O&P website and blog,
are where most of my new writing on M/s appears. The IE website will stay
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The theory of "Psychological Reactance" was first proposed by J.W.
Brehm in 1966 , and has become a well
established tool in the academic study of persuasion and related
psychological processes. This essay briefly reviews the theory, and then
applies it to Internal Enslavement.
Brehm's summary 
is "In general, the theory holds that a
threat to or loss of a freedom motivates the individual to restore that
The theory stipulates what constitutes a freedom, how freedoms can be
threatened or eliminated, and how the ensuing motivational state
(psychological reactance) will manifest itself." The theory also
associates the state of reactance
with emotional stress, anxiety, resistance and struggle
for the individual, and assumes people are motivated to escape from these
Reactance Theory uses the word "freedom" in a quite specific way,
and still talks of freedoms even when they have been "threatened"
(made harder) or "eliminated" (made impossible.)
"Freedom" in this sense corresponds to an imaginable behaviour:
something the subject might want to do, even if they cannot.
Wicklund  has given a convenient summary of
the theory, with headings grouped under two categories:
Variables affecting the degree of reactance
- Strength of a threat
- Presence of a freedom
- Importance of the freedom
- Proportion of the freedom threatened
- Implication for future threat
- Direct reassertion of the freedom through behaviour
- Attempting direct restoration of the threatened freedom is the most
obvious way to respond. Most of Reactance Theory concentrates on
what happens when this is prevented.
- Greater liking for threatened behaviour
- When a freedom is threatened, subjects usually begin to want it more
than before. For instance, expensive perfumes are more desirable
than cheap scents, largely because they are harder to afford.
- Indirect reassertion of the freedom
- If a given freedom is eliminated, that freedom may be
restored by the performance of a behaviour which makes the subject
feel the orginal freedom is still possible. As Wicklund says,
"For example, performance of a behavior that is either more
costly, dangerous, or taboo than the one eliminated would imply to
the performer and to the observer
that the eliminated behaviour can be performed." This is more
about the subject feeling as if it is still possible, rather than
genuinely believing it: "the performance of a
behavior more extreme than the one eliminated does not directly
re-establish the loss. It serves, instead to prove something about
the worth or power of the individual."
Wicklund went on to propose a "hydraulic principle" which
compares reactance and water under pressure, blocked in one direction,
only to burst out in another: "When a freedom cannot be regained
directly the motivation resulting from that freedom will push over into
a second freedom."
- This usually takes the form of feelings of hostility towards the
person threatening or removing the freedom.
Of crucial importance to students of Enslavement, the theory was revised by
Brehm and Wortman in the 1970's to also account for conditions of
"helplessness", where the initial reactance to the removal of a
freedom melts away in the face of an insurmountable superior power.
Reactance Theory's description of this process gives unique insights into
the patterns of resistance and submission that are observed during
suggests that reactance can almost always be overcome by sufficient
force: "Very high forces to give up the freedom will still result in
compliance. Only if the importance of a freedom is extremely great - perhaps
as great as the importance of life itself - will great forces fail to
produce compliance."; but that the state of helplessness which normally
ensues is associated with depression and low performance. It remains to be
seen how well these general statements apply to the specific cases of
dominants and submissives.
Application to Enslavement
We must now attempt to apply the theory to a submissive in a Master / slave
As with ordinary subjects, a submissive is normally around a baseline level
of reactance in everyday
life, and therefore experiences a certain level of reactance-induced stress,
anxiety etc, just from the
usual restrictions that physicality and every day life impose (having to
choose where to sit, what TV programme to watch, whether to go out tonight
etc.) These restrictions and threats to freedom are normally taken for granted,
and it's easy to forget that they are restrictions on freedom at all, but we
need to remember them since
they are an important part of the psychological environment of Enslavement.
Now consider a submissive in a Master/slave relationship.
Extra restrictions can be imposed by the people she encounters in her life
(employer, relatives etc) as well as by her Master, and they can all
raise her reactance.
However, let's take a very specific case of freedom and restriction which is
unique to the slave and her Master: the slave is in a room with her Master
and we are considering her freedom to move around. The slave may be allowed
to sit on chairs, move around "freely" (but nevertheless subject to
the restrictions imposed by gravity, what feels comfortable, whether she can
alleviate boredom by reading or watching TV.) In this case, she may
experience the everyday baseline amount of reactance.
Alternatively, her Master may deny her the
use of chairs, may insist she kneels or stands, or must ask for permission
to move, and so restrict her and raise her reactance according to the
importance of the freedom she has been denied (for instance, if she finds
kneeling rather than sitting to be painful, then she will experience more
But as the slave's Master, he has yet more powerful restrictions available
to him. He may use bondage to physically restrict her as she tries to move her
limbs (eg with cuffs) or as she moves around the room (chaining her to a
wall, tying her ankles, body-wrapping her in clingfilm.)
The Theory of Reactance predicts that as these restrictions of important
freedoms are increased, then her reactance, stress, and anxiety increase, as
shown in the diagram.
It is important to underline that the restricted freedom must be important
to the slave at the time: if she is bound in clingfilm, her initial
reaction may even be boredom and lack of concern for her predicament. Only
when her nose begins to itch, for instance, does her lack of freedom start
to become important to her. At this point, she may begin to struggle, or try to
talk her way out. Only when all her attempts to restore the freedom have
failed and she is on the point of being convinced of the fact, does she
reach the peak reactance at this critical level of restriction. Once this is
reached, further restriction (including further realisation of how
restricted she is) pushes her from the reactive into the helpless region,
and her reactance collapses.
The crucial insight in the application of mainstream Psychological Reactance
Theory to Enslavement is that the slave's level of reactance and stress in the
helpless region may be lower than the baseline reactance that she
experiences in everyday life. For the slave - in contrast to the subjects
normally considered by psychologists - being pushed over the reactance peak
and forced into helplessness at the hands of another person, perhaps aided by
"whips and chains", is a deeply positive experience, even a
This process has been described many times by writers from the BDSM scene, for
example by Cleo Dubois in her interview for "Different Loving":
"[When you're effectively bound] you can think of escaping, but
eventually, if you try to escape and realize that you cannot, then a switch
goes off in the mind. You have to accept." .
A Case in Point: The Locked Door
However, Reactance Theory also explains similar processes present in the
wider Master / slave relationship, as well as the physical forms of domination
such as bondage already discussed.
I encountered a striking example of reactance a few months into my
relationship with lili. It began when I decided to put a lock on the room
with the computer, and it will be illustrative to go through lili's account
of the episode, written in her diary that night, and well before she was
aware of the theory.
"I had a pretty long day at work, but it wasn't too bad.
I was planning to check my e-mails when I got home but when I got to the
top of the stairs Master has locked the door. I felt really annoyed and
frustrated, I stood at the top of the stairs for a while. I shook the door
and tried to unbolt it."
lili's ability to exercise an important freedom (reading her emails in the
hour before I got home) is threatened by the locked door. A new experience
for her. She tests the most obvious way to achieve direct restoration of the
freedom: she tests the bolt to verify that it really is securely locked
"Then I thought about unscrewing the bolt and putting it back on, but
then I thought that the "monster eye" would see me or that Master
would be able to tell that I had been in, so I daren't."
lili considers other
direct ways of restoring the restricted freedom, but realises
these are impractical (including the possibility that the camera in the room
"I came back downstairs and was still feeling very frustrated. I sat
on the sofa then sat on the chairs, but that only made me feel better for a
lili isn't permitted to use the furniture without permission, and
previously had no difficutly in complying with this rule. Following
the predictions of Wicklund's hydraulic model, she becomes more reactant
towards restrictions on other freedoms - sitting on furniture, in
this case - and exercises them. This is a very clear example of what
Brehm called "preservation of other freedoms" when restoration of
the first freedom is impossible.
"Then I felt bad, so I ate some of Master's chocolate instead (sorry
Master!) that just made me feel bad too."
Finally, she feels some amount of hostility, which she directs at eating
some of my chocolate (which she doesn't normally want to eat.)
"I went in the bath. I reasoned with myself. I have no argument.
I have no
business in there other than my mail and the things in the desk, all of
which Master gives me access to if he chooses or decides I need to. I don't
have any say if he chooses to lock that room. I guess it did "slap me in
the face", the reality of it all."
Here we see lili moving into acceptance that her freedom to use the room
whenever she pleases really has been eliminated. This corresponds to the region
of helplessness on the diagram above, but crucially, isn't characterised by
the feelings of resentment one might normally expect based on
"vanilla" relationships, and the depression described by Brehm.
Because of her natural desire to submit, lili can accept it
and even feel more secure in doing so. Instead, her negative feelings
come from guilt at the way she expressed her reactance:
"I am sorry that I reacted the way I did now. I hope Master will not
be too annoyed. I could not tell him, but I can't not tell him. What's
happening to me? When Master came home I was feeling really bad."
As we see, lili considers not telling me, but realises this is not a
viable option either since she is denied emotional privacy: her body
language etc would prevent her from concealing from me that something
had happened, and I would then question her until I had the details.
(Subsequent discussions made it clear to lili that her feelings during
this episode were natural, reassured her about my feelings towards her, but
made her understand that crossing the line into disobedience wasn't
By applying the Theory of Psychological Reactance, we have a useful point of
contact between the ideas of Internal Enslavement and mainstream Psychology.
It is striking how well Reactance Theory
predicts the responses felt by submissives
in very diverse situations, all the way from physical bondage, to the
dynamics of a Master / slave relationship.
Since mainstream psychology considers reactance to be a normal part of the
minds of humans, and, as we have seen, it is present in submissives, we see
no reason to deny that it is a perfectly normal emotion for submissives
in Master / slave relationships.
This is not to excuse disobedience, but it goes some way in explaining
the roots of disobedience arising from reactance. Paradoxically, a
heightened level of reactance can be a symptom of productive change
underway within the slave's mind, and a necessary stage that must be
gone through before reaching acceptance of her Master's control of a certain
understanding the various ways in which reactance shows itself
(described at the start of this essay) will help a
Master anticipate his slave's behaviour as her freedoms are progressively
Finally, the hydraulic model of reactance shows that the way to prevent a
specific act of
disobedience is by the elimination of that freedom, rather than by
expecting the slave to dominate herself into obeying: as restrictions are
increased, the pressure to disobey is naturally transfered to those freedoms
most easily restored - that is, those which have not been eliminated yet.
If we wish to ensure with certainty that a specific act is not committed by
a slave, we need to ensure that the freedom to commit it has been
eliminated. Otherwise, as her other freedoms are restricted and eliminated,
the pressure rises and it becomes possible for her to commit the act we wish
The removal of emotional privacy is an important tool in eliminating freedoms
by guaranteeing the eventual discovery of any disobedience that is committed.
There are many open questions still to be addressed and needing more
- If anxiety is measured during BDSM sessions, perhaps by heart rate or
galvanic skin response, how does the anxiety (and therefore the
reactance) vary with increasing restriction, and as the subject moves from
the reactive to the helpless region?
- Is the steep fall from the reactance peak to helplessness associated
with the entry into subspace? When is it necessary to
"crash" into subspace and when can it be entered
- How does the shape of the reactance peak differ for different
submissives, at different times, and for different freedoms? Does the
peak get smoothed out as the submissive is repeatedly forced to cross
from reactive to helpless regions?
- How does the emotion of reactance differ from any conscious testing of
the Master by the slave, perhaps to convince herself that he is not
going to let her down by allowing her freedoms she wants to escape from?
- How much is the ability to accept helplessness (without causing depression
other forms of unhealthy reaction) something learnt in childhood, learnt
in adulthood or a genetic disposition?
- How do dominants experience reactance? Do dominants seek to lower their
level of reactance below the normal baseline by escaping from restrictions?
(ie moving towards the left of the diagram.)
1. "A Theory of Psychological Reactance",
J.W. Brehm, 1966, New York, Academic Press.
2. "Psychological Reactance: A Theory of Freedom
S.S. Brehm and J.W Brehm, 1981, New York, Academic Press, pp93, 96, 115-6.
3. "Freedom and Reactance",
R.A. Wicklund, 1974, Potomac (Maryland), Lawrence Erlbaum Associates,
4. "Different Loving: The World of Sexual
Dominance and Submission", G.G Brame, W.D. Brame and J. Jacobs, 1996.
Last updated 11 October 2000.