Media and Communication Ph.D. Dissertations


The Functions of Psychological Reactance and Persuasion Knowledge in the Context of Narrative Engagement and Attitude Change

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Media and Communication

First Advisor

Rick Busselle (Advisor)

Second Advisor

Lisa K. Hanasono (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Yanqin Lu (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Philip Peek (Other)


Within the last two decades, communication researchers and practitioners alike have become increasingly interested in better understanding and utilizing stories as persuasive devices. Compared to classical rhetorical persuasion, narrative persuasion is less likely to activate reactance, mainly because the focus shifts from processing an argument to engaging with the narrative content to construct a coherent story. Although a growing body of research has begun to investigate the relationship between narrative engagement and psychological reactance, the question remains whether engagement with the narrative works as a counterforce and therefore helps the reader overcome reactance, or if it prevents the activation of reactance altogether.

This dissertation aimed to answer that question by manipulating the sequence of reactance and narrative engagement activation, as well as addressing two measurement problems of reactance that are unique to the context of narrative persuasion. One is to distinguish between emotional reactions elicited by the narrative and those related to reactance, the other one is the difficulty of measuring reactance as potential response to a covertly persuasive message without retrospectively revealing the persuasive intent.

Drawing a connection between psychological reactance theory and the persuasion knowledge model, this dissertation explored a novel approach to measuring reactance within the context of narrative persuasion. Two measures were tested, each with a different method to distinguish between awareness of a persuasive intent without experiencing reactance, and awareness accompanied by reactance. Study 1 explored the utility of an implicit reactance measure for both overt and covert narratives. Study 2 tested whether an explicit measure can be used for covertly persuasive narratives without activating reactance retrospectively.

This dissertation synthesizes and extends the scope of psychological reactance theory (Brehm, 1966), narrative engagement (Busselle & Bilandzic, 2009), and the persuasion knowledge model (Friestad & Wright, 1994). It also provides preliminary results for a new reactance measure that can be adapted to fit different contexts and disciplines, and offers practical information for strategic communicators on the effects of different levels of message explicitness, as well as other selection criteria for persuasive narratives. The results, theoretical and practical implications, as well as directions for future research are provided.