Research on psychological reactance has traditionally focused on verbal language. However, given the fact that modern persuasive messages are predominantly visual, it is surprising that so little is known about the potential of visual imagery to elicit resistance to persuasion. This study argues that certain visual message features (i.e., visual antithesis, facial expression of anger, low angle portraits) trigger resistance because they exert social pressure on the recipient. A repeated-measures experiment (N=266) finds that these visual message features are associated with perceptions of threat to freedom, which translate into reactance and decreased persuasion. Surprisingly, perceptions of threat to freedom were unaffected by respondents’ political orientation, such that right-leaning and left-leaning people felt equally constrained in their freedom to choose. Overall, the study suggests that use of visual antithesis as well as the depiction of angry facial expressions and the use of low angle portraits should be avoided.
Fabienne Bünzli, Martin Eppler, James P. Dillard, Rolf Wüstenhagen