Embracing boundaries: New study encourages people pleasers to say 'no'

By Lisa Marie Basile | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published December 12, 2023

Key Takeaways

  • Research published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes found that people often overestimate the consequences of saying “no” to an invite, fearing that the inviting party might become angry or disappointed. 

  • Researchers found that 77% of respondents had, at some point, accepted an invitation to a social activity that they would have otherwise declined. 

  • Experts say that saying no is healthy and generally doesn’t result in the ramifications one imagines.

Have you ever hesitated to decline an invitation to a colleague’s happy hour meetup or a friend’s holiday party even though you don’t want to attend? Why is saying no so uncomfortable? 

Recent research published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology: Interpersonal Relations and Group Processes explores this exact conundrum—an important contribution, given people’s high levels of burnout, especially among healthcare workers.[][][]

According to the research, invitees often overestimate the consequences of saying no to an invitation. For example, the authors write, “Will the person who offered the invitation be angry? Will they think I do not care about them? Will they invite me to do something again down the road?” 

As a result, this can sometimes lead to an invitee saying yes when they would rather not. This reluctant acceptance happens more often than not: The authors write that “77% of respondents had accepted an invitation to a social activity that they did not want to attend because they were concerned about the negative ramifications that would have emerged had they declined.”

To explore this phenomenon, the researchers largely drew on the psychological topics of introspection (learning about one’s mental states and processes), perceived perspective taking (when one believes that another has taken their perspective), and the actor–observer bias (the tendency to attribute one’s actions to circumstance while attributing others’ actions to personality traits).[][][] 

The authors say that their research offers a few unique merits: it focuses on an area given little attention (the psychology of declining invites), documents the phenomenon of overestimating the negative ramifications of saying no, and explores the psychological processes that lead to this overestimation.

According to lead author Julian Givi, PhD, Assistant Professor of Marketing at West Virginia University, this research came directly from personal experience. “I was invited to a social event and really did not want to go…but [I] went anyway. The reason I went was because I feared the negative ramifications of not going,” Givi tells MDLinx.

The researchers set up five different studies of at least 100 people in which participants were given hypothetical invitation scenarios like visiting a museum exhibit or going out to dinner. Participants were told to decline the invitations in different contexts and scenarios. 

“Across five studies, we examined a situation that is quite common in everyday life: when people decline invitations from others to engage in fun social activities,” the authors summarize. The findings were clear: “We showed that invitees overestimate the negative ramifications that emerge following an invitation decline, in part, because invitees exaggerate the degree to which inviters focus on the act of the invitee declining the invitation as opposed to the deliberations that ran through the invitee’s head before deciding.”

Study five shows that if an invitee assumes the role of the inviter, they can more accurately predict negative ramifications that arise as a result of declining an invitation. 

The authors also note that with regard to perceived perspective-taking, people tend to underestimate the degree to which others strive to focus on their internal thoughts relative to their actions.

“We don't need to worry about the negative ramifications as much as we do,” Givi says. “We tend to overexaggerate them, which leads us to worry more than we should. We think it might upset [others], disappoint them, and so on—more than is the case.”

For mental health professionals with patients who might fear saying no, this research only serves to assuage their anxieties: While it doesn’t aim to justify constantly saying no to invitations, it does show that the ramifications aren’t as serious as one might think. 

Aura De Los Santos, a clinical psychologist at EHProject, explains where this fear may come from: “A ‘no’ is usually synonymous with not wanting something or not liking something, so it has a negative connotation.” 

For people-pleasing patients who’d like to say no to an invitation, De Los Santos recommends practicing in easier situations. “Start by saying no in situations that you feel are less serious, [where you can] deal with the outcome you feel you may have,” she says. 

More so, De Los Santos says, it’s important to focus on why you’re saying “no.” “If you are clear on the reasons why you said no, then after you say it…stick to your reasons, which will support you and help you not to feel bad. Remember that it is normal to use the word ‘no’—just as we use the word ‘yes.’ Think about how we use this word to reject things that we know are not good for us,” she says.

Prior 2020 research on the power of saying no (in a professional context) found that saying “yes” too often can actually give the impression “that you are a people‐pleaser and actually do not know what you want…Moreover, it also signifies over‐commitment, which could lead to less self‐care and a decline in productivity,” the authors write.[]

Just as the above research found, “[This] can lead to mental and physical exhaustion,” De Los Santos adds. “Think about yourself first and what you can handle,” she says.

She also reminds patients to not say yes out of discomfort only to then say no. In short, honor your choice.

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