Young adults with a strong desire to avoid ambiguity and achieve closure may actually be more likely to engage in “ghosting,” according to new research published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. But these individuals also experience more negative psychological consequences after being ghosted compared to those with a lower need for closure.
Ghosting is a social phenomenon where a person suddenly and without explanation ends a relationship by abruptly cutting off all communication. This can leave the other person feeling confused, hurt, and uncertain about what happened. Psychologists have studied ghosting to better understand why it happens, the impact it has on people, and how to cope with being ghosted.
“In my research, I am interested in how social technologies play a role in relationship processes, and my co-first-author, Natasha Wood, is interested in the psychological consequences of being ostracized or isolated,” said study author Christina M. Leckfor, a PhD student and member of the Close Relationships Laboratory at the University of Georgia.
“We quickly realized that ghosting is a type of romantic ostracism that has not received much research attention, so we wanted to combine our knowledge of relationships and ostracism to investigate ghosting from a new lens. Most of the research conducted on ghosting so far has examined the experience of the person being ghosted, but we were more interested in the individual traits or characteristics that might make someone more or less likely to use ghosting to end a relationship, and that would make being ghosted more or less painful.”
Leckfor and her colleagues conducted a series of three studies to examine the association between the dispositional need for closure and ghosting among U.S. emerging adults. In all three studies, participants were recruited using the online platform Prolific Academic.
In the first study, 553 participants completed a shortened version of the Need for Closure Scale, which asked the extent to which they endorsed statements such as “I don’t like situations that are uncertain” and “I enjoy having a clear and structured mode of life.” The participants were then provided with a definition of ghosting and rated how likely they were to use ghosting in 19 situations, such as to end a relationship after the first date.
The researchers found that people who had a stronger need for closure were more likely to end friendships and romantic relationships using ghosting. This might be because people with a stronger desire for closure are more likely to end relationships in general, regardless of how they do it. To test this possibility, the researchers conducted a second study with 411 participants.
Participants completed the same measures of need for closure and ghosting as in Study 1. They also completed a measure of direct rejection intentions, which was defined as “when someone ends a friendship, romantic relationship, or casual dating situation by directly communicating that they want to end the relationship.” Participants indicated how likely they were to use direct rejection in the same 19 situations from the ghosting measure.
In contrast to Study 1, the researchers found no significant association between need for closure and ghosting in Study 2. The results did not show evidence that people with a stronger desire for closure were more likely to end relationships, whether by ghosting or direct rejection.
The researchers said that using ghosting to end a relationship might not create ambiguity for the person ending the relationship. The person ending the relationship knows with certainty that they won’t be communicating with the other person anymore, which provides them with closure.
“Contrary to our prediction, we found that young adults who had a high need for closure were actually more likely to intend to use ghosting to end a relationship than those with a low need for closure,” Leckfor told PsyPost. “It seems that although ghosting can leave the relationship in an ambiguous state for the person being ghosted, the person who uses ghosting may see that as a distinct end to the relationship.”
In a third study, Leckfor and her colleagues recruited 545 participants and used an experimental design.
Participants first completed the same measure of need for closure as in Studies 1 and 2. Next, participants reflected on a situation from their own lives and briefly wrote about it. They were randomly assigned to one of three prompts: one about a situation where a relationship was maintained, one about a situation where someone “ghosted” them, and one about a situation where someone directly rejected them. After writing, participants completed a questionnaire measuring their satisfaction for four basic psychological needs.
The researchers found that “being ghosted may hurt worse than direct rejection,” Leckfor explained. “Specifically, we found that young adults who reflected on a time when they were ghosted reported lower psychological needs satisfaction—feelings of belonging, self-esteem, meaningful existence, and control — than those who reflected on a time when they were directly rejected.”
The researchers also observed an association between the need for closure and psychological needs satisfaction after the end of a relationship.
“People who have a high need for closure may hurt worse after being ghosted,” Leckfor said. “Specifically, we found that young adults who had a high need for closure felt even worse after recalling a time when they were ghosted compared to those with a low need for closure.”
Leckfor highlighted several surprising findings from the research.
“Although we expected young adults with a high need for closure to hurt worse after being ghosted compared to people with a low need for closure, we were surprised to find that they also hurt worse after being directly rejected, but when they were acknowledged by their partner, they actually felt better,” the researcher explained. “This suggests to us that having a high need for closure may magnify both negative and positive relationship experiences.”
“Another aspect of this research that surprised us was the types of relationships that participants chose to reflect on. When my coauthors and I started this project we primarily thought about ghosting as something that occurs in romantic relationships or dating situations. But when participants were asked to reflect on a time when they were ghosted, more than half chose to reflect on a friendship.”
“And even more surprisingly, young adults felt just as hurt after being ghosted by a friend as they did by a romantic partner,” Leckfor told PsyPost. “This finding demonstrates the importance of friendships in our social lives, especially among young adults, and future research should continue to examine how people initiate, maintain, and end their friendships as well as their romantic relationships.”
Ghosting is important to psychology because it can have significant effects on the well-being of the person who has been ghosted. Understanding the motivations behind ghosting could help people navigate their relationships and communication with others more effectively.
“Most of the research on ghosting so far has investigated the experience of the person being ghosted, so we think more research is needed to understand why people choose to use ghosting in the first place,” Leckfor said. “For instance, our work suggests that when someone uses ghosting, they perceive it as a clear end to the relationship, even when the other person is left with so much uncertainty. Future research could build on this work to examine if people do indeed see the decision to ghost as a distinct end and if they perceive ghosting to be more or less harmful than directly rejecting someone.”
“To our knowledge, this work was the first to examine how a person’s need for closure is related to their experience in relationships,” she noted. “We know that our personal motivations and goals are integral to how we navigate our relationships, so I think future research can build on this work to examine how a person’s need for closure may not just impact how they experience the end of a relationship, but also how they initiate and maintain their relationships.”
Ghosting has become more prevalent in modern times due to the increased use of technology in communication, particularly in online dating and social media.
“We think that it is important to understand the impact of ghosting because it has become a common way for people to end relationships — in our samples, about two-thirds had ghosted a former partner and had been ghosted by a former partner,” Leckfor explained. “People may use ghosting for ease or because they think it is polite to spare people from a ‘harsh’ direct rejection, but our findings suggest that people feel worse after being ghosted, so people may not realize that when they ghost someone, it might actually be more harmful than if they ended the relationship more directly.”
The study, “From close to ghost: Examining the relationship between the need for closure, intentions to ghost, and reactions to being ghosted“, was authored by Christina M. Leckfor, Natasha R. Wood, Richard B. Slatcher, and Andrew H. Hales.