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Picture this: You and Teresa have been friends for years. Generally speaking, you’ve always liked Teresa and have felt supported by her. You always had a lot of laughs together and you felt that she had your back in the sometimes-treacherous waters of life.
One morning, you go to send her a message on Facebook, only to find that she is not appearing on your Facebook app. That’s strange… you think to yourself. You scour your Facebook and you can’t find any evidence that she’s ever been there at all.
So you go to text her and you immediately receive back a message saying that “this number is not available.” You start to get nervous. What does this all mean? You quickly decide to text a mutual friend, Gisella, to see if she is seeing the same things on her end. Gisella texts you back in about 10 minutes saying this: “Actually, she’s still on my Facebook and she just posted a cute picture of her new kitten this morning.”
Your heart sinks: You’ve been ghosted. And you have no idea as to why.
Ghosting as a Modern Form of Cutting Ties
With social media and cellphone technologies, it is easier than ever today to cut ties with someone for any number of reasons. One might ghost an ex-lover or an ex-friend. Or even a family member. Cutting someone out of one’s life is literally as easy as the push of a button. And from an evolutionary perspective, this is a problem.
Estrangement in Evolutionary Perspective
A few years ago, my research team published a paper (Geher et al., 2019) demonstrating how the number of estrangements one experiences in life is strongly predictive of a broad array of negative psychological and social outcomes, including an insecure attachment style, a perception of being unsupported by others, and a strong tendency to be emotionally unstable.
In follow-up work, we found that the number of estrangements one experiences is strongly connected with having tendencies toward borderline personality disorder (Sung et al., 2021).
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As is true of most of the work conducted by my team, we sought to understand these phenomena in terms of our evolved psychology. Here, it seems pretty straightforward. Based on all kinds of data, it is clear that ancestral human groups tended to be comprised of much smaller numbers than are found in groups today.
Before the advent of agriculture, a mere 10,000 years ago (which is a blink of an eye in evolutionary time), all of our ancestors were nomads. For various reasons, nomadic groups are relatively small. Typically, such groups are capped at about 150 which, according to evolutionary cognitive psychologist Robin Dunbar (1992), is about how many people our minds can effectively connect with on a non-superficial level.
Now imagine that you’re living in a group of 150 and suddenly you find yourself estranged from only a few folks in the group. That could be problematic. People talk. And everyone you are estranged from has a social circle, usually including family and friends. So being cut off from just a few people in a small-scale society truly could have had devastating 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 that our participants were estranged from was just under four. There is much variability in this dimension. One participant reported having 27 people from whom they were estranged (or fully cut off).
Given that we evolved not in the large-scale societies that exist today but rather in small-scale societies where everyone knew one another, we can start to see why our emotional response to estrangements can be so strong.
The Adverse Psychological and Social Consequences of Ghosting
Enter social media.
In talking about the estrangement work that our team had conducted just a few years ago, several of the current team members, mostly graduate and undergraduate psychology students, suggested that the situation is probably even worse now due to the ease with which people can cut others off via social media and cellphone technologies. Led by our fearless team member Jacqueline Di Santo, we conducted a study (Di Santo et al., 2022) that essentially replicated our prior study on estrangements—using ghosting as a modern marker of estrangements.
We asked people to report (to the best of their abilities) how many people they had ghosted as well as how many others they believed had ghosted them. We then gave participants a battery of measures of psychological, emotional, and social functioning.
Here are some of our main findings:
- The average number of people that participants had ghosted was about eight.
- The average number of people whom participants were ghosted by was also about eight.
- There was a strong, positive correlation between the number of people that participants had ghosted and the number of people whom participants had been ghosted by (in other words, ghosters tend to get ghosted).
- People who reported relatively high ghosting experiences tended to score as having borderline personality tendencies, low levels of satisfaction with life, emotional instability, and insecure attachments to others. In other words, the adverse outcomes associated with a high number of estrangements that we’d found in our prior research (Geher et al., 2019) were generally replicated in the ghosting study.
Exponential Rates of Estrangements Due to Social Media
A deeply concerning broader point of our study on ghosting is this: The number of others whom people are estranged from seems to be rising steeply. In our study published in 2019, the average number of estrangements that people reported was four. In our study published in 2022, conceptualizing estrangements in terms of ghosting experiences, the figure doubled to eight. It seems that the rise of social media corresponds to a rise in estrangement experiences.
To my mind, this finding is deeply concerning. It shows yet another way that modern social media technologies are evolutionarily mismatched from ancestral, face-to-face communication processes, and are wreaking havoc on our mental health along the way.
In our book Positive Evolutionary Psychology, Nicole Wedberg and I (2020) discuss in detail how so many modern technologies have been created without considering our evolved psychology. I make this same point in detail in my Substack article “The End of Sex and The End of Thinking.”
Often, these technologies (from modern processed food to Snapchat—and everything in between) have unintended adverse consequences, largely because they are mismatched from the conditions that our minds and bodies evolved to exist in.
Under ancestral conditions, you could not push a button and make someone permanently disappear from your life. Ghosting is, in many ways, unnatural. And it may well be contributing to the extraordinary rise in mental health issues we find in the modern world—especially among adolescents and young adults who have known internet and social media technologies their entire lives (see Twenge et al., 2019)
In recent years, due to the large-scale availability of social media and other advanced communication technologies, ghosting has become a prominent experience for many. Based on the data from our recent study (Di Santo et al., 2022), the ghosting experience seems to map onto all kinds of adverse emotional and social consequences. From an evolutionary perspective, this is fully understandable. Under ancestral conditions, you could not cut someone out of your life with the push of the “block” button.
Modern technologies are making phenomena such as social estrangements, which have been shown to be related to all kinds of adverse psychological outcomes, more common than ever. The modern face of social estrangements is ghosting. And ghosting hurts. The evolutionary perspective helps us understand why.
If developers of communication technologies continue to fail to take our evolved psychology into account in creating the products that they create, it seems that the adverse psychological outcomes of such technologies are only going to get worse. Maybe it’s time that professionals across all industries became educated in the details of evolutionary psychology.
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