A set of old fashioned scales with a clock on one side and piles of money on the other
(Featured image: Mona Tootoonchinia via Pixabay)

When time is not money

Time is money, it is often said, but that doesn’t mean “no time” is equivalent to “no money”

are social beings, but we are also economists: we interact with others in various social relationships, and at the same time these relationships sometimes make material demands on our scarce resources, notably money and time. These can be sizeable (a friend can invite us to her wedding on a Caribbean beach), or rather modest (an evening out with colleagues, with a show and a nice meal, or perhaps just a coffee and a chat with an acquaintance). Our inner economist will evaluate the sacrifices the invitation requires, compare them with the gains we stand to make, and advise us to accept or to refuse accordingly.

If we accept, no problem, but if we’re inclined to refuse, our inner social being steps up with a warning: what will this do to the social relationship and to our reputation? We may reconsider, but if we decide to decline anyway, we cannot simply say that we don’t feel like accepting the invitation. We need to come up with a good excuse. “Ah, but that’s the evening I wash my hair” might not quite do the trick.

Shifting the blame

Ideally, the excuse should lay the blame elsewhere than with ourselves. If we can say simply don’t have the scarce resources that the invitation requires, that’s perfect. But which of the two — time or money — should we claim we lack? Money is more associated with pure economic transactions, so it might serve poorly as a reason why we need to decline a social request. Time is more closely linked to social activities, and so perhaps declining an invitation for lack of time might be regarded more favourable than for lack of money.

“Decline with regret” — but what excuse should we use? (image: freepik)

On the other hand, it may seem more plausible that, with all the financial obligations we all have, there is often not much money left to spend at our discretion, while time is something over which we have more control. Is it credible to say we have “no time”, or would we be signalling that we have better things to do than accept an invitation?

What a dilemma…

Thankfully, research by Grant Donelly, a psychologist at Ohio State University and several Harvard colleagues sheds some welcome light on this thorny issue. They looked at how the two types of excuses affected the relationship between the inviter and the invitee, and in particular at two mediating factors. One was the perceived degree of control (an excuse is more valid if the reason is seen as genuinely outside the invitee’s control); the other was the perceived trustworthiness (to what extent does the excuse damage the invitee’s image of reliability).

A preliminary study found that excuses claiming lack of money found more favour. The researchers gathered 8,000 tweets containing “don’t have time” and “don’t have money” over the period of a week, and discarded those that did not actually communicate scarcity of time or money. About 2,300 tweets were left, slightly more than half claiming lack of time (e.g., “I have a paper to write, I don’t have the time to leave the house”). They also looked at how much ‘likes’ (a positive engagement by other users) each one received, and found that for tweets reporting time scarcity this was considerably lower (24%) than for those expressing money scarcity (42%).

Next, the researchers conducted a recall experiment. Participants had to reflect on a recent instance where an invitation of theirs had been refused with an excuse involving lack of either time or money, and rate the perceived closeness to the person making the excuse, before and after the excuse, as well as their perceived trustworthiness, and how valid they thought the excuse was. The difference between the two excuses was significant: with those who had claimed lack of time, the drop in closeness was a lot larger, and the perceived trustworthiness and the validity of their excuse a lot smaller.

Another experiment used a hypothetical scenario: participants imagined inviting a friend to a concert of a mutual friend, in which the invitee declined with one of the two excuses. The findings were similar: “no time” corresponded with less closeness and less trustworthiness, because time was seen as something over which people have more control.

What if the controllability was explicitly manipulated? The researchers thought of that too. In a further experiment the scenarios stipulated two different reasons for the lack of time and money: in the low control context, the invitee declined because they needed the time to study or the money to buy study books; in the high control context, they needed their money to register to take part in a marathon and their time to train. In the low control scenario, there was no difference in closeness or trustworthiness between the money and the time excuse, confirming the earlier hypothesis that controllability is indeed a key factor.

An interesting finding from the study (which included a few more experiments) was that when people themselves make an excuse, they really do not appreciate the difference in controllability that the receiver of the excuse perceives. Consequently, they fail to realize the effect this difference has on their reputation and on the relationship.

Put your money on the money

The authors conclude that lack of money is widely seen as a valid, external and non-controllable excuse for social rejection, while time is not (unless it is explicitly externally constrained, for example a business trip out of town). Remarkably, even if you can legitimately claim that your time is not yours, invoking a constraint on your finances turned out to be still a better way to minimize damage to your reputation or to the relationship. If the invitation is for an event in several weeks or months, claiming lack of time is definitely not a good idea: control over one’s time is seen as even greater in the distant future.

Exhaustion — the ultimate excuse for refusion an invitation? (image: Phyliis Buchanan via Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0)

But what if shortage of money really seems not appropriate as an excuse, for example if the invitation involves almost no actual expenditure, or if, as an invitee, you are much wealthier than the person inviting you? Intriguingly, the researchers found that, even then, a money excuse is perceived as more trustworthy. This control aspect really counts.

And if you believe neither money nor time would work, the authors have one final tip: claim lack of energy. This is something everyone can sympathize with, and best of all, everyone knows that there is nothing you can do to quickly restore your energy level.

Right. It’s not that I don’t have the time to carry on writing, but I am actually exhausted now. Until next week.

Originally published at http://koenfucius.wordpress.com on April 23, 2021.

Thank you for reading this article — I hope you enjoyed it. If so, you can easily share it far and wide — with handy Twitter and Facebook buttons nearby, and you can click here to share it via LinkedIn, or simply copy and paste this link. See all my other articles featuring observations of human behaviour (I publish one every Friday) here. Thanks!

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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