Psychologists Shed New Light On The Causes And Effects Of Being Ghosted

Gone without a trace? Here is what it means.

By Mark Travers, Ph.D. | May 25, 2023

A new study published in Telematics and Informatics explores the factors that lead individuals to ghost others in friendships and romantic relationships.

I recently spoke to Michaela Forrai from the University of Vienna in Austria, lead author of the study, to understand the importance of maintaining social connections to minimize the psychological consequences for both ghosters and ghostees. Here is a summary of our conversation.

What inspired you to study ghosting in friendships? What was the methodology of your study?

Ghosting refers to a one-sided termination of communication without explanation. I was inspired to study ghosting after I (like almost every other young person) made some personal experiences both as a ghoster and a ghostee. Additionally, I kept stumbling upon the topic on social media — the posts I saw often dealt with ghosting within friendships and came from ghosters' perspectives.

We conducted a two-wave panel survey. Participants were asked about their ghosting behavior within friendships and within romantic relationships, as well as relevant well-being indicators (namely communication overload, self-esteem, and depressive tendencies). This procedure was repeated four months later, which allowed us to investigate what predicts ghosting as well as the effects ghosting can have over time. We analyzed the data using two separate structural equation models — one for ghosting friends and one for ghosting romantic partners.

What were your findings?

We were interested in what would predict ghosting, and in the effects of ghosting over time. I'll start with the predictors.

Communication overload (the feeling of receiving more messages than one can handle) increases the likelihood of ghosting romantic partners, but not friends.

To explain this, we highlight that interaction with romantic partners is often more demanding than interacting with friends, so communication overload may be less easily manageable within romantic relationships — also assuming that a temporary slowdown may be considered more legitimate among friends.

Moreover, depressive tendencies did not lead to a higher tendency of ghosting others, neither within friendships nor within romantic relationships. We assumed that depressive tendencies would make ghosting others more likely because they are associated with avoidant behavior. However, experiencing mental health issues is also related to seeking support via social media, which may make ghosting friends and romantic partners less likely, and these two tendencies could have canceled each other out.

We also found that individuals with high self-esteem are more likely to ghost their friends; simultaneously, self-esteem is unrelated to ghosting romantic partners. This may be the case because people typically have more friends than romantic partners, so it might be easier for those with high self-esteem (which is related to taking action to gain control) to choose who they want to stay in contact with and ghost people who they do not want to keep around.

Moving on to the effects of ghosting others, ghosting friends and romantic partners did not affect self-esteem. This can be interpreted as support for the notion that ghosting has become a "new normal" within different types of relationships.

Finally, ghosting others within friendships subsequently came with higher depressive tendencies; regarding romantic relationships, we found no such relationship.

While we know that being ghosted by romantic partners can cause intense psychological harm, consequences for ghosting romantic partners and thus being "a bad partner" may only be enacted by ghostees themselves and their closest confidants. Although being ghosted by friends may lead to less harm for ghostees, gaining a reputation as a "bad friend" may have more far-reaching consequences among peers.

What would you say are the key takeaways from your research for those who have the tendency to ghost others? How can they keep themselves in check?

First, social connections are important for one's well-being. These positive effects of relationships, even those with limited emotional intensity, are often underestimated. Friendship ghosters may not see this and, thus, rob themselves of these benefits.

Second, while ghosting others may have short-term benefits, such as not having to explain oneself, it can have detrimental effects in the long run — if you're just feeling busy, for instance, it might be a good idea to simply drop others a quick message and let them know rather than ignoring their messages and then feeling too guilty to get back to them later.

Finally, I would like to point out that most young people have ghosted another person before. However, if this becomes someone's norm (that is, if someone tends to ghost — particularly friends — over and over again), it would be a good idea to reflect on it — not only to protect ghostees from psychological harms, but also for one's own benefit.

What are your top pieces of advice for those who are at the receiving end of ghosting? What can they do to manage the psychological consequences of being ghosted?

While we exclusively focused on ghosters, l can summarize some insights from other research (see LeFebvre and Fan, 2020) and provide my perspective.

For instance, in the study I just referenced, trying to "move on" was rated the most effective strategy for dealing with being ghosted. They focused on ghosting within romantic relationships, but turning toward other people (for instance, when one is looking for social support or spending time with another person) can also work for friends.

Furthermore, I personally try to remind myself that being ghosted doesn't necessarily mean that it's my fault. Like we say in our paper, some people receive so many messages that they simply don't have the time to get back to everyone, and some messages might even get buried by accident. Once these people realize that they ignored someone, they may feel too guilty to belatedly respond.

Lastly, also in line with the study I mentioned, I try to distract myself if I feel like I'm being ghosted. I shift my attention away from the fact that I am waiting for a response so as not to make the time that passes feel even longer.

How does ghosting affect those who ghost others and those who are ghosted?

To sum it up, ghosting within friendships, but not within romantic relationships, increased the likelihood of heightened depressive tendencies. However, ghosting others did not affect ghosters' self-esteem, neither when they ghosted friends nor when they ghosted romantic partners.

While we found that self-esteem positively predicts ghosting one's friends, it does not predict ghosting romantic partners. This may be the case because people typically have more friends than romantic partners, so it might be easier for those with high self-esteem (which is related to taking action to gain control) to choose who they want to stay in contact with and ghost people who they do not want to keep around.

Regarding ghostees, I can only summarize other studies since we exclusively focused on ghosters' perspectives. Most research has focused on ghostees' experiences in a romantic context, such as lower self-esteem, being disillusioned with one's romantic appeal, or feeling angry. Some consequences have also been documented for ghosting within both relationship types, such as internalized self-doubts, hopelessness about relationships, or feeling sad.

Can you finally talk about why people choose to ghost others?

Potential explanations for ghosting that were put forward by past research can be characterized as external causes (meaning that they involve the ghostee) or internal causes (which only exist within the ghoster). The following three factors can be considered external causes:

  • Relational reasons refer to perceptions of the relationship with the ghostee before ghosting occurred. For example, ghosters have indicated that they had not seen romantic relationships they ended by ghosting the other person as serious.
  • Situational reasons indicate that, in some instances, ghosting occurs more frequently than in others. People have stated that ghosting is their preferred method of ending communication on dating apps; however, ghosting might be far less common among co-workers who see each other all the time.
  • Self-protective reasons imply that the ghoster ends communication by ghosting the other person because they feel that this is a safer option for themselves than confronting the ghostee. This may happen because of past disrespectful or abusive behavior by the ghostee.

Internal causes include the following factors:

  • Cognitive reasons are related to people's limited information processing capacities. For instance, individuals are more likely to not respond when they perceive the number of messages they receive as too high.
  • Self-conceptual reasons are grounded in individual dispositions. For instance, in our study, we hypothesized that depressive tendencies would make ghosting others more likely because it is associated with avoidance.