Ghosting is the act of ending a relationship by cutting off all communication and simply “disappearing” without explanation. This behavior is associated particularly with the relationships we foster using social media, and can pertain to the end of a romantic relationship or to a friendship. Messages sent, or calls made, are simply not answered and this leaves the sender confused, insecure and hurt.
A new study by researchers from the University of Georgia, Athens, and the University of Mississippi, has found that nearly two-thirds of participants interviewed have ghosted and been ghosted as part of a relationship breakup. The researchers were particularly interested in whether people with a stronger need for closure are more affected by being ghosted, and whether they are more or less likely to use ghosting as a means to get out of their own personal relationships.
“Ghosting is becoming a common strategy, and it creates an ambiguous situation where one party doesn’t really know what’s going on,” said Leckfor, a doctoral student in the UGA Department of Psychology. “We were interested in what individual differences or personal characteristics might influence a person’s intentions to use ghosting. We also wanted to know if people with a high need for closure were less likely to use ghosting, or if they would hurt more after being ghosted.”
Studies have shown that social rejection of any kind activates the same pain pathways in the brain as physical pain, meaning there’s a biological link between rejection and pain. This implies that rejection without an understanding of what went wrong, can leave people feeling very hurt and insecure about themselves and what actually happened. Humans have evolved to stay connected to others and this makes ghosting all the more cruel on the recipient.
In the current study, participants were asked to reflect on a past relationship, either a time they were ghosted or a time they were directly rejected. They then answered questions about their psychological needs satisfaction – feelings of belonging, self-esteem, control and meaningful existence – after their relationship ended. Ghosted participants had some of the lowest needs satisfaction, meaning they were hit hardest by the rejection, and those who wanted closure reported even lower needs satisfaction.
“For recipients, desire for closure has this magnifying effect. When someone with a high need for closure recalled a time where they were ghosted or directly rejected, it hurt more than if they had a low need for closure,” Leckfor said. “But they also felt more positive after recalling times when they were acknowledged by their partner.”
In contrast, when someone considered initiating a breakup, the connection between closure and ghosting was less clear-cut.
“We actually found that people who had a higher need for closure were slightly more likely to intend to use ghosting to end a relationship,” Leckfor said. “Even though things may be ambiguous on the recipient side, the person who is ghosting sees it as a distinct end to the relationship. Those results weren’t definitive in our study, but they pose an interesting avenue for future research.”
So why do people ghost others as a way of ending a relationship? Disappearing off the face of the social media world may well present a way to avoid awkward confrontations and taking responsibility for the hurt caused. It also spares the ghoster from the hard work of empathizing with the rejected individual and dealing with their own uncomfortable emotions. And, in our fast-paced and busy world, cutting off all contact is often simply more convenient.
Technology may also contribute to the tendency to ghost as the many dating apps give us the idea that there are lots more “fish in the sea” and each individual is disposable. Just keep scrolling through the photos. Furthermore, if people believe that there is one true love for them out there, a soulmate as such, then they will be more keen to move on from a relationship that is proving to be different from their expectations.
Despite these potential explanations for why ghosting appears to be gaining in popularity as a neat and no-hassle way of moving on to other options, it remains that leaving a relationship in this way causes a type of ostracism that threatens a person’s basic psychological needs for belonging, self-esteem, meaningful existence and control.
The researchers report, in their publication in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, that their results indicate participants with a higher need for closure are sometimes more likely to use ghosting to end their relationships because they feel this brings an abrupt end and a distinct close. However, these same participants reported lower needs satisfaction when ghosted by their partners than when directly rejected. The researchers report that “… the need for closure is less influential when deciding how to end a relationship, but it appears to play an important role in amplifying both positive and negative experiences within a relationship.”
“The individuals who were ghosted by a friend reported feeling just as bad about the relationship as those who wrote about a time when they were ghosted by a romantic partner,” Leckfor said. “In psychology in general, a lot of literature regarding adult relationships focuses on romantic relationships. This [research] shows that friendships are really important to study as well.”
It also relates back to the role of technology in our relationships. There have been several studies on how people initiate, maintain and end relationships without technology, but as more human connectivity moves to social media, dating apps, texting or Zoom, those relationships can change. And individual traits, such as a need for closure, will factor into how we use those technologies.
“Now, almost everybody uses these technologies to communicate and maintain these different types of relationships,” Leckfor said. “Knowing when these technologies can be helpful to build social connections or maintain your personal well-being, versus knowing when they might be harmful, is the end goal of what I hope my work in this area conveys to the public.”
Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and Earth.com.