I’ve written quite a few times about ghosting on this site. At this point, it’s a fairly ubiquitous term (although quite new, originating round about 2011), but if for some reason you haven’t heard it before, it’s the act of breaking off a relationship by spontaneously ceasing all contact and communication without warning someone or explaining it to them first.
Here’s an earlier installment of this same series that covered a study on the 4 reasons why people ghost. And here’s another about a study that found that believing in “destiny” made you more likely to ghost romantic partners.
Any way you slice it, regardless of the reasons of the person doing it, ghosting can be very painful for the person on the receiving end of it. It’s an unfortunate fact of life — but it also makes a lot of sense psychologically.
Today, I thought I’d take a second and delve into the psychological reason why ghosting hurts so much.
We Tend to Think More About Ambiguous Situations and Unfinished Tasks
The bottom line is that ghosting hurts because it’s ambiguous behavior.
When a situation is unclear or a task is unfinished, we tend to think a lot more about it. This is found in a wide variety of studies. It most recently appeared in this series when I covered a recent study that found that rude work emails can make you lose sleep. Somewhat tellingly, it wasn’t the direct, clearcut, obviously rude emails that had this effect — but the ones that were more subtly rude. This was thought to be because of the fact that the passively rude emails were more uncertain, which caused their recipients to think and wonder about them more — and as a result, lose more sleep.
Again, this is not limited to this single study but found pretty much throughout the collective body of knowledge on human psychology. We tend to think more about tasks that are unfinished (literally when they’re uncompleted or metaphorically, through lack of clarity).
This tendency to ruminate on and better remember tasks that are unfinished is known as Zeigarnik effect.
And it can unfortunately make something like ghosting very painful and difficult to move past.
This post is part of an ongoing Poly Land feature called Psyched for the Weekend, in which I geek out with brief takes about some of my favorite psychological studies and concepts. For the entire series, please see this link.