Why ghosting is bad for our mental health

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So imagine this: You and Teresa have been friends for years. Overall, I’ve always loved Teresa and felt her support. You two always had a lot of laughs together and you always felt like she had your back in the sometimes treacherous waters of life.

One morning, you go to message her on Facebook, only to find that she doesn’t show up on your Facebook app. It’s weird… You think of yourself. You scroll through Facebook and can’t find any evidence that she was ever there.

So you go to text her and you will immediately get a message saying “This number is not available”. You start to get nervous. What does all this mean? She quickly decides to text a mutual friend, Gisela, to see if she’s been seeing the same things on her end. Gisella texts you within 10 minutes saying, “Actually, she’s still on my Facebook and just posted a cute picture of her new cat this morning.”

Your heart sinks in: you’ve been ghosted. And you have no idea why.

Ghosting as a modern form of severing ties

With social media and mobile technologies, it’s easier than ever to cut ties with someone for any number of reasons. One might ghost an ex-boyfriend or ex-boyfriend. or even a family member. With social media as the primary means of communication between people these days, cutting someone out of one’s life is literally as easy as pressing a button. And from an evolutionary perspective, this is a problem.

The estrangement in evolutionary perspective

A few years ago, my research team published a paper (Geher et al., 2019) showing how the number of alienations one experiences in life are powerful predictors of a wide range of negative psychosocial outcomes, including insecure attachment style, feelings of being Not supported by others, and a strong tendency to be emotionally unstable.

In follow-up work, we found that the number of alienations one experiences is strongly associated with the presence of tendencies toward BPD (Sung et al., 2021).

As in most of the work my team has conducted, we have sought to understand these phenomena through the lens of our evolving psychology. Here, it looks pretty simple. Based on all kinds of data, it is clear that groups of human ancestors tended to be made up of much smaller numbers than what is found in groups today. Before the advent of agriculture, just 10,000 years ago (which is a blink of an eye in evolutionary time), all of our ancestors were nomadic. For various reasons, nomadic groups are relatively small. Typically, these groups are identified at about 150 which, according to evolutionary cognitive psychologist Robin Dunbar (1992), is about the number of people our minds can effectively communicate with on a non-superficial level.

Now imagine that you live in a group of 150 people and suddenly find yourself separated from a few people in the group. That might be problematic. people talk. And everyone I’ve been estranged from has a social circle, which usually includes family and friends. So being isolated from just a few people in a small-scale community could have really dire consequences.

In our study, with data collected from 2015 to 2016, we found that among a sample of college students, the average number of others from whom participants were turned away was just under four. There is great variety in this dimension. One participant reported having 27 people with whom they were separated (or completely isolated).

Given that we did not evolve in the large-scale societies that exist today but, instead, in the small ones where everyone knows each other, we can begin to see why our emotional response to alienation can be so powerful.

The negative psychological and social consequences of ghosting

Enter social media.

Speaking of our team’s estrangement actions of only a few years ago, several current team members, most of whom are undergraduate and graduate psychology students, have suggested that perhaps the situation is even worse now because of the ease with which people can cut others off. via social media and mobile technologies. Led by our intrepid team member Jacqueline Di Santo, we conducted a study (Di Santo et al., 2022) that essentially replicated our earlier study on estrangement—using ghosting as a modern marker of alienation.

We asked people to report (to the best of their abilities) how many people had been ghosted as well as how many other people they thought had been ghosted. We then gave the participants a set of measures of psychological, emotional, and social functioning.

Here are some of our main findings:

  • The average number of people who were ghosted was about eight.
  • The average number of people the participants were wronged was also about eight.
  • There was a strong, positive correlation between the number of people to whom participants were ghosted and the number of people to whom participants were ghosted (in other words, ghosts tend to appear in the shadows).
  • People who report relatively high ghostly experiences tend to be scored as having borderline personality tendencies, low levels of life satisfaction, emotional instability, and insecure attachment to others. In other words, essentially, the negative findings associated with a large number of alienation cases that we found in our previous research (Geher et al., 2019) were generally replicated in the ghosting study.

Exponential rates of cutoff due to social media

The broader and troubling point of our study of ghosting is this: the number of others people are turned away from seems to be rising sharply. In our study published in 2019, the average number of estrangements people reported was four. In our study published in 2022, which visualized alienation in terms of ghosting experiences, the number doubled to eight. The rise of social media seems to correspond with an increase in experiences of estrangement.

In my opinion, this result is very disturbing. It shows another way that modern social media technologies are evolutionarily mismatched with face-to-face communication processes between ancestors, wreaking havoc on our mental health along the way.

in our book Positive Evolutionary PsychologyNicole Wedberg and I (2020) discuss in detail how many modern technologies were created without regard to our evolving psychology. I made this same point in detail in my Substack article “The End of Sex and the End of Thinking”.

These technologies (from modern processed foods to Snapchat—and everything in between) often have negative unintended consequences, in large part because they are out of step with the conditions in which our minds and bodies evolved.

Under ancestral circumstances, you cannot push a button and make someone disappear permanently from your life. Ghosting is, in many ways, unnatural. And it may contribute to the extraordinary rise in mental health issues that we find in the modern world – especially among adolescents and young adults who have known Internet technologies and social media their entire lives (see Twenge et al., 2019).

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In recent years, due to the widespread availability of social media and other advanced communication technologies, ghosting has become a distinct experience for many. Based on data from our latest study (Di Santo et al., 2022), experiencing ghosting seems to map out all sorts of negative emotional and social consequences. From an evolutionary perspective, this is totally understandable. Under ancestral circumstances, you can’t cut someone out of your life with the push of a “Block” button.

New technologies are making phenomena like social distancing, which have been shown to be associated with all kinds of harmful psychological outcomes, more common than ever. The modern face of social alienation is ghosting. And shadows hurt. An evolutionary perspective helps us understand why.

If developers of communication technologies continue to fail to take our evolving psychology into account when creating the products they make, it appears that the negative psychological consequences of these technologies will only get worse. Perhaps it is time to teach professionals in all industries the ins and outs of evolutionary psychology.

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