By Carly Breit
“Do you guys think I should post this picture?”
“What should I respond to this text?”
“Are these shoes too much?!”
Hell is a group chat, although the road to it was paved with good intentions. What started as a tool to streamline plan-making with multiple people has Frankensteined itself into a channel for near-constant streams of consciousness—at least in millennial circles. They’re filled with seemingly innocuous snippets about work, quick funny anecdotes, pep talks, and a healthy dose of screenshots of messages from significant others. But lately I’ve noticed, at least in my own clique, that these chats look more like insecure focus groups than virtual happy hours. The endless questions posed aren’t usually groundbreaking or earth-shattering; they’re the type of musings that could be saved for an inner monologue—the kind the asker could easily answer for themselves.
Full disclosure: I’m guilty too. I consider myself a confident decision-maker, but I’ll seldom send a Bumble message before asking the group if my opening line is witty enough. The women in my chat are my best friends—all in our early twenties, all strong, independent people. So what does it say about me and my peers that we hesitate to act on anything without four enthusiastic “do it!” texts?
Asking what lip color to wear or which filter to use on an Instagram post is probably harmless (though the incessant pinging can get annoying). But the constant crowdsourcing among my friends makes me wonder what the chat will look like in a decade or so, when the questions in our lives have a bit more bearing. It’s unnerving to picture the conversations: “Okay, need opinions: Is four months long enough to ask for a raise?” “Alex got a job in California. Too soon for me to move across the country?” “Guys, should I breastfeed or bottle-feed?”
With a rolodex of consultants in our pockets at all times, I wonder if my generation will ever be able to make decisions for ourselves, no fifth, sixth, and seventh opinions necessary. Are we conditioning ourselves to always ask a few friends before doing, well, anything?
“It’s hard to say,” Melissa Pirkey, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in Cornell University’s sociology department, tells me. “We might not know that for some time because group texting is an emergent phenomenon.”
What is certain is that this kind of technology will change the way young people use advice—and require it. Where Dr. Pirkey, a mother who considers herself an “old millennial,” waited for a coffee date to talk pros and cons with her friends in college, younger women are conditioned to receive instant feedback from their inner circles. Twenty-somethings are habitually asking questions in group chats that women in their thirties would have answered for themselves at that age. It seems insignificant, but humans are creatures of habit: If we don’t put down our phones and make our own small decisions now, routine indecisiveness could plague us later.
“If people rely on the group advice too much, they may start to feel like they need confirmation,” says Gregory Webster, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at the University of Florida. While asking trusted sources for input is nothing new—“humans have always turned to nearby family and friends for advice,” he says—it’s more convenient to ask multiple people via one text in seconds. Because of that, we’re likely searching for advice much more frequently than we would if we had to make a phone call, or even text individuals separately. We start to feel a more reliant on other opinions with every quick query sent. Then, perhaps without realizing, we start to doubt our own abilities to make the best call.
With decreased confidence comes increased anxiety. When each response in a chat is a different take, the “right” answer becomes even more cloudy—especially if you’re already nervous about the decision. “The group simply exaggerates what you go in with,” Dr. Webster says. So if you already have mixed feelings about a decision, and the group chat is split about what you should do, you’ll end up feeling even more torn.
Michael Macy, Ph.D, director of the Social Dynamics Laboratory at Cornell, told me that asking for advice from friends is human nature. “It’s wired to our DNA that we are a very social species,” he says. “We do want to get input from people, especially the people that are most important to us.” On its face, there’s really nothing wrong with that.
Macy adds, though, that we’re not likely to take advice until we hear the same suggestion from several people. If you’re leaning toward one option, and the group leads you away from it, you’ll feel more pressure to go with their flow. “By ignoring somebody’s advice, you’re risking what they’re going to think of you,” he says. “You’re risking your reputation with them.”
The added stress to do what other people think is no big deal when the options are iced coffee or green tea. But eventually you may feel more pressure to take the group’s advice on big-picture problems—despite your better judgement.
As much as our best friends know us, love us, and want the best for us, each of us is actually an expert on our own lives, Dr. Webster says—scientifically speaking. “There are two parts of the mind, two systems, that we use when we make decisions,” he explains. System one operates automatically and quickly, with little to no effort, whereas system two is the more cognitive, careful side that requires concentration. Your gut instinct (system one) will react more strongly than that of someone you’ve asked for advice. And your analytical side (system two) will work harder and invest more energy in weighing the options than a friend’s would.
“You’re going to think about it more deeply than the person you’re asking for advice from in a few characters,” Dr. Webster says. By putting too much stock in your friends’ opinions, and allowing them to override your gut instinct, you could be quieting the most knowledgeable, most important voice in the equation.
You don't have to mute all of your group chats, though. In many cases, it’s not a bad idea to weigh our options and seek input from people we trust. A fresh set of eyes and a new perspective on a problem can often help people make a better, more informed decision. Plus, if the group agrees with your gut instinct, it could add to your confidence.
No, texting your group chat about what shoes to wear probably won’t, in and of itself, kill your autonomy any faster than it will kill your phone battery. It’s not a perfectly slippery slope, Dr. Pirkey reminds me, from inconsequential queries to big-picture dilemmas. But the continuous crowdsourcing now will make us more likely to require reassurance down the road.
My solution? Just post the picture. Buy the shoes. Register for the art class. Let’s save our beloved group chats for making wine-night plans—and hey, maybe just suggest the spot you’ve been dying to try, reservation already made. Because the only person who knows you better than your best friends is you.
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