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Reactance is a natural resistance to restrictions in freedom.

Reactance may present as resistance to social pressure, resistance to emotional pressure, resistance to persuasion, resistance to coercion, resistance to direct instruction, resistance or anxiety associated with restricted mobility, etc.

Reactance is the opposite of conformity, which is one of 100 bad habits learned at school


When I speak of resistance to social pressure, I often remark on its evolutionary importance. However, reactance can largely be explained in terms of the concept network, its plasticity, and emergence. The algorithmic reactance will emerge from network properties without a specific need for specialized connectivity.

A brain of a newborn is remarkably free of conceptual connectivity. Locke's tabula rasa is a pretty accurate characterization. A small set of inborn reflexes and instinct largely reflects inborn architecture of the brain.

In a child, the concept network is less extensive, and less crystallized. It possesses weaker abstract reasoning capacity. This is why knowledge or problem valuation may often seem distorted from the adult point of view. What seems impossible for the adult, may seem quite likely for a child. The best way to find answers to questions of high value is for the young brain to investigate. Investigations may be passive or active. The simplest passive pathway is to ask an adult. A typical active pathway is own exploration. When adults attempt to override child's valuations, their input will receive their own valuation. If a mom keeps forcing a child to do boring things, or learn things of low valuation, mom's own input will receive low valuations. Accepting such input will be a form of penalty, which leads to reactance. On the other hand, if an adult has epiphanic impact, her input may become highly valued. It is essential that adults avoid futile rules, or the imposition of fake learning. The ultimate price will be the loss of their own authority. This will magnify healthy reactance.

Gaping holes in understanding of the world may distort a child's valuation of knowledge. An attempt to override exorbitant valuations will meet with proportional resistance that may lead to a prompt loss of adult authority

Suppressed reactance

If children make unrealistic efforts, they are pejoratively labelled as naïve or dumb. A child's amplified healthy reactance will be labelled pejoratively as stubbornness, while it should always be understood as a necessary condition for intelligence (see: Child rebellion).

When reactance is suppressed (e.g. by strict discipline at school), it may lead to submissive obedience, learned helplessness, depression, or worse. As much as learn drive, reactance may be recovered later in life (the neural mechanism is exactly the same). However, for many, it leads to a sad adult life in the service of others with no respect for one's own valuations and mental health.

Restricted freedom suppresses reactance, and leads to learned helplessness

Reverse psychology

In little children, it is very easy to induce actions by insisting that the child should do the opposite (e.g. please choose the blue dress to make sure the kid chooses the red dress). This is called reverse psychology. It works in adults too. It is very easy to appease a child by just offering choices. A child may easily confuse fake autonomy with true autonomy. However, this confusion wanes in healthy development. Ideally, any human being should function in large behavioral spaces. Reactance to restrictions on freedom may result in war, terrorism, crime, and other civilizational pathologies.

Freedom to dream

A genius 4-year-old may want to build a star. When he is told that this is physically unlikely, the same child, at 8, may embark on a quest to invent new physics. This is actually a true story (see: video). In that particular case, the path to genius is adult tolerance for naivety, sheltering blind passions, and accepting potential reactance. As for the new physics, only a naïve and unbiased concept network can begin to explore this possibility. One day it may change the fate of mankind. See: Education counteracts evolution.

Children should be able to dream and pursue naïve passions. Those are seeds of future great ideas

Further reading

This glossary entry is used to explain "I would never send my kids to school" (2017-2024) by Piotr Wozniak

Learn drive vs. School drive
Learn drive vs. School drive

Figure: This is how school destroys the love of learning. Learn drive is the set of passions and interests that a child would like to pursue. School drive is the set of rewards and penalties set up by the school system. Learn drive leads to simple, mnemonic, coherent, stable and applicable memories due to the fact that the quality of knowledge determines the degree of reward in the learn drive system. School drive leads to complex, short-term memories vulnerable to interference due to the fact that schools serialize knowledge by curriculum (not by the neural mechanism of the learn drive). Competitive inhibition between the Learn drive and the School drive circuits will lead to the weakening of neural connections. Strong School drive will weaken the learn drive, destroy the passion for learning, and lead to learned helplessness. Powerful Learn drive will lead to rebellion that will protect intrinsic passions, but possibly will also lead to problems at school. Storing new knowledge under the influence of Learn drive is highly rewarding and carries no penalty (by definition of the learn drive). This will make the learn drive thrive leading to success in learning (and at school). In contrast, poor quality of knowledge induced by the pressures of the School drive will produce a weaker reward signal, and possibly a strong incoherence penalty. The penalty will feed back to produce reactance against the school drive, which will in turn require further coercive correction from the school system, which will in turn reduce the quality of knowledge further. Those feedback loops may lead to the dominance of one of the forces: the learn drive or the school drive. Thriving learn drive increases rebellion that increases defenses against the school drive. Similarly, increased penalization at school increases learned helplessness that weakens the learn drive and results in submission to the system. Sadly, in most cases, the control system settles in the middle of those two extremes (see: the old soup problem). Most children hate school, lose their love of learning, and still submit to the enslavement. Their best chance for recovery is the freedom of college, or better yet, the freedom of adulthood. See: Competitive feedback loops in binary decision making at neuronal level
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