Hopefully you still remember George Costanza, the eccentric best friend of Jerry Seinfeld. In thinking back over the nine years we spent getting to know him, perhaps the most intriguing thing about him was his uncanny success in the dating department. Described by his own friends as “a short, stocky, slow-witted, bald man,” George clearly lacked the typical characteristics of heartthrob. So what was his secret when it came to landing a lady?
Well, like a magician, he skillfully employed a number of tricks. In particular, he became especially adept at using the situation to endear himself to potential partners. One of my favorite examples can be seen in the scene below, where George makes himself out to be the “bad boy.”
As you saw, George’s appeal is the direct result of being portrayed as “forbidden fruit.” Psychologists refer to this phenomenon as reactance, and in its simplest terms, it is when people feel compelled to assert their free will when they feel it is being threatened or restricted.1 Often people respond to rules that limit their freedom by doing exactly what has been banned or prohibited. In this case, Anna only wants George when she can’t have him. Sound familiar?
Thinking back to your rebellious teen years (or your rebellious teenage children), provides a real life example of reactance. The more your parents tried to interfere with the relationship, the more you were drawn to it.2 Just like well-intentioned parents, Elaine’s disapproval of the relationship between George and Anna creates a situation that fuels their attraction. Only when she gives her support to the union, does the excitement and appeal fade away.
Limitations imposed by relationship partners have a similar effect. Take the case of the non-committal player. Have you ever wondered why people spend so much time chasing after partners who don’t want to be caught? Well, the same principle is at work: We want what we can’t have!
Reactance also has interesting implications for establishing “rules” within an ongoing relationship. Heeding the knowledge that partners feel the need to demonstrate their autonomy when it is threatened, suggests that we must tread lightly when trying to curb partner behaviors. Trying to outlaw certain actions or activities may actually end up encouraging them.3
While we learned a lot from Costanza over the years (mostly in terms of what not to do as a friend, employee, and partner), who knew he’d have so much to teach us about reactance attraction?”
1Brehm, J. W. (1966). A theory of psychological reactance. New York: Academic Press.
2Driscoll, R., Davis, K. E., & Lipetz, M. E. (1972). Parental interference and romantic love: The Romeo and Juliet effect. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 24, 1-10.
3DeWall, C. N., Maner, J. K., Deckman, T., & Rouby, D. A. (2011). Forbidden fruit: Inattention to attractive alternatives provokes implicit relationship reactance. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 621-629.
Dr. Sadie Leder – Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Leder’s research focuses on how people balance their desires for closeness and protection against rejection, specifically during partner selection, goal negotiation within established romantic relationships, and the experience of romantic love, hurt feelings, and relationship rekindling.