Research by University of Alberta’s Gerald Häubl and Kyle B. Murray suggests that consumers will turn away from products and services they like if they feel restricted by choice. This force, called psychological reactance, is important for companies to understand.
Psychological reactance is a term for the “force that motivates people to act against perceived constraints on their freedom of choice.”
It’s an important concept for companies to understand because it means that even if a consumer likes your product, she may pull away from it simply because she feels hemmed in by your company.
Kyle B. Murray, associate professor of marketing at the University of Alberta, and Gerald Häubl, Canada Research Chair in Behavioral Science and Electronic Commerce and professor of marketing at the University of Alberta, explore this concept in “Why Dominant Companies Are Vulnerable” in the Winter 2012 issue of MIT Sloan Management Review.
They explain psychological reactance this way: "As people learn to use a particular electronic interface associated with information search or online shopping, for example, they often become locked in and develop extremely high levels of loyalty even when otherwise equivalent competitors are available; the cost of switching outweighs the benefit of using another product. However, our research indicates that the depth of loyalty weakens when consumers feel that their freedom to choose is restricted."
Murray and Häubl tested this phenomenon by creating a set of news websites and running “a series of experiments to examine the extent to which consumers’ preferences were affected by interface-specific experience.” Some were allowed to choose their website; others were assigned a site.
One result: 51% of the people who had initially not been given a choice switched as soon as there were allowed to, while only 23% who had free choice made a switch — even when presented with an option that was easier to use, more fun and more efficient. That’s one powerful effect.
Murray and Häubl’s article for MIT SMR provides additional details about their research and its implications for market leaders and smaller competitors.
Further details are also in their article “Freedom of Choice, Ease of Use and the Formation of Interface Preferences,” in MIT Quarterly 35, no. 4 (December 2011): 955-976.