Social zapping: What is it and do you know one?

A recent study has suggested that people who cancel plans last-minute in favour of other options tend to display the personality traits of Machiavellianism, narcissism and even psychopathy.

The study, which looked at 190 participants between the ages of 17 and 30, also showed that these frequent cancellers, known as ‘social zappers’, are often impulsive, and prone to procrastinating.

woman canceling plans lying on lounge
Do you know a 'social zapper'? Photo: Getty

The researchers, from the University of Duisburg-Essen, in Germany, had already established an association between social-zapping and people who ‘maximise’ (trawl through all their options to find the best one) as well as people who use their social networks problematically. But they wanted to know if there were clear ways to predict the personality characteristics of social-zappers.

Participants completed surveys that measured their social-zapping tendencies, their ranking on scales that measure characteristics of Machiavellianism, narcissism, and psychopathy, as well as their impulsivity, procrastination and FoMO levels.

The signs that ring a warning bell

While all of the characteristics measured showed some association with social-zapping behaviour, the strongest were Machiavellianism, which describes people who follow self-serving strategies at the expense of others and who lack morality, and narcissism – people who tend to have excessive grandiosity, pride and ego, while lacking empathy. These kinds of people can be self-interested and short-sighted.

So it’s not just FoMo?

While the fear of missing out can be a factor in those who tend to be social-zappers, it’s not the driving factor. The researchers were quick to point out that FoMo can represent a positive desire to stay connected socially, which is in contrast to the negative social impacts of social-zapping.

I always cancel plans – am I a social-zapper?

If you’re a serial canceller and worried it means you are harbouring some dark traits, keep in mind that there are many other reasons people call off their plans last-minute. One of the most obvious is anxiety. Research tells us that social anxiety is one of the most prevalent kinds of anxiety that people suffer from, and it involves excessive worry about social situations, sometimes for weeks beforehand.

During COVID, there has also been the added anxiety of re-entering public spaces. Research, for example, into pregnant women seeking healthcare during COVID has shown health anxiety – the fear of being close to infected people – played a significant part in them postponing or cancelling routine medical health care appointments.

And, ironically, cancelling plans for self-care can often give rise to more anxiety. Writer Natalie Morris has coined the term 'cancel anxiety' for this feeling.

You can get help with this kind of anxiety – social or health-related, or general anxiety disorders – through organisations like Beyond Blue, the Black Dog Institute or your GP.

What should I do if I suspect my friend is a ‘social-zapper’?

Having a friend who is always cancelling on you at the last minute for something better can make you feel pretty bad. It’s not only disruptive to your plans; it’s also hurtful. Being friends with a social-zapper can feel a bit like being at a party talking to a person who is always looking over your shoulder for someone better to hang with.

bad friend on phone
Having a friend who is always cancelling on you at the last minute for something better can make you feel pretty bad. Photo: Getty

If the friendship is important to you, it’s worth raising it with them. But keep in mind that if the research is anything to go on, your social-zapper friend is likely to also engage in those other unpleasant social behaviours associated with Machiavellianism and narcissism.

As the researchers put it:

"In sum, social zapping is predicted by personality traits that promote self-serving and impulsive behaviours. The tendencies to lose focus and to follow own interests at the expense of others especially contribute to making short notice cancellations if a more promising option erupts."

In other words, they might generally be self-serving and unable to empathise with you. If that’s the case, and you still want to pursue the friendship, you’re going to need to modify your own expectations of the friendship – stop relying on them, always have a Plan B for your arrangements, and definitely don’t go spending big for them on bookings that can’t be cancelled.

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