March 13, 2007 — -- Be careful what you ask, because you may get just the opposite. New research shows that if a parent nags a son about cleaning up his room, the kid will probably dig in his heels and live in a pig pen even if he doesn't realize mom is still on his case.
The same holds true for a spouse. Or some other significant other. And the more controlling that person seems to be, the more likely the individual will "automatically do the opposite of that which the significant other wishes," the scientists report in the current issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.
Psychologist Tanya Chartrand of Duke University, lead author of the report, says she conducted the study because she couldn't get her husband to do what she wanted him to do.
"My husband, while very charming in many ways, has an annoying tendency of doing exactly the opposite of what I would like him to do in many situations," she admits. That's not exactly a rare problem, but Chartrand found herself uniquely suited to find out why. She is married to Gavan Fitzsimons, also a Duke psychologist, who was recruited to help.
The husband and wife team, along with doctoral candidate Amy Dalton, wanted to plunge a little deeper into the subject than previous researchers. It's pretty well a given that many of us rebel against those who would rule our lives, be they parents or spouses or bosses, or even kids. Psychologists call it reactant, a powerful force that we employ when we think our independence is in jeopardy.
But do we know we are reacting like reactants? Could it be that sometimes we dig in our heels even when we don't know we're reacting to a nagger?
To find out, the researchers turned to a controversial tool, subliminal priming. A few decades ago that was a really big issue, because some research indicated that our minds could be tricked into buying certain products by subliminal advertising. It was feared that flashing the name of a particular brand on a television monitor so briefly that it registered subconsciously, even though we were unaware of having seen it, could influence our behavior. That was supposed to make us all dash out and buy a carton of Camels.
Subliminal advertising was subsequently banned in some countries, like Great Britain, but not in the United States. Additional research suggested that the phenomenon was real, but probably not as manipulating as had been thought. It wasn't going to turn us into consumer robots.
Researchers at various institutions, including University College London and Boston University, have documented that subliminal messages can cause the brain to respond subconsciously, even though the subject is unaware of it. So it was a useful tool for Chartrand and her colleagues to deploy in their effort to find out if even a subconscious suggestion of mom can make us more recalcitrant.
In two experiments, conducted on separate campuses, the researchers selected participants from a large pool of psychology students. The students were asked questions, including some designed to find out surreptitiously if they had persons in their lives who were very controlling, particularly in regards to "hard work" and "having fun." The students then took a test.
But here's the tricky part. The name of someone each student identified as very controlling was flashed on the computer screen so briefly that the student could not have recognized it consciously. It was there just long enough to register subliminally.
And just as the researchers had expected, the students who were "subliminally primed" with the name of someone who wanted them to "work hard" performed much more poorly on the test than those who were primed with the name of someone who wanted them to "have fun."
"These results suggest that for individuals who perceive a significant other to be highly controlling, subliminally priming the name of that significant other causes these individuals to automatically do the opposite of that which the significant other wishes," the researchers write.
In other words, nagging backfires.
The researchers admit this isn't the final word on the subject, and other research needs to be done, but they are confident they have demonstrated that even a subconscious vision of a controlling significant other can trigger a reactant attitude and domestic turmoil.
Now that we know that, does harmony prevail in the Chartrand-Fitzsimons household?
Chartrand says she thinks this knowledge should help her husband "suppress his reactant tendencies." In other words, take out the trash, Gavan.
Of course, he sees it differently. He says the research shows that it's a subconscious automatic response to a controlling spouse, so how's he going to fix it if he doesn't even know it's happening?