Color & Control:

Why does it hurt so much when we get ghosted? 

A psychologist explains

Thirty years ago, when we self-evaluated our effects on others, we relied on imperfect and quickly fading memories of events to help fill gaps in our perceptions. Luckily, the mind can be forgiving to the self, forgetting some damning details of past events and remembering the most promising via a pronounced positivity bias—a trick of memory that allows us to maintain our self-esteem, ego and positive outlook.

Positive memories
This tendency to better remember positive details over negative ones may be particularly pronounced in the Pollyannas among us. According to the Pollyanna principle, people in general have a tendency to recall more pleasant than unpleasant details. And those of us who do this the most also rate ourselves highly on happiness and optimism.

So happy, optimistic people tend to remember happy, optimistic details. But what about when they don’t have to rely solely on their memory? What happens then?

Unfortunately, today’s world of computer-mediated interactions is much less forgiving, and optimism can’t help you erase black-and-white realities. Social interactions are often recorded permanently in messages and pictures that one can go back to view and review repeatedly.

In contrast to face-to-face interactions and phone calls, many digital communication channels—such as text message or email—are rated highly on a measure called persistence, meaning the communication that occurs over these channels is perceived to be relatively permanent.

How many times have you looked over an email or text message you’ve sent, rereading it to see if you said what you wanted to say in the way you wanted to say it? Ever sent a follow-up message correcting yourself? Clearly, some of us stew on and regret messages we’ve sent.

Only natural
Letting go of others’ thoughts and our own online missteps might be especially difficult if our thoughts concern our close social connections, which are essential to our feelings of belongingness and love. This too is a natural human inclination, which can be best understood within two larger theoretical frameworks.

First is Albert Bandura’s social learning theory, which suggests that we do not become who we are in a vacuum. Rather, we are influenced by those around us.

From the time we are babies, we watch and mimic others. We learn vicariously from the ways that others are rewarded and punished, and we adapt our behaviours so we can maximize rewards and avoid punishment. Hence our social contexts matter, and approval and disapproval from others shapes our future behaviour. It is a basic tenet of human learning.

Meanwhile, the importance we attach to this approval is related to another theory, Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a pyramid reflecting human motivation toward an actualized self, with rungs depicting basic human needs.

Need for love
Right above physiological needs (like food and water) and safety needs (like a stable job and place to live), humans have a need for love. As children, these needs are often satisfied by a small number of people, usually family members, but as we spend more time in public spaces with peers and other agents of social influence, our need for love and belongingness expands to fill these spaces.

Framed in accordance with this theory, caring about what people think is a protective process, designed to help us build a net of belongingness, which includes even distant connections, and safeguard us against the loss of love from those with whom we share our closest bonds.

Assuming that you’ve now embraced the idea that you do think of others’ thoughts and feelings and that is a good thing, I want you to direct your attention toward the people whose thoughts consume most of your time in a relative sense. The amount of time you spend thinking about another’s thoughts might be inversely related to their distance. You may spend time thinking about the thoughts of people who aren’t among your closest connections. Why might this be?

Uncertainty reduction theory—which suggests that individuals have a need to reduce uncertainty about other individuals in order to build relationships—likely accounts for much of this phenomenon. It is not only exceptionally difficult to discern the thoughts and motivations of those who are distantly connected to us.

What’s more, since these are our loosest connections, we might spend more time analyzing our interactions with them because we are most uncertain about how they think and feel. It’s also the reason we feel unease when we are left on read or ghosted in response to our social overtures.

Most vulnerable
Ghosting hits humans at one of our most vulnerable weak spots: Our desire to know. We have a need for closure. We want to know how things end. We want to understand how the world is working around us.

When someone ignores us, it leaves us wondering—and wondering can be maddening. We are left craving answers about the relationship and unable to force them to come. And when those relationships are valuable to us, our anxiety increases as the hours and days tick by.

But the uncertainty related to ghosting is not what really causes us pain. Certainly we want to know, but more than wanting to know, we crave human connection.

Ghosting is a signal of a weak or strained connection. So ghosting actually hits us at an even greater point of vulnerability: Our desire to belong and be loved. Ghosting is a big red flag that we might be losing someone we love or someone we wanted to love.

This is why people who are ghosted sometimes resort to desperate measures to fill their gaps in uncertainty. They might reach out multiple times to the ghoster, even when continually ignored. They might start to surveil the ghoster on social media. In this case, they are using the internet as an information source to get bits of information about how the ghoster is moving through the world.

Ghosting hurts us where we are most vulnerable. Ghosters know this, and yet they still choose to do it. If someone ghosts you, they are either playing a game or they don’t care about you right now. Sure, it’s possible they might have lost their phone or they may be super busy. But if someone really wants to talk to you, they will find a way. If they don’t, move on. Immediately. Don’t stalk them. Don’t obsess. Don’t waste a single moment scanning the internet searching for answers about whether or not they really care.

Life is short, time is precious. 

Michelle Drouin, PhD is a behavioural scientist and expert on technology, relationships, couples and sexuality.


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