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Why Ghosting May Be Even More Harmful Than We Thought

It's not just the pain; it's this.

Key points

  • Ghosting is a common rejection strategy in professional and personal situations, because most people fear saying no.
  • Ghosting doesn't hurt feelings more than outright rejection, but it causes different and meaningful kinds of suffering.
  • We owe each other clarity when we say no, but we don't have to explain why.
fizkes/Shutterstock
Source: fizkes/Shutterstock

When you’ve ghosted someone—given them hope of a job, date, friendship, or relationship of any kind, and then just stopped responding—you probably weren’t trying to be mean. You just wanted to avoid an awkward conversation. Or thought it would be kinder not to say why you rejected them. Maybe you were embarrassed. Maybe you were a little lazy, or just simply moved on and forgot. I’ve ghosted people. And been ghosted. You probably have too.

Ghosting is common, professionally and personally. In a 2021 employment survey, 77% of job seekers reported having been ghosted by a prospective employer in the past year, 10% even after a verbal job offer was made. It goes both ways; 28% of job seekers report having ghosted a prospective employer and 76% of employers report having been ghosted by a prospective employee, with some even no-showing on their first day. A quarter of the participants in a 2018 dating survey reported having been ghosted by someone they were dating. (Not just someone who had expressed interest but who had actually gone out with them.)

The opportunity costs to the rejects are clear: they could have been pursuing other leads. In employment situations, the delay might cost money as well. It’s probably not a surprise that ghosts are often perceived as immature, untrustworthy, or cowards by the people they passively rejected. But those people might have had other bad feelings if the breakup had been more direct, right?

There isn’t a lot of empirical research on ghosting, but at least two studies find that people who are ghosted don’t feel worse overall (or better) than people who are outright rejected, and people who are ghosted don’t suffer the negative consequences that people who are “breadcrumbed” do. (Breadcrumbing is minimal engagement to keep someone’s interest without any actual investment or commitment. It’s associated with more loneliness and helplessness, and lower satisfaction with life for the person on the other side.)

But even if people rejected by ghosts don’t report suffering overly much, ghosting is cruel because of how much mental bandwidth it uses up. The distracting need for completion is called the Zeigarnik effect. The Zeigarnik effect explains why your mind runs in circles trying to remember the name of that actor in that show even when it doesn’t matter at all. It explains why it’s so hard to focus on other things when you’re waiting to hear back after a job interview, a school application submission, a medical test, or a text after a fun first date. Your mind keeps ruminating even though there’s nothing to figure out. The uncertainty is a mental bandwidth tax.

Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir write about the mental bandwidth tax in Scarcity. Being distracted by stress or uncertainty—even hunger or financial worries—makes a person’s brain function as if they’ve lost sleep or even IQ points. They don’t get to perform at their best, they make stupid decisions, and those stupid decisions can put them in an even worse situation than before. That’s what you’re doing to someone when you leave them hanging. Even if they don’t realize it.

Are direct rejections embarrassing on both sides? Often, sure. But do they have to be? No. I teach influence, and because saying no is hard for almost everyone, we begin the course with a 24-hour "no" challenge—saying no to everyone who makes a request. Small or big, personal or professional. Most students learn they’ve been defaulting to yes without even realizing it. They also discover that when they say no with warmth and clarity, it’s usually not as big a deal as they feared.

We’re not used to saying no, so no wonder we ghost people. But you can be direct and kind even without stating the reasons for saying no. Guy Winch, host of the Dear Therapist podcast, appreciated getting this rejection note: “Thank you for your efforts yesterday. I think you did a great job. We all did. The fact that the group is planning to move to the next step with another therapist should in no way imply otherwise. I wish we could choose two therapists!”

My favorite "no" ever, though, was this one, from the author of Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little:

Dear Mr. Adams,

Thanks for your letter inviting me to join the committee of the Arts and Sciences for Eisenhower.

I must decline, for secret reasons.

Sincerely,

E.B. White

Facebook image: fizkes/Shutterstock

References

Indeed (February 11, 2021) Employer Ghosting: A Troubling Workplace Trend
https://www.indeed.com/lead/impact-of-covid-19-on-job-seeker-employer-g…

Freedman G, Powell DN, Le B, Williams KD (2019). Ghosting and destiny: Implicit theories of relationships predict beliefs about ghosting. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. 36(3): 905-924.

Koessler, R. B., Kohut, T., Campbell, L., Vazire, S., & Chopik, W. (2019). When your boo becomes a ghost: The association between breakup strategy and breakup role in experiences of relationship dissolution. Collabra: Psychology, 5(1).

Mullainathan, S., & Shafir, E. (2013). Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much. New York: Macmillan.

Navarro, R., Larrañaga, E., Yubero, S., & Víllora, B. (2020). Psychological correlates of ghosting and breadcrumbing experiences: A preliminary study among adults. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 17(3), 1116.

White, E. B. (1976). Letters of E. B. White. New York: Harper & Row.

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