A new study suggests people who feel they are stuck with a restriction are more likely to simply live with it than individuals who think the rule is vague or ambiguous.
The authors say this conclusion may help explain everything from unrequited love to the political issues in the Middle East.
The study will be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Psychological Science.
Research on how people respond to rules has produced mixed results. Some studies have found that the brain manages or rationalizes new restrictions by framing the restriction as a good idea. But other research has found that people react negatively against new restrictions, wanting the restricted thing more than ever.
In the new study, researcher and doctoral student Kristin Laurin of the University of Waterloo thought the difference might be absoluteness — how much the restriction is set in stone.
"If it's a restriction that I can't really do anything about, then there's really no point in hitting my head against the wall and trying to fight against it," she said. "I'm better off if I just give up. But if there's a chance I can beat it, then it makes sense for my brain to make me want the restricted thing even more, to motivate me to fight."
In an experiment in the new study, participants read that lowering speed limits in cities would make people safer.
Some read that government leaders had decided to reduce speed limits. Of those people, some were told that this legislation would definitely come into effect, and others read that it would probably happen, but that there was still a small chance government officials could vote it down.
People who thought the speed limit was definitely being lowered supported the change more than control subjects, but people who thought there was still a chance it wouldn't happen supported it less than these control subjects.
Laurin believes this confirms what she suspected about absoluteness; if a restriction is definite, people find a way to live with it.
An example of this behavior could be the uprisings that spread across the Arab world earlier this year. When people were living under dictatorships with power that appeared to be absolute, Laurin said, they may have been comfortable with it.
But once Tunisia's president fled, citizens of neighboring countries realized that their governments weren't as absolute as they seemed — and they could have dropped whatever rationalizations they were using to make it possible to live under an authoritarian regime.
Even more, the now non-absolute restriction their governments represented could have exacerbated their reaction, fueling their anger and motivating them to take action.
The model of psychosocial behavior can even extend to unrequited love. That is, it confirms people's intuitive sense that leading someone on can just make them fall for you more deeply, Laurin said.
"If this person is telling me no, but I perceive that as not totally absolute, if I still think I have a shot, that's just going to strengthen my desire and my feeling, that's going to make me think I need to fight to win the person over," she said.
"If instead I believe no, I definitely don't have a shot with this person, then I might rationalize it and decide that I don't like them that much anyway."