology research in the 1960s as it is not confined to the prediction of intended influence but can support almost all sub fields of psychology studies. Although Festinger himself was ambiguous about the role of commitment in the theory, later researchers such as Brehm[18] and Cohen[19] have emphasized its importance in providing a general conceptualization of the boomerang effect. Earlier studies by Thibaut and Strickland[20] and Kelley and Volkhart[21] have also provided support to this line of reasoning by Dissonance Theory despite that they were not phrased using the exact terminology.

According to Cohen,[22] dissonance theory can provide not only an explanation, but also a prediction of both the intended and the unintended influence of persuasion communication on attitudinal change. In his experiment, he presented factors that can lead to a boomerang effect, while suggesting a broader view of the unintended consequences than simply the case of a response to attempted attitude change. Cohen proposed the following dissonance formulation model for the unintended attitude change by persuasive communication. First, suppose that dissonance aroused in regard to some unspecified cognition. According to Festinger’s Cognitive Dissonance Theory, we know the dissonance could be reduced by a change in the cognition. Now suppose the resistance to change is great because the actual event cannot be changed and its meaning is ambiguous (for example, the person is strongly committed to the original cognition position), then the person will resort to other forms to reduce or eliminate the dissonance. In this latter form, one can solve the discrepancy problem through the addition of elements consonant either with the original cognition, in which produced the boomerang effect. Cohen formulated a situation of “mutual boomerang effect”, in which the communicator is strongly committed to convince the other person of his attitudinal position by means of a persuasion communication. Because of this strong original attitude position the communicator holds, Cohen predicts that the more distant the target person’s original attitude, the more dissonance will be also experienced by the communicator. The expected “unintended influence” arises when the communicator tried to persuade the other of the worth of his own position by becoming even more extreme in that position. He asked his subjects write a strongly persuasive essay to the partners with an opposite side of attitude on an issue, who are actually confederates. The subjects here thus act as the communicator to bring their partners over to their own sides. The subjects were also asked to rate the partners’ likability and friendliness before they read “their partner’s essay” returned. Cohen used attitude change of the partners as the manipulation of dissonance where he randomly allocated his subjects into high-dissonance group and low-dissonance group. The results exposed strong boomerang effects for high-dissonance group. He also found out that the response to the likability and friendliness of the partners are relevant. The data showed that the difference between dissonance conditions was largely confined to and exaggerated for those subjects who originally rated their partners to be relatively more likable and friendly.

Cohen’s study on boomerang effect has broadened the scope of persuasive communication from merely the recipient’s reaction to the persuasive message to the communicator’s attempt to influence the target. Dissonance theory suggests that the basic issue is under what conditions a person strengthens his original attitude as a way of reducing some attitudinal inconsistency. Cohen suggested that, one can reduce the dissonance via boomerang when dissonance is created (a) with a strong commitment to convincing the other person, (b) with no anticipation of a further influence attempt, and (c) with no easy chance to repudiate the other person. His results on the likability have strengthened the interpretation as the low-dissonance group who found their partners likable and friendly move toward them in the attitudes more, while likability only increased dissonance for the highs.

In other words, the dissonance can be reduced by becoming more extreme in the original position, thereby increasing the proportion of cognition supporting the initial stand and decreasing the proportion of dissonant cognition.

Boomerang effect is sometimes also referred to the attribution/attitude boomerang effect. Researchers applied Heider’s attribution theory[23] to explain why it would occur. For example, Skowronski, Carlston, Mae, and Crawford demonstrated association-based effects in their study on spontaneous trait transference.[24] Despite that the descriptions of other people are independent of the communicator, simple associative processes link the two together and produce boomerang phenomena.

Wendlandt and Scharafer[25] studied the resistance of consumers against loyalty programs encountered in relationship marketing. They found that (a) contractual bonds provoke reactance effects, (b) social-psychological bonds increased neither reactance nor perceived utility of the program, (c) economic bonds raised perceived utility to a certain threshold level, from which the reactance effect dominated afterwards. Their results helped managers to evaluate the effects from implementing consumer retention measures and advised a cautious and limited application of loyalty programs.

The tactic of reverse psychology, which is a deliberate exploitation of an anticipated boomerang effect, involves one’s attempt of feigning a desire for an outcome opposite to that of the truly desired one, such that the prospect’s resistance will work in the direction that the exploiter actually desires (e.g.,Please don’t fling me in that briar patch“).

Researchers have reported that some public health interventions have produced effects opposite to those intended in health communication such as smoking and alcohol consumption behaviors, and thus have employed various methods to study them under different contexts. Ringold argued that some consumer’s negative reactions on alcoholic beverage warnings and education efforts can be explained concisely by Brehm’s psychological reactance theory.[26] These results suggested that boomerang effects should be considered as potential costs of launching mass communication campaigns. Dillard and Shen also emphasized the importance of reactance theory to understand failures in persuasive health communication but argued that there be a measurement problem.[27] They thereby developed four alternative conceptual perspectives on the nature of reactance as well as provided an empirical test of each.

Mann and Hill[28] investigated the case of litter control and showed that the combination of different positive influence strategies could actually create boomerang effect and decrease the amount of appropriate disposal of waste. Schultz et al. (2007) conducted a field experiment in which the normative messages were used to promote household energy conservation where they found the descriptive message of neighborhood usage created a boomerang effect depending on the high prior household consumption. They also eliminated the boomerang effect by adding an injunctive message about social approval. Their results offered an empirical evidence for prior research on the theoretical framework for boomerang effects.[29]

Schwartz and Howard discussed the occurrence of boomerang effects in helping as they found out the presence of certain factors presumed to activate norms favoring helping actually result in decreasing helping.[30] They identified three related forms of such boomerang effect in helping behavior. First, when individuals perceived the framing of a help appeal to have excessive statements of need, they become suspicious and concern the motive and the true severity of the original request (i.e., mistrust). Reactance theory was used to provide the second explanation. They stated that individuals would respond to threatened freedoms by either acting counter to the attempted social influence, or declaring themselves helpless. The third type involves undermining internalized benefits by external sanctions.

Liotta attempted to understand policy decisions and future choices driven by a blurring of concerns that involve state-centric security and human security. She suggested that a boomerang effect occurs in the area in which excessive focus on one aspect of security at the expense or detriment of the other is a poor balancing of ends and means in a changing security environment and instead we should focus on both national and human security.[31]

Nyhan & Reifler[32] conducted experiments in which subjects read mock news articles including a misleading claim from a politician, or such a claim followed by a correction. They found that the corrections frequently fail to reduce misconceptions for the ideological group targeted by the misinformation. They also found cases of what they called a “backfire effect” (i.e. a boomerang effect) in which the corrections strengthened belief in the misinformation. They attribute this to motivated reasoning on the part of the affected participants.

  1. ^ Brehm, S.; Brehm, J.W. (1981). Psychological reactance: a theory of freedom and control. New York: Academic Press.
  2. ^ Hovland, C.I., Janis, I.L., & Kelley, H. H. Communication and persuasion. New Haven. Yale University Press, 1953
  3. ^ Hovland, C. I., Harvey, O. J., & Sherif, M. (1957). Assimilation and contrast effects in reactions to communication and attitude change. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 55(2), 244.
  4. ^ Brehm, J. W. (1959). Increasing cognitive dissonance by a fait accompli. The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 58(3), 379.
  5. ^ Festinger, L. (1962). A theory of cognitive dissonance (Vol. 2). Stanford university press.
  6. ^ Sensenig, J., & Brehm, J. W. (1968). Attitude Change from an Implied Threat to Attitudinal Freedom. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8(4p1), 324.
  7. ^ Brehm, J. W. (1966). A theory of psychological reactance. New York: Academic Press.
  8. ^ Sensenig, J., & Brehm, J. W. (1968). Attitude Change from an Implied Threat to Attitudinal Freedom. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 8(4p1), 324.
  9. ^ Brehm, J. W. (1966). A theory of psychological reactance. New York.
  10. ^ Brehm, J. W., & Brehm, S. S. (1981). Psychological reactance: A theory of freedom and control. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
  11. ^ Brehm , J.W. (1989) ,”Psychological Reactance: Theory and Applications.”, in NA – Advances in Consumer Research Volume 16, eds. Thomas K. Srull, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 72-75.
  12. ^ Quick, B. L., & Stephenson, M. T. (2007). Further evidence that psychological reactance can be modeled as a combination of anger and negative cognition. Communication Research, 34, 255-276.
  13. ^ Quick, B. L., & Stephenson, M. T. (2008). Examining the role of trait reactance and sensation seeking on perceived threat, state reactance, and reactance restoration. Human Communication Research, 34, 448-476.
  14. ^ Brehm, J. W., & Brehm, S. S. (1981). Psychological reactance: A theory of freedom and control. San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
  15. ^ Quick, B. L., & Stephenson, M. T. (2007). Further evidence that psychological reactance can be modeled as a combination of anger and negative cognition. Communication Research, 34, 255-276.
  16. ^ Quick, B. L., & Stephenson, M. T. (2008). Examining the role of trait reactance and sensation seeking on perceived threat, state reactance, and reactance restoration. Human Communication Research, 34, 448-476.
  17. ^ Festinger, L. (1962). A theory of cognitive dissonance (Vol. 2). Stanford university press.
  18. ^ Brehm, J. W. (1960). A dissonance analysis of attitude-discrepant behavior. Attitude Organization and Change, 164-97.
  19. ^ Cohen, A. R. (1962). A dissonance analysis of the boomerang effect. Journal of Personality, 30(1), 75-88.
  20. ^ Thibaut, J. W., & Strickland, L. H. (1956). Psychological Set and Social Conformity. Journal of Personality, 25(2), 115-129.
  21. ^ Kelley, H. H., & Volkart, E. H. (1952). The resistance to change of group-anchored attitudes. American Sociological Review, 17(4), 453-465.
  22. ^ Cohen, A. R. (1962). A dissonance analysis of the boomerang effect. Journal of Personality, 30(1), 75-88.
  23. ^ Heider, F. (1958). The psychology of interpersonal relations. Psychology Press.
  24. ^ Skowronski, J. J., Carlston, D. E., Mae, L., & Crawford, M. T. (1998). Spontaneous trait transference: Communicators take on the qualities they describe in others. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 837–848.
  25. ^ Mark Wendlandt, Ulf Schrader, (2007) “Consumer reactance against loyalty programs”, Journal of Consumer Marketing, Vol. 24 Iss: 5, pp.293 – 304
  26. ^ Ringold, D. J. (2002). Boomerang effects in response to public health interventions: some unintended consequences in the alcoholic beverage market. Journal of Consumer Policy, 25(1), 27-63.
  27. ^ Dillard, J. P., & Shen, L. (2005). On the nature of reactance and its role in persuasive health communication. Communication Monographs, 72(2), 144-168.
  28. ^ Mann, M. F., & Hill, T. (1984). Persuasive communications and the boomerang effect: some limiting conditions to the effectiveness of positive influence attempts. Advances in Consumer Research, 11, 66-70.
  29. ^ Schultz, P. W., Nolan, J. M., Cialdini, R. B., Goldstein, N. J., & Griskevicius, V. (2007). The constructive, destructive, and reconstructive power of social norms. Psychological science, 18(5), 429-434.
  30. ^ Schwartz, S.H. and Howard, J.A., 1981. A Normative decision-Making Model of Altruism, In: J.P. Rushton and R.M. Sorrentino (Editors), Altruism and Helping Behaviour, Lawrence Erlbaum, New Jersey, 189–211.
  31. ^ Liotta, P. H. (2002). Boomerang effect: The convergence of national and human security. Security Dialogue, 33(4), 473-488.
  32. ^ Nyhan, B. & Reifler (2010). When corrections fail: The persistence of political misperceptions. Political Behavior, 32, 303-330.