Source: sw_reg_03 / Pixabay
So picture this: you and Teresa have been friends for years. Overall, you’ve always liked Teresa and felt supported by her. You always laughed a lot together and you always felt like she had your back in life’s sometimes treacherous waters.
One morning you go to message her on Facebook, only to find that she doesn’t show up on your Facebook app. That’s weird… you think to yourself. You search your Facebook and you can’t find any evidence that she was ever there.
So you go text her and you immediately get a message back saying “this number is not available”. You start to get nervous. What does all this mean? You quickly decide to text a mutual friend, Gisella, to see if she sees the same things on her end. Gisella texts you back in about 10 minutes and says this: “Actually, she’s still on my Facebook and she just posted an adorable picture of her new kitten this morning.”
Your heart sinks: you are ghosted. And you have no idea why.
Ghosting as a modern form of cutting
Today, with social media and mobile phone technologies, it is easier than ever to cut ties with someone for any reason. You could ghost an ex-lover or an ex-boyfriend. Or even a family member. With social media as a primary way people communicate today, to cut someone in someone’s life is literally as easy as pressing a button. And from an evolutionary perspective, this is a problem.
Alienation in an evolutionary perspective
A few years ago, my research team published a paper (Geher et al., 2019) showing that the number of alienations experienced in life is a strong predictor of a wide range of negative psychological and social outcomes, including a uncertain situation. Appendix style, the perception of being unsupported by others, and a strong tendency to be emotionally unstable.
In follow-up work, we found that the number of alienations experienced is strongly associated with borderline tendencies. personality disorder (Sung et al., 2021).
As with most of my team’s work, we tried to understand these phenomena in terms of our developed psychology. Here it seems quite simple. It is clear from a variety of data that ancestral human groups often consisted of much smaller numbers than are 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 nomads. Nomadic groups are relatively small for several reasons. Usually such groups are limited to about 150, which according to evolutionary cognitive psychologist Robin Dunbar (1992) is about the number of people our minds can effectively connect with on a non-superficial level.
Now imagine living in a group of 150 and suddenly you find yourself estranged from only a few people in the group. That can be problematic. People talk. And everyone you’re 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 could have had really 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 our participants were estranged from was just under four. There is a lot of variation in this dimension. One participant reported having 27 people from whom they were estranged (or completely cut off).
Given that we didn’t evolve in the large-scale societies that exist today, but rather in small-scale societies where everyone knew each other, we can begin to understand why our emotional response to alienation can be so strong.
The adverse psychological and social consequences of ghosting
Enter social media.
When talking about the alienation work our team had done 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 because of the ease with which people can cut others disable through social media and mobile phone technologies. Led by our intrepid team member Jacqueline Di Santo, we conducted an investigation (DiSanto et al., 2022) which essentially replicated our earlier study on alienation – use ghost images as a modern marker of alienation.
We asked people to report (to the best of their ability) how many people they had ghosted and how many others they thought had ghosted them. We then gave participants a series of measures of psychological, emotional, and social functioning.
Here are some of our key findings:
- The average number of people who ghosted participants was about eight.
- The average number of people that participants were ghosted by was also about eight.
- There was a strong, positive correlation between the number of people who had ghosted participants and the number of people who had ghosted participants (in other words, ghosters tend to get ghosted).
- People who reported relatively high levels of ghosting experiences usually scored as borderline personality tendencies, low levels of life satisfaction, emotional instability, and insecure attachment to others. In other words, in fact, the unfavorable outcomes associated with a large number of alienations that we had found in our previous study (Geher et al., 2019) were generally replicated in the ghosting study.
Exponential rates of alienation due to social media
A very concerning broader point of our ghosting research is this: the number of others people are estranged from seems to be on the rise. In our research published in 2019, the average number of alienations people reported was four. In our study published in 2022, conceptualizing alienation in terms of ghosting experiences, the number doubled to eight. It seems that the rise of social media corresponds to an increase in alienation experiences.
In my opinion, this finding is very concerning. It shows yet another way that modern social media technologies are evolutionarily inconsistent with ancestral, face-to-face communication processes, wreaking havoc on our mental health along the way.
In our book Positive Evolutionary Psychologistj, Nicole Wedberg and I (2020) discuss in detail how so many modern technologies were created without regard to our evolved psychology. I make the same point in detail in my Substack article”The end of sex and the end of thinking“.
Oftentimes, these technologies (from modern processed foods to Snapchat — and everything in between) have unintended ill effects, largely because they don’t match the conditions our minds and bodies evolved to exist in.
Under ancestral circumstances, you couldn’t push a button and make someone disappear from your life permanently. Ghosting is unnatural in many ways. And it may well contribute to the extraordinary increase in mental health problems we find in the modern world, especially among adolescents and young adults who have been exposed to internet and social media technologies throughout their lives (see Twenge et al., 2019)
It boils down
The widespread availability of social media and other advanced communication technologies has made ghosting a prominent experience for many in recent years. Based on the data from our recent study (Di Santo et al., 2022), the ghosting experience appears to be associated with a variety of adverse emotional and social consequences. From an evolutionary perspective, this is completely understandable. Under ancestral circumstances, you couldn’t cut someone out of your life with a push of the “block” button.
Modern technologies are making phenomena such as social alienation, which have been shown to be linked to a variety of adverse psychological consequences, more common than ever. The modern face of social alienation is ghosting. And ghosting hurts. The evolutionary perspective helps us understand why.
If developers of communication technologies continue to ignore our evolved psychology when creating the products they make, it seems that the negative psychological impact of such technologies will only get worse. Perhaps it is time for professionals in all industries to be trained in the details of evolutionary psychology.