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The more the merrier? The irrationality behind group chats

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Apr 19, 2024

Just over a year ago, I packed up (many) suitcases and relocated to the US. One of my greatest fears in moving was being out of touch with family and close friends. Thankfully, I was born in the 21st century, and with group chats, we no longer have to disconnect due to geographical gaps. Even when living within the same area, group chats provide the option to broadcast daily updates to everyone you’re close to all at once, minimizing the effort required to stay connected. In the lack of friction, everyone is just one click away.

As emojis replace hugs and group chats become the new town squares, the age-old structure of human interactions has shifted so that we can hold on to connections that would have waned in the past. But although the form of communication has changed, the biases that tend to seep into our communication have not—in fact, they might be more magnified than ever before.

Let’s take a closer look at how group chats are both formed and broken to better grasp exactly how our irrationality continues to persist in this virtual sphere.

XXX has joined the group

Being accepted into a community was historically a matter of birth, location, or affiliation, but now it’s also a matter of deliberate decision. The group chat-creating process includes naming the group, as well as adding members, a description, and sometimes even a photo. Many of these attributes were never prerequisites for community evolution before—hence we are newbies. 

Since we are required to specifically identify group members, there are no ambiguities about who is or isn’t part of a community. To gain official inclusion, one must be added to the group chat. Due to this social condition, parents have admitted to feeling pressured into purchasing smartphones for their young children so that they can join group chats, even if the parents initially intended to postpone usage. Under normative conformity pressure, many parents prefer to overlook their principles to ensure their kids remain unscathed socially.

The desire to belong is nothing new to us, but the virtual, impersonal representation of our social connections is. If you think about it, with the metadata of chats, you can easily draw a map of how intimate and frequent our connections are with each other. The shift from an abstract conception of one’s social network to a written (or typed-out) list has introduced a new goal in our lives: being a part of group chats. The feeling of prestige that follows the "you've been added" message serves as positive reinforcement we all long for. Hence, we are nudged towards expanding our social network.

On paper (or on group chat threads), it seems like what once separated us from unlocking our full potential in growing our number of social connections was merely the lack of technology to do so; however, according to anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s research, this is also a matter of human biology.

In the 1990s, Dunbar introduced a cognitive limit to the amount of stable social relationships a person can maintain, also known as “Dunbar’s number.” By comparing the sizes of primates’ brains and social groups, his estimation was approximately 150 individuals. Caleb Cohen, a Research Assistant at Haskins Laboratories, claims that although we have the technological ability to maintain connections that exceed Dunbar’s number, we lack the cognitive ability to do so. This creates a serious risk of over-networking.

Given that evolution requires time, and group chats have only existed for the past decade, we must depend on our actions to bridge the gap between the potential amount of connections we can have due to technology and the actual amount we can maintain due to our cognitive limitations. Within the realm of group chats, effective management is paramount, particularly in the context of leaving irrelevant groups. Rational thinkers could hypothetically govern their connections represented by group chats easily with no strings attached. Unfortunately, we humans are perilously irrational.

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XXX have left the group?

Eight years ago, I participated in a stellar emissary program that included 100 individuals. Naturally, we formed a WhatsApp group to stay connected. Now, it primarily revolves around exchanging birthday wishes and sharing articles related to the program. Although I don’t have any interest in the group's current content, I haven’t left the group yet.

I’ve already admitted to myself this group chat isn't relevant, meaning the next step in the process of decreasing the number of people I am affiliated with is to swiftly click: “Exit group.” Sounds easy right? Well… not exactly. As it turns out, there are some cognitive biases that might be getting in my way as well as yours if you’re also struggling to hit that button.

Status quo bias

Growing up includes growing apart. As of now, individuals are forced to actively end connections when they are passively affiliated with each other in a group chat with no expiration date. Active change contradicts our nature, thanks to the status quo bias: our tendency to resist change. 

Adhering to the default setting shields us from regret and loss aversion feelings, mitigating the uncertainty stemming from our own choices. In essence, choosing to remain in the group chat still doesn’t demand an active decision—thus, relieving us of full responsibility for potential losses (such as being spammed by annoying notifications). This approach compels us to stay connected with those we didn’t intend to include in our social circle. This particularly becomes an issue when those connections become problematic.

The impact bias

Speaking of losing, the fear of missing out on future threads may prevent me from leaving the group. What if I miss out on an opportunity that could change my life? What if they decide to have a get-together and forget to reach out to me one-on-one?

Rationally speaking, considering I never read a single thread in the group, the odds for this scenario are pretty much zero. Irrationally speaking, overestimating the intensity or duration of the FOMO feeling is inherent to our nature. It’s unfortunate that the impact bias leads us to prioritize keeping the door open with acquaintances over the potential benefits of genuine connections. Especially since the door will remain open and distract us until we actively close it.

The commitment bias

Leaving a group implies change; it’s a virtual representation of us diverging from previous versions of ourselves. The commitment bias, which dictates that our behaviors align with past actions and opinions, dissuades us from exiting a group chat—as if departing equals inconsistency. The influence of the commitment bias on our choices becomes more pronounced in public forums, such as group chats, where the size of the group can significantly sway our decision-making process. With a larger number of members, we may feel even greater pressure to remain part of the group. 

The spotlight effect

Although I enjoy hearing about other people's drama, I don't enjoy getting involved or causing my own. Unfortunately, there is no cordial way to leave a WhatsApp group chat, for when a member exits the group chat, WhatsApp subtly notifies the rest of the group members.

The fear of becoming a conversation topic—“Why did she leave?” “Does she think she is better than us?”—has encouraged me to stay “connected” all those years. 

The spotlight effect is our tendency to believe that others pay much more attention to our actions than they actually do. This manifests when we attend a party with a stained shirt, assuming everybody noticed, or when we recall a joke falling flat in a social event, convinced that everyone remembers the embarrassment. Not leaving the group due to fear of gossip is rooted in the certainty that gossip will follow. Yet, since I have never conversed with anyone in the group after the program ended, would they even care? Probably not—but then again, I chose the “non-dramatic” way out and archived the chat. 

Make it stop

Phew, that was a long list of biases that, when facing the challenge of leaving a group chat, blur our rational thinking about maintaining a healthy social life. However, fear not, it can be managed with a few steps.

  1. Acknowledgment. The first step in eliminating irrational actions is acknowledging the biases that occasionally take the wheel when making decisions. So, congratulations on making progress just by reading this article. Hopefully, it encourages you to keep following these steps.
  2. Set a deadline. I challenge you (and myself) to set a deadline for each group chat, especially informative ones. Write down a date once you catch yourself checking the group chat just to remove the unread indication from your feed three times. If, by the deadline, you haven’t written or read a single thread, hit that exit button. Remind yourself that the spotlight effect is merely in your head.
  3. Use the mute and archive features wisely. Muting a group resembles putting bandages on a severe injury as a cure—temporary and not effective. I would use it only when you momentarily don’t want to be disturbed in a meeting. The archive feature is a bit trickier, for it grants us the option to ostensibly stay connected without causing drama. However, it’s a passive way to handle a problem that requires action.
  4. Prioritize yourself. Recognize that you've grown, your beliefs and experiences have changed, and consequently, your needs from your social surroundings have evolved. People may have played a certain role in your past, but in the sequel of your life movie, this role may no longer need to be cast, so listen to yourself as the director of your life.

Remember, just because we can reconnect with people from our past doesn't necessarily mean that we should. Implementing these steps can help you utilize group chats as a tool for prioritizing social connections, rather than feeling inundated by the endless social possibilities. Step by step (or click by click), we can become rational individuals.

About the Author

Yael Mark headshot

Yael Mark

Yael Mark is a seasoned product manager with a true passion for behavioral economics/science. In her works, Yael is focusing on implementing applicable behavioral theories to influence user adoption, enhance retention and elevate engagement  levels.

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