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Research Studies How People Will React to a Restriction on Rights

Certainty of a restriction is significant in determining how people will respond to enforced limitations on freedom.

The political unrest in the Middle East, which continues today in Syria, raises some intriguing questions: How can we explain the contagion effect of rebellion when revolution spreads from nation to nation? Is it possible to predict whether people will respond to limits on freedom with submission or rebellion?New research from Duke University and the University of Waterloo to be published in the February edition of the journal Psychological Science finds the certainty of a restriction is significant in determining how people will respond to enforced limitations on freedom. Across several studies, participants responded to restrictions that were certain to come into effect more favorably and valuing the restricted freedoms less, a form of "rationalization." Participants responded to identical restrictions that were described as having a small chance of not coming into effect with "reactance," viewing restrictions less favorably and valuing the restricted freedoms more. "There have traditionally been two schools of thought on how people react to restrictions on freedoms," said Gavan Fitzsimons, professor of marketing at Duke's Fuqua School of Business and one of the study's authors. "One school of thought says people are likely to react to restrictions with rationalization and a level of acceptance, while a second suggests people are motivated to restore restricted freedoms and will respond negatively on attempts to constrain them. Our research reconciles these two opposing views by considering the restrictions' degree of absoluteness." The study cites several hypothetical situations to explain the varied responses to restrictions on freedom. In one survey, participants read that the government had decided to reduce speed limits after experts concluded lower speed limits in cities increase safety. Some participants were told the new limits would definitely come into effect (an absolute condition), while others were told the limits would come into effect only if a majority of government officials voted to enact it (a non-absolute condition).Participants in the absolute group tended to rationalize the new restrictions; they reacted with more positive attitudes and lower levels of annoyance toward reduced speed limits. In contrast, participants in the non-absolute group reacted strongly against the limits."Our findings have a number of practical applications, potentially shedding some light on the recent string of uprisings in the Middle East," said co-author Aaron Kay, an associate professor of management and of psychology and neuroscience at Duke."To the extent a political regime feels absolute and permanent to its citizens, people will rationalize its actions and decisions, even minimizing the importance of freedoms. But once they learn similar regimes have been toppled and are therefore not as permanent as people once thought, they may become reactant and perhaps motivated to revolt," he said.The study can be found at