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The Strange Psychology of Ghosting

When the going gets tough, it's become almost acceptable to just disappear.

Source: PathDoc/Shutterstock

Within 15 minutes of our hour-long UBERPool ride, I was convinced I had made a new friend.

She laughed at my jokes. I loved her shoes. We liked the same things. We had even moved to San Francisco around the same time. Our conversation flowed effortlessly. No awkward pauses. No TMI confessions. We were like old friends, even though we had met just minutes before. Before I got out of the car, we exchanged emails and planned to meet up for lunch.

I emailed her the following week and we agreed to get together last Wednesday after work. I texted her on Tuesday: "Tea, dinner and drinks? What do you feel like?" She playfully responded: LET'S DO IT ALL. :)

Later that night she texted: I'm so sorry, but can we do Thursday instead?

I responded: Sure, no problem.

On Thursday morning, she texted me that she'd let me know when she was on her way home, and that she’d get in around 6:30 pm. I told her I'd be available after 6.

At 6 pm, I texted her: Hey, I'm in downtown. Let me know when you're around. :)


She never responded. No phone calls. No texts. No emails.

As far as I knew, she could be lying in a coma somewhere. And as awful as is to admit, I kind of hoped that was true. At least, that would be a reasonable explanation for why I never heard from her again.

I confided in my friend, Danielle, about this mysterious disappearance over drinks. Instead of shock and disbelief, she responded with resignation and a knowing sigh. “Jen, she ghosted you.”

So apparently, there's a term for this kind of awful behavior. Worse, it is a relatively widespread cultural phenomenon.

Ghosting occurs when a person you are dating suddenly disappears off the face of the planet. This can take the form of ignoring you, not responding to any attempts at communication, and even pretending they legitimately don’t know you, even when you see them face-to-face.

As the term suggests, they've vanished without a trace.

A victim of ghosting herself, Danielle also admitted that she will ghost guys she’s dating. She even ghosts her mom from time to time.

Source: Giphy

In true Stephanie Tanner form, I responded, “How rude!” She agreed, but reasoned, “You put too high of a value on courtesy.” Since when did courtesy become something that was optional? To me, it has always been a requirement.

Was I crazy?

“You’re not crazy,” she reassured me, "but you don’t live in the same world that I live in. You’ve been out of the dating game for years now. It’s a totally different playing field.”

Apparently, the dating terrain had changed considerably when I was hunting in the wilderness a few years ago. I couldn’t understand the thrill of swiping left or the rare excitement of moving a conversation from texting to an actual in-person meeting. Most important, I didn’t get this updated section of the training manual:

People don’t treat people like humans anymore.

Thanks to a myriad supply of anonymous suitors (via apps like Tinder and Hinge), there just isn’t any time, desire, or need to treat everyone like the special butterfly they are, she explained. Ghosting is so tantalizingly easy, it makes the "It's not you, it's me" breakup seem like rocket science.

Last year, a 25-year old app user named Chelsea (herself a ghost and a ghostee) wrote in a Huffington Post article:

“Even after one or two dates they are still just a profile to you, not a person. I don’t feel the normal empathy I would for someone I met organically.”

What shocks me is how this woman, who admits to being on the other end of this type of rejection, would so nonchalantly treat others in this way.

Back to my own problem I told Danielle, “But, she texted me twice that morning. Why go through all that trouble if you are planning to disappear later that day? Wouldn’t it be easier never to plan anything at all? Or to ghost my initial email?”

“There is no rhyme or reason to ghosting,” she said. "It’s usually an impromptu decision.” (This is in fact the case for many of the many inexplicable ghosting stories in a recent The New York Times piece on the phenomenon.)

“But don’t they care that they look like terrible people?” I ask.

Danielle answers stoically: “To them, texting you back to cancel, postpone, apologize or whatever puts them in a negative light. They essentially are admitting they did something wrong, so they’re going to feel bad about it. Ghosting, however, lets them off the hook. They never have to send: ‘I’m sorry I have to cancel.'"

“But they do cancel,” I counter, "because they don’t show up! Don’t they realize that ghosting is a million times worse than texting they have to cancel?”

“To them, it’s not worse, because they never have to admit anything,” Danielle coolly replies. “Silence is better than having to admit any kind of wrongdoing.”

She’s right: People hate saying they messed up. It’s why you can scroll through pages and pages of inane debates on Twitter or comment boards. Acknowledging mistakes feels too much like losing or admitting failure. No one appreciates defeat.

Our unwillingness to say, “I was wrong” has a biological basis. Elliot Aronson, author of Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), attributes this behavior to cognitive dissonance—“a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions [ideas or beliefs] that are psychologically inconsistent.” The example he uses is how we know that smoking is bad for our health, yet may continue to smoke several packs per day.

This dissonance often causes us anguish, which we try to alleviate through self-justification (often rooted in denial). In the smoking example, we might try to quit. If we fail, then we attempt to convince ourselves that we don’t really need to quit by making up excuses like smoking isn’t all that bad, or it helps us lose weight. In other words, our brains are naturally wired to think that we’re right, even when all the evidence says we’re not.

Tom/Ghost Stories/ Flickr Creative Commons
Source: Tom/Ghost Stories/ Flickr Creative Commons

It’s likely cognitive dissonance that allows Courtney and Danielle to justify their behavior as ghosts even though they’ve both been ghosted (and, I’m assuming, hurt by it). If that’s the case, I could surmise that cognitive dissonance is what is also making ghosting more and more commonplace—the more we excuse the behavior, the more we can convince ourselves that it’s normal and acceptable.

I prefer the old days, when rejections took place in person (or even via text!). A week after I’ve been ghosted, the rejection still haunts me.

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