Psychological reactance to anti-piracy messages explained by gender and attitudes

Kate Megan Whitman*, Zahra Murad, Joe Cox

*Corresponding author for this work

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Digital piracy is costly to creative economies across the world. Studies indicate that anti-piracy messages can cause people to pirate more rather than less, suggesting the presence of psychological reactance. A gender gap in piracy behavior and attitudes towards piracy has been reported in the literature. By contrast, gender differences in message reactance and the moderating impact of attitudes have not been explored. This paper uses evolutionary psychology as a theoretical framework to examine whether messages based on real-world antipiracy campaigns cause reactance and whether this effect is explained by gender and preexisting attitudes. An experiment compares one prosocial and two threatening messages against a control group to analyze changes in piracy intention from past behavior for digital TV/film. Results indicate that the prosocial message has no significant effect, whereas the threatening messages have significantly opposing effects on men and women. One threatening message influences women to reduce their piracy intentions by over 50% and men to increase it by 18%. We find that gender effects are moderated by pre existing attitudes, as men and women who report the most favorable attitudes towards piracy tend to demonstrate the most polarized changes in piracy intentions. The practical implications of the results are that men and women process threatening messages differently, therefore behavioral change messages should be carefully targeted to each gender. Explicitly, threatening messages may be effective on women, but may have the reverse effect on men with strong favorable attitudes towards the target behavior.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Business Ethics
Early online date24 Jan 2024
Publication statusEarly online - 24 Jan 2024


  • digital piracy
  • psychological reactance
  • persuasive messages
  • evolutionary psychology
  • gender

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