17 November 2006


I've been contemplating a trait known as 'countersuggestibility'. It has a lot of relevance to triangulation and conflict.

I've dealt with this trait for years, it is at once one of my saving strengths and a deep personal flaw. It has saved me from serious threats but paradoxically keeps me from abandoning lost causes.

Yet when I did a search on it, few hits came up. I think this is because it's an older term, less used now, has a specialized meaning, and hasn't come up much in cyberspace yet. But I think it's an important trait to recognize - in ourselves and in others.

The synonyms I think of aren't emotionally neutral; this needs to be presented neutrally to be of greatest value. I couldn't even find a definition online[!], so I'll put up a few snips from things I did find, with links to their sources, and try to produce a usable definition myself. What follows, as always, are my thoughts, but I think they may be of use to others - so here they are. [For those who are uncomfortable with inclusive and universal language, I have definitely used inclusive/universal language towards the end of this. Feel free to skip.]

Snips and links:

"We were all of us misfits out to impeach God. Rebels against mundanity, stupidity, the ordinary. We wore short hair when the fashion was long and long when the fashion was short... What else could we be but driven, rigidly ethical, ruthlessly analytical, anti-authoritarian, idealistic, careless of normal social rewards, countersuggestible, etc., etc. It's in our wiring."

from A Fan of Freedom.

Note the emotional tone... this is from a self-identified [self-labeled] countersuggestible person, pretty clearly.

And another snip; emphasis mine:

"Second example: I act in a way that makes it clear that I have made some prediction, but not clear what prediction it is, for instance, I smirk and say knowingly, “I know what you are going to do about marrying that girl, even if you don’t.” The subject may ignore this and proceed as he would have done anyway. But  it may be the case that the importance to him of showing me wrong is greater than  any gains he can make by making his choice on the intrinsic merit of the alternatives (a common situation in cards, business, love, and war). I shall say that a subject  whose utility-set is under this constraint is contrapredictive, or is contrapredictively  motivated, or is a contrapredictive. (This is not at all the same as, though it overlaps with, being countersuggestible.) "

from Unpredictability .

And one more, emphasis again mine:

"Notice that it is an empirical conjecture that providing valuable options is a better influence on preference formation than provision of other options. If a person was countersuggestible, and tended to form preferences and values opposed to those that society suggests are worthwhile by making available to him even at some cost, then for this person provision of worthless options would be a better preference formation mechanism."

from Richard Arneson, "Real Freedom and Distributive Justice"

From these snips I'll define countersuggestibility as a tendency for a person to react to suggestions and requests - direct or implied - by acting in direct opposition to what is suggested or requested, overtly or covertly, without taking into consideration the broader impact of this action on themselves or others.

That is, if I suggest to someone who is extremely countersuggestible that they ought to put on a coat before going outside, they are likely to go out in 20 degree [Fahrenheit] weather in their shirtsleeves. Had I not made the suggestion, they would likely have put on a parka [presuming this hasn't been a source of prior contention].

Likewise, if I ask a countersuggestible spouse, child, or friend to bring me a cup of coffee, because they are in the kitchen making some, or I am in the living room with a sleeping cat in my lap, they are likely to (a) make a cup but 'forget' to bring it; (b) make a cup and bring it but assure that it is not 'to my taste', when they know my preferences; (c) make a perfect cup and spill it perfectly on the Persian carpet (or the Persian cat) or (d) have an Oscar-worthy hissy fit about my right to make such demands of them.

Triangle interactions and other forms of conflict and emotional abuse are loaded with this!

There are degrees of countersuggestibility - some people are mildly countersuggestible, while others seem uncontrollably driven to oppose any request or recommendation, however trivial. Some are fine with everyone but X, who may be a sibling, a spouse, or the unpopular person at the office.

Countersuggestibility can be a valuable tool under conscious control. It's the best possible antidote to sales pressure, to being 'set up to fail' by an untrustworthy boss, or to any other type of 'con game' one might encounter in life. But taken to extremes it ruins lives. Everyone who has loved a rebellious adolescent child knows exactly what I'm talking about - there are few feelings as distressing as knowing that your child [or sibling, or best friend] is likely to spend more time with destructive companions if you point out their destructiveness and suggest that the relationship is unhealthy or dangerous. And we have probably all had at least one failed relationship with someone we cared for - who turned out to care much, much more about proving we couldn't 'make' them do anything than they ever cared about us.

I won't even touch the subject of what this trait may have done in terms of world history.

So. How to understand it, how to deal with it, how to master it in ourselves, if we see it there? Here are my thoughts:

Understanding it in ourselves helps greatly towards understanding it in others. If, when someone [people in general, or one person in particular] makes a suggestion, request, or demand of us, our immediate emotional reaction is routinely one of: defiance, resentment, rebellion, various hand gestures, a strong desire to do exactly the opposite of what they want in order to show them they don't control us -- well, congratulations. We have it... and by the way, they do control us, because we're reacting, not acting, in response to their requests. A strong compulsion to do the opposite of whatever hubby wants is no less a compulsion than if we felt compelled to give him everything he asks for.

Once aware of it, we can decide if we really want our lives to be run by it, our relationships harmed by it, our careers potentially ruined by it. Tamed and quelled, it can be a powerful ally - as noted above, it's one of the best 'bad faith' detectors there is, it can even save our lives. My own countersuggestibility has definitely saved my life, literally, more than once; but it has also kept me stubbornly trying to 'get through' to my FOO all my life, and it keeps me stubbornly trying to 'get through' in other places, too, where a wiser person would long ago have given up and hit the road.

Countersuggestibility in others can be obvious, once you see the pattern. If it's subtle, though, it can be extremely bewildering, and you can end up stuck to it like flypaper, trying over and over to get through to someone who has no intention of letting you get through to them, precisely because you want to and they know it.

So - the first thing to do is to look for the pattern. Does X consistently do the opposite of what is asked? Does this happen with things that X knows really matter emotionally or otherwise, more than with things that don't, or vice versa - more with trivia, not at all with matters of the heart? In extreme cases, does he brandish defiance with pride, as if you were in a war rather than a relationship? Or does he deny that he subverts your requests, while doing it with 100% predictability?

The bottom line is... if someone is determined to do the opposite of what you ask, because it has been asked of him or because you, specifically, have asked it -

especially if they become even more determined not to do what you ask when they know it is important to you -

there's a serious problem, and you probably won't be able to resolve it unilaterally. Your desire to resolve the problem is something 'you want'; therefore, in the extreme case, resolution itself will be intentionally withheld from you! About all you can do in a situation of this type is recognize what is going on, and cope with it depending on your connection to the person involved.

It isn't a relationship; it's a game, a trap. There are no equals here, there is no mutuality.

Coping with a defiant adolescent going through a period of rebellion will be very different from coping with a destructive co-worker, an emotionally abusive spouse, boss, or friend, or a spiteful elder parent. In the case of the child in transition, there is a power imbalance in your favor, to some extent. Discipline, reason, and consistency can eventually have a healing effect. With a boss, the power imbalance is tilted against you. With a spouse, reason and consistency may ultimately bring some resolution if there is underlying 'good faith' and the relationship matters more than 'winning'. These things are less likely to have the same impact with a parent, who usually expects to control you, and are probably most useful as sources of strength for setting boundaries with the colleague and the friend, who have little at stake if the relationship fails.

People aren't all good or all bad. But we make choices every day about how to approach certain persons, or people in general, that are primarily constructive or primarily destructive. People who routinely take a countersuggestible stance aren't usually engaging constructively.

After thinking about this a bit more, I looked up a conduct disorder called Oppositional Defiant Disorder. I found the US Surgeon General's report on Disruptive Disorders and am pasting an excerpt here, plus link. Emphases are mine, to highlight elements of countersuggestibility as described above.

"Oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) is diagnosed when a child displays a persistent or consistent pattern of defiance, disobedience, and hostility toward various authority figures including parents, teachers, and other adults. ODD is characterized by such problem behaviors as persistent fighting and arguing, being touchy or easily annoyed, and deliberately annoying or being spiteful or vindictive to other people. Children with ODD may repeatedly lose their temper, argue with adults, deliberately refuse to comply with requests or rules of adults, blame others for their own mistakes, and be repeatedly angry and resentful. Stubbornness and testing of limits are common. These behaviors cause significant difficulties with family and friends and at school or work (DSM-IV; Weiner, 1997). Oppositional defiant disorder is sometimes a precursor of conduct disorder (DSM-IV).

In different studies, estimates of the prevalence of ODD have ranged from 1 to 6 percent, depending on the population sample and the way the disorder was evaluated, but not depending on diagnostic criteria. Rates are lower when impairment criteria are more strict and when information is obtained from teachers and parents rather than from the children alone (Shaffer et al., 1996a). Before puberty, the condition is more common in boys, but after puberty the rates in both genders are equal.

In preschool boys, high reactivity, difficulty being soothed, and high motor activity may indicate risk for the disorder. Marital discord, disrupted child care with a succession of different caregivers, and inconsistent, unsupervised child-rearing may contribute to the condition."

Link: Surgeon General's Report  - scroll about halfway down the page.

The codification of this clinical entity might explain why I found so few hits on the term 'countersuggestible', since the same behaviors - at the extreme - appear to be subsumed here. According to the DSM, in America the disorder is recognized in both children and adults; in Europe, it is apparently diagnosed only in children.

I suspect that it will ultimately parallel ADHD, and be more extensively recognized in adults later on than it is now.


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