Want Your Orders Carried Out? Then Stop Nagging!

ByABC News
March 12, 2007, 7:03 PM

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.