A two-wave panel survey of young adults revealed that ghosting friends and ghosting partners are two different phenomena. Ghosting romantic partners is predicted by communication overload i.e., receiving more messages than one is able to handle and had no impact on well-being, while ghosting friends was predicted by one’s self esteem and increased depressive tendencies over time. The study was published in Telematics and Informatics.
Ghosting happens when one terminates communication with another person without explanation. Thanks to blocking features of modern digital communication applications and devices that allow one to completely block communication attempts by another person, ghosting has become a novel relationship dissolution strategy in the modern age.
Many people, particularly young, have first-hand experience with ghosting. Studies show that roughly 30% of young people have ghosted someone, that 25% had been ghosted and that 44% have been in both positions. The few studies that explored the phenomenon of ghosting mostly focused on being ghosted and studied it in the context of romantic relationships. Ghosting has been found to be associated with a lack of psychological well-being and increasing levels of distrust in the relationship.
Study author Michaela Forrai and her colleagues wanted to explore the factors that precede ghosting and those that develop as a consequence of ghosting in romantic relationships and in friendships from ghosters’ perspective.
“My interest in the topic was sparked by seeing many people post about seemingly similar experiences with ghosting on social media,” explained Forrai (@ElaForrai), a pre-doctoral researcher within the AdMe Research Group at the University of Vienna.
“In particular, I was intrigued by ghosting among friends as well as the perspective of ghosters, both of which have received relatively little scholarly attention. Admittedly, I have some personal experience with the topic too: Like many other people, I have also ghosted others.”
For their new study, the researchers conducted surveys at two timepoints, 4-months apart. Answers of a total of 978 participants were analyzed from the first survey. Of these, 415 participants completed the second survey. The average age of participants was around 19 years, and there were a bit more females than males.
Participants were asked about how often they ghosted others in romantic relationships and how often they ghosted others in friendships. Researchers paid attention not to use the word ghosting, but to ask participants about behaviors that constitute ghosting i.e., breaking off contact on social media with someone without letting them know why.
Additionally, participants completed assessments of communication overload on social media (3 items, e.g., “I often feel overwhelmed by the flood of personal messages on social media”), self-esteem (4 items from the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale), and depressive tendencies (based on the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression Scale).
Results showed that communication overload predicts ghosting others within romantic relationships, but not within friendships. In other words, participants ghosted romantic partners when they felt overloaded, but not friends. In the same manner, participants with greater self-esteem were more likely to ghost friends, but not romantic partners.
“I was particularly surprised that communication overload predicted ghosting romantic partners, but not ghosting friends,” Forrai told PsyPost. “This is one of the aspects that I saw mentioned on social media rather frequently, but as we argue in our paper, temporarily taking more time to reply to one’s friends might be more acceptable. Interacting with romantic partners can be more demanding and ghosting can present a way to avoid harms due to communication overload, so perhaps this is why it may occur more frequently.”
Ghosting others did not affect self-esteem over time regardless of whether one ghosted a friend or a romantic partner. But participants who reported they ghosted their friends in the first survey tended to have greater depressive tendencies in the second. Finally, older participants were more likely, while highly educated participants were less likely, to ghost their romantic partners.
“My co-authors Kevin Koban, Jörg Matthes and I were able to show that ghosting within friendships and ghosting within romantic relationships are separate phenomena that are rooted in different antecedents and have distinct detrimental outcomes,” Forrai explained.
“Another key result is that ghosting others can have negative effects on one’s well-being: People who stated that they had ghosted friends in the past were more likely to report increased depressive tendencies four months later. Based on these findings, we would like to encourage people to reflect on their ghosting behavior, especially within friendships, so as to avoid negative consequences for themselves as well as potential ghostees.”
The study sheds light on important psychological mechanisms of social relationships. However, it should be noted that it was done on emerging adults – young people only. Results on other age groups might not be the same.
“Overall, research on ghosting is just beginning, so more insight is needed to paint a comprehensive picture of this phenomenon and we have a myriad of ideas for further studies within our team,” Forrai told PsyPost. “For instance, while we chose to investigate ghosters’ perspective in this publication since most extant research focuses on ghostees, investigating the interplay between ghosting others and being ghosted is something we would really like to do in the future.”
The study, “Short-Sighted Ghosts. Psychological Antecedents and Consequences of Ghosting Others within Emerging Adults’ Romantic Relationships and Friendships“, was authored by Michaela Forrai, Kevin Koban, and Jörg Matthes.