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The big idea
Declining an invitation by saying “I don’t have time” leads the person you rejected to feel undervalued and upset, making them trust you less and hurting the relationship, we found in research recently published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. Offering a financial excuse such as “I don’t have money” doesn’t create the same negative reaction.
To explore the best way to decline an invitation without damaging a relationship, we conducted six experiments with a focus on two common excuses: time and money.
First, we invited 207 people into our lab and asked them to recall an experience when an acquaintance declined to do something with them, citing an excuse of either limited time or money. We then asked participants to rate how close they felt to the person and how much they trusted them before and after hearing the excuse. We also asked how valid they deemed the excuse.
Participants felt less close to their acquaintances and trusted them less when they used a time excuse rather than a money excuse as a reason they couldn’t do something. They also said a time excuse was less valid.
In a second experiment, we recruited 132 people who were engaged and planning a wedding. We asked them how many guests declined the invitation and if they provided a time or money excuse. Again, people taking part in this study felt less close and trusting of those who used a lack of time as their excuse for not attending the wedding. Participants also indicated that they believe money was significantly more outside of their guests’ control.
We found similar results with three other experiments that examined a scenario in which someone declined an invitation to have dinner, drinks or see a comedy show.
A sixth experiment found that people who cited not having enough time as the reason they aren’t more charitable were perceived as less trustworthy. They were also seen as having more actual control over their constraints than when they cited a lack of money.
Why it matters
We’ve all received an invitation to an event or been asked to do a favor for a friend but didn’t have the time, money or perhaps even the interest. But saying “no” isn’t so easy for any number of reasons.
Our research suggests that turning down invitations because of a lack of time – even when true – seems to reflect the weakness of the relationship. You might as well say, “I value doing something else rather than spending time with you.”
But we also found that when time is a factor, providing a friend with more information about your time constraints can help, such as mentioning a tight deadline at work. That shows the constraint is outside of your control.
What other research is being done
While our research shows citing money is a more acceptable excuse, there are other reasons why someone might not want to use a lack of cash as a reason to decline a night out or something else.
Recent research suggests that financially constrained people don’t like to talk about their purchasing behavior because it reminds them of their relative lack of wealth. This makes them less likely to use it as an excuse – and sometimes go out anyway – even when doing so adds to their financial stress.
In one of our experiments, we found that people saw having too little money as less of an obstacle than time constraints. Some participants with friends who declined an invitation over a lack of money expressed a willingness to pick up their companion’s bill or to suggest a less expensive activity.
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This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Grant Donnelly, The Ohio State University and Ashley Whillans, Harvard Business School.
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Ashley Whillans receives funding from the Institute for Labor Economics (IZA) John Templeton Foundation, Social Sciences & Humanities Research Council of Canada, Lee Kum Sheung Center for Health and Happiness at Harvard University, Mittal Family Foundation at Harvard University, Burke Family Foundation at Harvard University, and the Pershing Square Foundations of Human Behavior Initiative at Harvard University.
Grant Donnelly does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.