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updated 4/22/2007 2:32:18 PM ET 2007-04-22T18:32:18

When your spouse nags you to mail the taxes, or pick up a gallon of milk after work, or your boss asks you to stay late — what's your reaction?

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If you go out of your way to avoid doing what you're asked to, new research shows you may be sabotaging yourself, both at home and in the office, without even realizing it.

When someone limits your freedom of choice and, as a result, you end up wanting that restricted option, you're being reactant, says Gavan Fitzsimons, professor of marketing and psychology at Duke University. He co-authored a study on the subject, which appeared online this year in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, a publication focused on research about human social behavior.

"People who are reactant perceive everybody as controlling," Fitzsimons says. "They think 'Everybody is trying to make me do something' — even if it's just a friendly recommendation from a friend trying to help you make a better decision. You perceive it as a threat to your freedom."

The problem is that this type of response doesn't always lead to great decision-making and may cause people to act in ways that don't benefit them.

Acting out
In the study, Fitzsimons and Tanya Chartrand, associate professor of marketing and psychology at Duke, wanted to see whether reactant people were even conscious they were acting this way.

In one experiment participants named two significant people in their lives, a controlling person who wanted them to work hard and a controlling person who wanted them to have fun. Then, before solving a series of anagrams, they were subliminally exposed to flashes of one of the names.

People exposed to the name of the person who wanted them to work hard performed significantly worse than those exposed to the other name. In other words, they unconsciously acted counterproductively because they felt someone was trying to encroach on their freedom.

In the real world, this could translate to a reactant person merely thinking of his or her boss, someone important and controlling who expects hard work, and thus wanting to disobey orders or find other ways to rebel.

"They might be more likely to slack off or be late for meetings," Fitzsimons says. "For people trying to motivate you to work this could be very frustrating."

And this personality is more common than you might think. Fitzsimons estimates that as much as 10 percent to 15 percent of the population is extremely reactant.

Simple strategies
If you work with or are married to this type of person, there are one or two strategies that might make life easier. Instead of telling them to buy milk, try asking if it there's anything they're running low on at home, Chartrand suggests. Let them think getting milk is their idea. Or try a little reverse psychology.

But while a husband or wife might be willing to work around this behavior, a boss may not.

If you think you're reactant and it's affecting your life, you're best bet is to recognize what's going on and admit you have an issue. Therapy might be a good option.

"Once you know you're reactant," Chartrand says, "it might be helpful to explore where this came from and why having control over every decision is so important."

© 2012 Forbes.com

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