Tempted to Cancel That Meeting? Don't.

Why is it not a good idea to cancel meetings, and why do we even do it?

Posted Oct 01, 2018

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We are all busy. Sometimes we get a little unexpected extra time in the day when someone with whom we had plans fails to show up. I’ve sat in my office  a number of times for a scheduled meeting—and no one shows up. Often, I get a message minutes before our scheduled time. Occasionally, the no-show will email after the fact. But frequently, I do not hear from the person at all, until I point out their absence. Are we living in a culture of bailing, to borrow a term recently coined in Harper’s Bazaar?

I have been teaching for more than 20 years and it does seem as if there’s been a sharp rise in colleagues not sticking to commitments—and students bailing on assignments altogether. But I see the same behavior outside the university and in my social circle. I have not seen much data, but the anecdotal evidence is piling up. Since I doubt that the trait of conscientiousness is evolving out of our personalities, something else must be going on? What’s driving so many to bail?

Social media makes it easy. Once, if you had an appointment, whether social or professional, the only way to cancel it was to make a phone call. Sending a text or an email is a lot less fraught than having to speak to someone directly on the phone to say no—by the time you actually speak to your victim in person, their ire may have dissipated.

Social psychologist Kurt Lewin called this a channeling factor. He argued that if you make a course of action more likely—creating a “channel” for it—the action is more likely to occur. Texting and social media makes it easy to cancel quickly and painlessly.

Diffusion of responsibility. Canceling a commitment via a group chat on Snapchat, Facebook, or WhatsApp also takes some of the pressure off. Being in a group makes you feel less like an individual—the phenomenon known as deindividualization. Not feeling as responsible as you would in a one-to-one engagement, it becomes easier to cancel, especially if you think that others in your group will still attend.

Research has found that when more people are around, you can more easily justify inaction by claiming that others can do it instead. In a classic study, psychologists John Darley and Bibb Latené showed that even when it comes to reporting smoke in a lab, people are less likely to sound the alarm if they think there are others who could do it than if they are alone. This diffusion of responsibility for your actions can ease the discomfort of seeming rude, and the feeling increases if you do not know the people you are canceling on very well.

A coping mechanism. Perceived stress is on the rise among Americans, according to the American Psychological Association’s annual survey on the topic. Almost 65 percent of Americans, for example, report that the future of the nation is a significant source of stress; 75 percent report experiencing at least one stress symptom in the last month; 45 percent report lying awake at night; and 36 percent report being nervous or anxious. When you feel overwhelmed, a seemingly unending series of commitments just adds to the unease. Perhaps people cancel meetings to get themselves more alone time, or the flexibility to do...something else. Even one added block of open time can be seen as an oasis, and a last-minute bail can deliver that window.

Comparison of alternatives. Even people who are not especially well-connected may find themselves juggling many possible activities, partly thanks to social media. We can now click “interested” on the virtual invitation for an event instead of “going” or “not going.” Whenever you have two events of interest at the same time, you are likely to end up attending one instead of the other, but sometimes, people may just commit to both, instead of even saying maybe, and then simply cancel on one at the last moment depending who else is (or is not) going. Some people may do this  if they are not decisive. Others may do it to hedge their bets, waiting to see which event will attract more close friends. Unfortunately, while we strategize, we may not be factoring in how not showing could reflect on us, or influence the people expecting our presence.

The false consensus effect. We tend to overestimate the extent to which our beliefs or actions are normal or common. If we come to believe that “everyone” bails all the time, for example, then we will not think that we are doing anything that far outside the norm when we do it ourselves. This may be a mistaken belief, but it’s enough to make it more likely that we will bail with less (or no) guilt.

In early studies of this cognitive bias, psychologist Lee Ross and colleagues asked participants to read about a conflictual situation and guess which of two ways to respond they and other people would choose. Regardless of which option they picked for themselves, they believed others would pick the same one.

Poor visualizationIt’s easy to look ahead on Monday and think that, yes, you would like to see that movie with a friend on Saturday, without considering what else may be going on in your life. As the weekend approaches, however, you find yourself exhausted from work and burdened with pressing family responsibilities. Because you didn’t anticipate this, you find yourself stuck with a load of psychological barriers that makes canceling on your friend much more likely.

Whose Time Is It?

If my perception that more of us are canceling more often is correct, then it becomes important to consider the potential costs—starting with the fact that the social support we gain through face-to-face get-togethers is an important component of mental health, not to mention that canceling professional commitments reflects poorly on your personality and could jeopardize your career. Erasing a meeting from your calendar to gain some cherished alone time may be tempting, but psychological science suggests that the potential gains from socializing or cultivating your network are probably more valuable.

Instead of embracing the culture of bailing, devote more time to planning your calendar. Make sure you have a schedule that enables you easily to visualize your commitments. And if you do find yourself canceling on people more often as your stress level rises, actively carve out some “You Time” that preserves instead of threatens your crucial time with others.

Regan Gurung, Ph.D., is a professor of human development and psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.