Once In A Blue Moon

We’ve all experienced it: the slight but pervasive feeling of resistance that bubbles up when we’re given a direct order or told to do something. Regardless of how reasonable or necessary the task might be, there’s often an inherent reluctance to take instruction. This behavioral phenomenon transcends age groups, from the toddler rebelling against bedtime to the adult who procrastinates on a project. But what drives this resistance, and why are people inherently reluctant to follow orders?

Autonomy and Sense of Control

At the core of this phenomenon is the concept of autonomy. People generally want to have control over their actions and decisions. This drive for autonomy is deeply rooted in our psychology, and it’s a key element of motivation. When someone tells us what to do, it can feel as if our autonomy is being undermined, leading to resistance.

This innate desire for control is also related to our perception of freedom. Humans value their ability to make choices. The mere notion of being controlled or guided by external forces can trigger a psychological reaction that prompts us to reassert our freedom, which often surfaces as reluctance or defiance.

Reactance Theory

The psychological term for this resistance is “reactance.” According to Brehm’s Reactance Theory (1966), when individuals feel that their freedom to select certain behaviors is threatened, an unpleasant motivational arousal occurs, which they strive to reduce by reestablishing the threatened freedom.

Reactance can manifest in a variety of ways, from immediate action to resist the instruction, to cognitive changes in how the individual views the entity that posed the threat. For example, they might devalue the opinion of the person giving the order or believe more strongly in their original stance. This theory has been used to explain many behaviors, including opposition to persuasion, and resistance to social influence and compliance.

Perceived Competence and Self-Efficacy

Our belief in our own ability to execute actions or tasks (self-efficacy) also plays a role in how we respond to directives. If someone feels incompetent or ill-equipped to perform a task, they may feel reluctant when told to do so. In contrast, people are more likely to engage in tasks when they feel competent and have the necessary skills to carry them out.

Relationship and Power Dynamics

Relationship and power dynamics can also contribute to people’s reluctance to take instructions. If the person giving the instruction is seen as less competent, less knowledgeable, or in an equal or lesser position of power, the individual may resist complying. On the other hand, people are generally more open to instructions from those they respect or perceive as having authority or expertise.


Understanding the factors that contribute to our reluctance to take instructions can help in many areas of life, from personal relationships to professional settings. By recognizing the important roles of autonomy, reactance, self-efficacy, and power dynamics, we can better understand not only why we sometimes resist instruction, but also how we can navigate this resistance effectively, whether it’s our own or someone else’s. Communication, respect for autonomy, and fostering a sense of competence can all help in reducing the natural reluctance to follow orders, fostering a more harmonious, productive environment.

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