- Ghosters recognize that they are inflicting harm on others.
- To understand the experience of ghosters, researchers interviewed 34 students who had ghosted another person.
- Eight themes were identified regarding ghosting attributions, the ghosting process, and ghosting consequences.
- Future research should examine the long-term psychological and social consequences of ghosting others.
Most of us have gone through the painful experience of being ghosted. Yet, it is likely that we have been on the other side as well, as a ghoster.
Ghosting is now a normal aspect of our social lives. In prior research, nearly two-thirds of young adults reported ghosting a romantic partner or interest, and nearly three-fourths reported being ghosted.
However, ghosting has mostly been studied from the perspective of the ghostee. Less is known about how people experience the act of ghosting others. Why do they do it? What tactics do they use? How do they feel about their actions?
Furthermore, prior studies overwhelmingly relied on White samples. Other populations (particularly those that tend to be more interdependent) may differ in their values regarding close relationships and communication, and thus may experience ghosting differently. Therefore, in a recent study, my co-author and I examined the experiences of ghosters in an ethnically diverse sample.
We conducted in-person interviews of 34 undergraduates (68 percent women, 32 percent men) who mostly identified as Latinx (65 percent), Asian (15 percent), or Black (12 percent), asking about their attitudes towards ghosting, their ghosting behaviors, and a memorable experience of ghosting another person. Through inductive thematic analyses, we identified eight themes surrounding ghosters’ experiences of ghosting others.
1. A Clear Cause. First, we found that almost all ghosters identified a clear cause in their memorable ghosting experience. These causes often included unreciprocated romantic feelings, inappropriate behaviors of the ghostee (e.g., pushiness), incompatibility, or negative interactions with the ghostee. While many ghosted people who were romantically interested in them, some actually ghosted people who rejected them as a way to cope.
Sometimes people ghosted others because direct communication was ineffective. Incompatibility and negative interactions were common reasons for ghosting friends. As one woman stated, “We were having a really good conversation but then it started getting to point where… it wasn't how I interact… and I felt like with this person we didn't relate in so many ways and I felt like that's why we had to like—I had to do what I had to do.”
2. Avoidance of Confrontation. Many ghosters expressed that they were afraid of confrontation. Others mentioned how ghosting was an easy and comfortable way to reject others. One woman said, “I'm like dude if it doesn't work out it's so easy to just not reply to people, so I'm gonna [sic] say ghosting gives you that, that comfort, that if it doesn't work out you can easily just not reply.” However, some participants reported decreasing their ghosting habits as they matured and learned how to properly communicate with others.
3. Short-Term Orientation. Ghosters sometimes attributed ghosting to short-term orientation, including using people and seeing others as disposable. In addition, some felt that ghosters were players or social butterflies, or were otherwise afraid of commitment. One man explained, “I love the chase of talking to girls and having them in your—on your side and stuff, but I didn't want nothing more than that and they probably did because of the way I talked to them…”
4. Perceiving Ghostees as Socially Inferior. Although some felt that anyone could be ghosted, ghosters often attributed negative social traits to ghostees, calling them “clingy,” “annoying,” and “fake.” For instance, one woman stated, “They are weak and… they don't have the ability to send—set boun-boundaries between people. Like they fall for… they have too much hopes—they bring their hopes too high for a certain person…”
5. Ignoring, Then Blocking. To enact ghosting, ghosters typically did not start by blocking the ghostee. Instead, they began by ignoring the ghostee in limited contexts, then expanded the contexts and blocked the ghostee as needed. As one man stated, “I was just deleting the comments, but then after a minute like she would just re-post it again, and so I was like, ‘Okay, now Imma [sic] just block you.’”
6. Attempts by Ghostee to Reach Out. Most ghosters recalled attempts by the ghostee to reach out in the memorable ghosting experience. These attempts occurred through direct communication (e.g., confrontation), social media activities (e.g., “likes” on posts, posts directed at the ghoster), and mutual relationships (e.g., mutual friends and family).
Unfortunately, attempts to reach out to the ghoster sometimes included stalking behaviors. A woman reported, “He would text me. Call me. He would come to my house or—cause he knew where I lived, my parents and everything.”
7. Mixed and Evolving Feelings. Ghosters often experienced mixed and evolving feelings as a result of their actions. Some initially felt happy and relieved but later developed negative emotions such as guilt. Others felt bad initially, and then grew to be happy with their actions, feeling that the end justified the means.
Others struggled with cognitive dissonance and attempted to justify what they did. One man stated, “Like the first few seconds after, I'll feel bad and then I would talk to myself and I'm like, ‘No, you're doing this to better yourself’… so then I'll feel better after and then sometimes the bad feelings come back like… It's like a war of feeling bad and feeling good.”
Other ghosters felt a lingering and deep sense of loss, along with regret. A woman described, “I would cry like every day, because I lost a person I really cared about, my best friend, like, my childhood friend, like a person that knew everything about me. So I would just cry and I was angry, not with him, but with myself."
8. Recognition of Harm. Despite their actions, ghosters overwhelmingly believed that ghosting was harmful to the ghostee, using words like “selfish” and “wrong” to describe the act. They stated that ghosting resulted in negative consequences for the ghostee, including lack of closure, negative emotions, and sometimes permanent damage, such as trust issues and lowered self-esteem. One woman stated, “So I felt like I gave him, like, trust issues, like he started developing trust issues. He started being—he started being really rude, so he started building this barrier around him where he wouldn't let people inside anymore.”
Altogether, we found that ghosters experienced complex feelings regarding their actions, and most recognized that ghosting is harmful to others. These feelings of empathy contradicted some prior research suggesting that ghosters mostly felt bad due to the awkwardness of potentially encountering the ghostee. These differences could be attributed to the methodology (e.g., one-on-one interviews vs. focus groups) or the sample (e.g., differences in cultural values regarding independence/interdependence). Additionally, in our study, the discrepancies between ghosters' actions and beliefs sometimes resulted in cognitive dissonance and attempts to justify ghosting behaviors.
Although previous studies focused on ghosting in romantic relationships, especially as a method to reject others, we found that ghosting occurred in diverse contexts and for diverse reasons. For instance, people would sometimes ghost others to cope with being rejected. People would often ghost friends, and sometimes even family members, due to incompatibility or negative interactions. Furthermore, sometimes people only resorted to ghosting after directly speaking with the ghostee.
Given the complex emotions and circumstances involved in ghosting, future research should seek to understand the long-term psychological and social consequences of ghosting others.
Wu, K., & Bamishigbin, O. (2023). When silence speaks louder than words: Exploring the experiences and attitudes of ghosters. Personal Relationships. https://doi.org/10.1111/pere.12518