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Enlarge / The invitation might be nice, but you can feel free to say no.

The holidays can be a time of parties, events, dinners, outings, get-togethers, impromptu meetups—and stress. Is it really an obligation to say yes to every single invite? Is not showing up to Aunt Tillie’s annual ugly sweater party this once going to mean a permanent ban? Turning down some of those invitations waiting impatiently for an RSVP can feel like a risk.

But wait! Turning down an invite won’t necessarily have the harsh consequences that are often feared (especially this time of year). A group of researchers led by psychologist and assistant professor Julian Givi of West Virginia University put test subjects through a series of experiments to see if a host’s reaction to an invitation being declined would really be as awful as the invitee feared. In the experiments, those who declined invitations were not guilted or blacklisted by the inviters. Turns out that hosts were not so upset as invitees thought they would be when someone couldn’t make it.

“Invitees have exaggerated concerns about how much the decline will anger the inviter, signal that the invitee does not care about the inviter, make the inviter unlikely to offer another invitation in the future, and so forth,” the researchers said in a study published by the American Psychological Association.

You’re invited…now what?

Why are we so nervous that declining invitations will annihilate our social lives? Appearing as if we don’t care about the host is one obvious reason. The research team also thinks there is an additional explanation behind this: we mentally exaggerate how much the inviter focuses on the rejection, and underestimate how much they consider what might be going on in our heads and in our lives. This makes us believe that there is no way the inviter will be understanding about any excuse.

All this anxiety means we often end up reluctantly dragging ourselves to a holiday movie or dinner or that infamous ugly sweater party, and saying yes to every single invite, even if it eventually leads to holiday burnout.

To determine if our fears are justified, the psychologists who ran the study focused on three things. The first was declining invitations for fun social activities, such as ice skating in the park. The second focus was how much invitees exaggerated the expected consequences of declining. Finally, the third focus was on how invitees also exaggerated how much hosts were affected by the rejection itself, as opposed to the reasons the invitee gave for turning down the invite.

The show (or party, or whatever) must go on

There were five total experiments that assessed whether someone declining an invitation felt more anxious about it than they should have. In these experiments, invitees were the subjects who had to turn down an invitation, while hosts were the subjects who were tasked with reacting to a declined invitation.

The first experiment had subjects imagining that a hypothetical friend invented them to a museum exhibit, but they turned the invitation down. The invitee then had to describe the possible negative consequences of saying no. Other subjects in this experiment were told to imagine being the one who invited the friend who turned them down, and then report how they would feel.

Most of those imagining they were the invitees overestimated what the reaction of the host would be.

Invitees predicted that a rejected host would experience anger and disappointment, and assume the invitee didn’t care enough about the host. Long term, they also expected that their relationship with the host would be damaged. They weren’t especially concerned about not being invited to future events or that hosts would retaliate by turning them down if they issued invites.

The four remaining experiments slightly altered the circumstances and measured these same potential consequences, obtaining similar results. The second experiment used hosts and invitees who were couples in real life, and who gave each other actual invitations and rejections instead of just imagining them. Invitees again overestimated how negative the hosts’ reactions would be. In the third experiment, outside observers were asked to read a summary of the invitation and rejection, then predict hosts’ reactions. The observers again thought the inviters would react much more negatively than they actually did.

In the fourth experiment, stakes were higher because subjects were told to imagine the invitation and rejection scenario involving a real friend, albeit one who was not present for the experiment. Invitees had to predict how negative their friend’s reaction would be to their response and also their friend’s opinion on why they might have declined. Those doing the inviting had to describe their reactions to a rejection and predict their friend’s expectations about how they would react. Invitees tended to predict more negative reactions than hosts did.

Finally, the fifth experiment also had subjects working individually, this time putting themselves in the place of both the host and invitee. They had to read and respond to an invitation rejection scenario from the perspective of both roles, with the order they handled host and invitee randomized. Those who took the host role first realized that hosts usually empathize with the reasons someone is not able to attend, making them unlikely to predict highly negative reactions to a declined invitation when they were asked later.

Overestimation

Despite their differences, these experiments all point in a similar direction. “Consistent with our theorizing, invitees tended to overestimate the negative ramifications of the invitation decline,” the researchers said in the same study.

Evidently, Aunt Tilly will not be gravely disappointed if her favorite niece or nephew cannot make it to her ugly sweater party this year—some events just happen to be scheduled at especially inconvenient times. This study, however, didn’t test the ramifications of declining invites for more significant but less frequent events, such as weddings and baby showers. Based on the results for smaller events, it’s likely that the thought of turning such an invite down will result in even more anxiety. The key question is whether the hosts will be less understanding for big events.

Givi and his team still note that accepting invitations can have positive effects. Human beings benefit from being around other people, and isolation can be detrimental. Still, we need to remember that too much of a good thing can be too much—everyone needs time to recharge. Even with the heavy feeling of obligation that comes with being invited somewhere, turning down one or two invites will probably not start a holiday apocalypse—unless your aunt is an exception.

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2023.  DOI: 10.1037/pspi0000443.supp

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