If You Don’t Want to Go

Janina Steinmetz Ph.D.

You might be more worried about saying no than you need to be.

People are often invited by friends and family members to join social activities. Some might be truly enjoyable and people join happily. There are gatherings, however, one would rather not attend. Maybe they don’t want to make the time or spend the money, or maybe they would rather have some time to themselves. Or they may find the activity truly unenjoyable.

We might expect people to politely and respectfully decline in all these cases. After all, previous research by Grant Donnelly and colleagues (2021) has shown that not having the time or the money to attend a social event are acceptable excuses that allow people to maintain a positive relationship after having declined an invitation.

Yet, new research by Julian Givi and Colleen J. Kirk (2024) shows that people worry about the negative consequences of declining invitations and, in the end, join activities that they are not interested in. To test this, the researchers invited more than 200 couples to take part in an experiment. One member of the couple, the inviter, was asked to write an invitation for an activity to the other member, the invitee. For example, one spouse might suggest to the other to try a new Mexican restaurant. What the inviters didn’t know was that the researchers gave secret instructions to all invitees to decline the invitation, regardless of whether they liked the idea, and say they’d rather stay home. Inviters then rated how angry and disappointed they were about the declined invite.

Interestingly, the invitees also predicted how angry and disappointed they thought the inviters might be. The results showed that although inviters were somewhat angry and disappointed when their invitations were declined, invitees overpredicted the anger and disappointment and were more worried than needed.

The researchers found that invitees are overly worried because they believe the inviter will mostly focus on the outcome (“I don’t want to join”) and not much on the thoughts that went into the declining (“I don’t want to join because this week is so busy and the restaurant is rather expensive”). However, inviters do understand that invitees don’t decline lightly. In another experiment, when people were in the position of being declined, they had better insight and were less likely to believe the other person to be angry and disappointed.

If people don’t feel like attending an event, they should not force themselves. The worry that others will be angry might be overestimated. This is not a license to decline all invitations, loneliness and hurt are real. However, it’s fine to decline and enjoy a quiet night alone every once in a while.

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