4 Reasons Why People Ghost
... and how personality predicts who's most likely to do it.
Posted November 29, 2021 | Reviewed by Abigail Fagan
- Ghosting is a passive break-up strategy where people disappear in order to end (typically) short-term relationships
- People may ghost due to convenience, a loss of attraction, negative impressions, or fears of safety.
- People higher in narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy tend to view ghosting as more acceptable.
You meet someone. They're attractive, fun, and...totally annoying. You have a couple of good times but you know this isn't for you, and you want to move your attention elsewhere. What do you do? How do you end this early-stage thing that you could barely call a "relationship"? Do you meet up over coffee, send a text, or pick up the phone? Do you do nothing and just wait until they stop reaching out?
Ghosting is often used to end short-term relationships
For many people "ghosting" is a reasonable option. Ghosting is a quiet means of ending a relationship, and while it has been around for a long time, ghosting has stepped into the limelight given the ease by which people can ghost in the digital age.
To ghost is, simply, to disappear. You're there one minute (answering texts, taking phone calls, available to meet up) and then suddenly, you give no responses. Texts are ignored, phone calls silenced, and any invitations to meet up are left unanswered. You vanish and the other person is left confused, uncertain, and alone. By some estimates, about 60-70% of emerging adults have ghosted someone else (LeFebvre et al., 2019; Timmermans et al., 2020).
Ghosting generally happens in short-term relationships, characterized by low commitment and low closeness (LeFebvre et al., 2019). Indeed, people consider the timeline of a relationship when thinking about appropriate strategies for ending a relationship, and short, minimal interaction relationships are sometimes the context for enacting ghosting strategies.
Ghosting motivations range from convenience to safety
People generally disapprove of ghosting as a way to end a relationship (LeFebvre et al., 2019). Yet, people still take this approach. Why?
- Convenience. Sometimes, what's easy is prioritized. Having more direct conversations to end a relationship can be unpleasant, takes energy and time, and can require managing emotions. Ghosting is easier.
- Faded attraction. People's reasons for ghosting are sometimes based on boredom, loss of interest, and a decrease in romantic attraction. Getting out early, without much effort, can seem like an appealing approach to ending the relationship.
- Undesirable interactions. People sometimes ghost a new relationship partner when that person offends them or does something off-putting. Feelings change from attraction to repulsion, or in other ways from positive to negative. A new dislike or disgust can make the idea of a direct let's-end-this-relationship conversation highly unappealing. Better to ghost than to talk.
- Safety. People might step into a relationship and quickly notice that it may not be in their best interest to continue talking with another person. If someone becomes "creepy" or "weird" ending all communication abruptly, and without explanation, may be critical, and an important strategy to ensure safety.
People's reasons for ghosting are thus varied, yet these reasons are only among people who are willing to ghost. Ghosting is like vanishing, cutting off all communication with someone with whom you had previously been connecting. Are some people more likely to do this disappearing act?
Personality traits predict views on ghosting
If you're high on the Dark Triad traits, you may be more apt to choose ghosting than other, more direct — and arguably more empathetic — ways to end a short-term relationship (Jonason et al., 2021). The Dark Triad includes narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy (Jones and Paulhus, 2014). Narcissism refers to an inflated sense of self, a grandiosity that tends to correspond with using others for one's own social status or other benefits. Machiavellianism is a tendency towards manipulation, self-serving calculated social strategies, and game-playing. Psychopathy reflects a lack of impulse control and meanness (i.e., callousness).
Recent research by Dr. Peter Jonason and colleagues (2021) suggests that the acceptability of ghosting is linked to Dark Triad traits. In a study that included 341 participants, people with higher levels of the Dark Triad traits were more apt to find ghosting acceptable. Men in particular, for narcissism, saw ghosting as a reasonable way to end a short-term relationship.
This is theoretically consistent with what it means to have higher Dark Triad traits: We would expect people with higher Dark Triad traits to be more self-interested, less empathetic, and undisturbed by the prospect of hurting someone else's feelings. This fits with ghosting. Surprisingly, while the Dark Triad can help us understand ghosting a bit, it did not account for much variance in ghosting acceptability (only 4%; Jonason et al., 2021), suggesting other factors are necessary to understand the basis for ghosting judgments. Research is still growing in the area of ghosting, but there is some suggestion that taking a "destiny" view on love (i.e., believing in soulmates, and that relationships either work or don't work) is associated with more positive views on ghosting and more ghosting behavior than holding "growth" beliefs (i.e., believing relationships take work; Freedman et al., 2019).
Not all ghosting is ill-intended
Ghosting can create a sour impression (Timmermans et al., 2020). The "ghostee" often assumes that the "ghoster" is immature, rude, or inconsiderate; if the ghoster is lucky, the ghostee might make benign attributions that the ghoster was too busy or uninterested to talk.
Regardless of how the ghostee might interpret the ghoster's behavior, in general, ghosting has adverse effects on the ghosted person, and is associated with feelings of rejection, anger, and poorer mental health (Timmermans et al., 2020). Despite this, sometimes people ghost because they want to protect the other person from the uncomfortable "I don't like you" kind of break-up conversation that would have to ensue if a break-up were more direct (Timmermans et al., 2020). This fifth reason for ghosting is not of callous intent. Sometimes, ghosters believe they are being thoughtful by ghosting. Does that justify the ghosting?
Facebook image: tommaso79/Shutterstock
Jones, D. N., & Paulhus, D. L. (2014). Introducing the short dark triad (SD3) a brief measure of dark personality traits. Assessment, 21, 28-41.
LeFebvre, L. E., Allen, M., Rasner, R. D., Garstad, S., Wilms, A., & Parrish, C. (2019). Ghosting in emerging adults’ romantic relationships: The digital dissolution disappearance strategy. Imagination, Cognition and Personality, 39, 125-150.
Jonason, P. K., Kaźmierczak, I., Campos, A. C., & Davis, M. D. (2021). Leaving without a word: Ghosting and the Dark Triad traits. Acta Psychologica, Advanced online publication.
Freedman, G., Powell, D. N., Le, B., & Williams, K. D. (2019). Ghosting and destiny: Implicit theories of relationships predict beliefs about ghosting. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36, 905-924.
Timmermans, E., Hermans, A. M., & Opree, S. J. (2020). Gone with the wind: Exploring mobile daters’ ghosting experiences. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, Advanced online publication.