Decades ago in Dade County Florida, the local government banned the sale of laundry detergents with phosphates. Phosphates were pretty good for cleaning but pretty bad for the environment, causing algae to explode in growth.

This leads to oxygen reduction, which leads to animals dying, which isn’t good.

It was a pretty good idea to ban phosphates and people should have been pretty okay with the law.

Instead, some people who were interviewed about the ban were pissed off at the local government. In fact, 10% percent of those interviewed broke the law and still used the banned detergent.

It’s not that these people were algae loving jerks; instead they were likely expressing a psychological concept called reactance.

According to Reactance theory, if people feel that their choice of behavior is going to be eliminated, they are motivated to resist to restore the behavior that is threatened to be removed (Miron & Brehm, 2006).

*reactance demonstrated when there was a potential law to ban large sodas

Autonomy is a core component of intrinsically motivated behavior. It is characterized by freedom from external control and is experienced when individuals endorse a behavior without outside influence.

The people in Dade County were not experiencing autonomy and some of them rebelled, despite the harmfulness of their behavior.

Don’t Tell Me What to Do

 

Little kids love their autonomy, they hate being told what to do. Take for example, when I told my 6-year-old cousin not to throw toys at my face. He shook his head and agreed, he knew it was wrong. But five minutes later my face was once again pummeled with a Buzz Lightyear figurine.

Turns out that adults don’t really like being told what to do either. In a recent research project, several colleagues and I set out to examine individual barriers to weight loss. We collected hundreds of responses, some of which demonstrated reactance.

One person wrote that they might fail at their weight loss efforts because they were:

“Being asked to eat foods that I do not and will not eat”

Another confirmed reactance by saying:

“I don’t want to be told what to do and rebel against that.”

Reactance is also perfectly demonstrated in this video by a cat who also hates being told what to do (#thuglife)

 

University of Rochester professors Richard Ryan and Edward Deci write that:

“Autonomous acts proceed from one’s core self, representing those preferences and values that are wholeheartedly endorsed… for an act to be autonomous it must be endorsed by the self, fully identified with and ‘‘owned.’’”

If a person is to be motivated for a certain behavior they must feel autonomous. There are several forms of autonomous motivation that include the following:

Identified: Behavior reflects a personal value of the action

Integrated: The behavior is personally valued and also combined or linked to life values/beliefs

Intrinsic: The most autonomous form of motivation, a person is unconflicted and truly enjoys the behavior simply for the sake of the behavior.

When individuals are autonomous and receive support for their own autonomy they are likely to be more adherent to weight loss and exercise behaviors.

Therefore, to develop autonomy people should be able to choose behaviors that they want to do, link these behaviors to their own personal values, and focus on the actual enjoyment of the behavior rather than the outcome of the behavior.

Choose your Own Behaviors

There are multiple paths to living a healthy life. One thing that we can say for sure is that exercise is good and carrying excessive weight is not good.

Realistically, any avenue to increased physical activity/exercise and any behaviors that contribute to fat loss will be beneficial.

If you don’t like resistance training, don’t do resistance training (although you should really do some it’s great for you), if you don’t like running, don’t run.

Here is a list of potential forms of physical activity

  • Running
  • Swimming
  • Biking
  • Hiking
  • Walking
  • Lifting weights
  • Yoga
  • Literally any sport
  • Wizard dueling

Everyone should be physically active, it doesn’t really matter how. They should pick whichever form makes them happy. In terms of fat loss habits, people should be allowed to focus on behaviors they want to do and believe they are capable of doing.

For example, in my client application for fat loss I like to assess which behaviors an individual would like to work on, not what I believe they should work on.

Link the Behaviors to Values

People are motivated to perform behaviors that they personally endorse as a value. If a person can form a clear linkage between the health goal they have and personal life values, continued adherence is likely to occur.

A list of values can be found here. I took the one’s I believed may be personally relevant to health and fitness. Life values may include:

  • Achievement
  • Adventure
  • Balance
  • Beauty
  • Compassion
  • Challenge
  • Community
  • Competency
  • Contribution
  • Creativity
  • Curiosity
  • Determination
  • Friendships
  • Fun
  • Growth
  • Happiness
  • Inner Harmony
  • Knowledge
  • Leadership
  • Learning
  • Love
  • Meaningful Work
  • Popularity
  • Recognition
  • Reputation
  • Respect
  • Responsibility
  • Security
  • Self-Respect
  • Service
  • Spirituality
  • Stability
  • Success
  • Status

Identify several values that are personally relevant and focus on how enacting health behaviors can contribute to living a valued life. Another option is to engage in some higher order thinking and examine why a goal is personally important. Here is an example:

I want to lose 20 pounds –>why–> I don’t feel like I can do activities I used to be able to do like hiking –>why is this important to you? –> I consider myself an adventurous person.

I want to lose 20 pounds –> this will allow me to be adventurous

This person values being adventurous and can now link weight loss or exercise behaviors with the goal of maintaining or enhancing a value of being adventurous.

Focus on the enjoyment of the Behavior not the Outcome

It’s a great goal to have six pack abs or to look better naked but what happens when most people get there? Do we stop the behaviors that got us there once the incentive has been reached? Or what happens if we never get there? Do we just quit?

Ideally, an individual will perform health related behaviors because they enjoy it and because it feels good to them. If a person is only focusing on looking better naked they might lose sight of their own personal values and how they link to the behavior.

Ask any consistent exerciser why they do it. It is because they actually enjoy the activity. No one in their right mind would go run 10 miles or lift heavy weights for 90 minutes day in and day out unless they actually enjoyed it.

If  looking better is the only priority, autonomy may be lost. Their behavior is based on external pressures (i.e. look good for other people).

Failing to focus on the enjoyment of the activity means the person is only focusing on an end to the means which is not intrinsic to the action.

Also, if you really truly love how it feels to exercise each day and love how your body feels when you eat healthy food, you will certainly look better and likely be much more adherent as well.



 

References

Miron AM, Brehm JW. Reactance theory- 40 years later. Social Psychology 37(1), 9-18, 2006.

Ryan RM & Deci EL. Self-regulation and the problem of human autonomy: Does psychology need choice, self-determination, and will?

Ryan RM, Patrick H, Deci EL, Williams GC. Facilitating health behaviour change and its maintenance: Interventions based on self-determination theory. The European Health Psychologist. 10: 2-5, 2008.