Your very good friend has invited you to their birthday party next Saturday. Sadly, you are out of town and cannot attend. What do you do?
Our intuition is to tell the friend why we cannot attend and express our deep regret for missing out. We want to publicly proclaim that our lack of attendance is by no way a reflection of how much we like the person.
This is the exact opposite of what we should do. Why?
Consider a well-intentioned non-profit that wants to get more people to wear sunscreen. They put up a sign that says “Only a few people apply enough sunscreen. Remember to put on sunscreen today.” They hope this sign will increase the likelihood that people will be motivated to apply. Now, consider a very different sign. This sign says “The majority of people regularly apply sunscreen. Do you want to be the only person who is not protected?”
Of course you don’t. It is intuitive, and research backs up, more people will do a behavior when told everyone else is doing it. When told people aren’t doing a behavior, we won’t do it.
Sadly, our world is littered with the latter strategy. This is called “negative” social proof. Negative social proof statements are frequent in our society’s narrative: “Most people aren’t picking up their litter. Pick up your litter.” Or “Most people don’t eat enough fruits and veggies. Eat more fruits and veggies.”
As evidenced in a 2011 study by Stok and a 2003 study by Cialdini, when a norm is conveyed, people pay attention. However, if the norm suggests people DON’T do the intended behavior, people will still take the hint and follow the implied norm. We think: “If everyone isn’t applying sunscreen, it must not be that important for me apply sunscreen. I won’t do it.” This is negative social proof.
Knowing this, how should you respond to this upcoming birthday party invitation? By indulging in your deep desire to publicly share that you’re not attending, you may also inadvertently signal to other attendees. Your response will create negative social proof and convey the norm, “This event is not that popular. People are not attending.”
In 2011, Facebook caught on to this issue. They removed the count of how many people have declined an event from the event homepage, helping maintain the organizer’s momentum going and keep their ego intact.
However, the problem persists.
This author was invited to a holiday event which was plastered with these well-meaning excuses. 12 of the 13 wall posts were from regretful guests, sharing their flight schedule and vacation whereabouts. The organizer’s friends undermined the very event they expressed regret at not attending. Every negative response contributes to the cycle of negative social proof.
As a friend, there is another way.
You can inform the organizer you cannot attend — but you can do it privately. Allow the event to flourish without you. Help keep the event wall focused on what it should be focused on — funny gifs and relevant memes about the organizer or event theme.
As an organizer, you also have power. You can proactively prevent this downward spiral of rejection. As an organizer, you can set the tone with the first post:
“We’re doing Public Yes’s and Private No’s. Please post publically on the event wall if you’re attending. But, all posts that tell us you’re not coming will be deleted. While we love you, we also don’t want you to ruin the mood. If inclined, send us a private message with your (likely) valid excuse. We hope to see you at the next one!”
While “Private No’s” may go against our intuition, we are acting in the organizer (and our friend’s) best interest. We gifting the organizer the chance to have a popular event. And at the very least, we also benefit. We are saved from the FOMO of getting notified everytime someone posts on the event page telling us just how much fun we’re missing out on.
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