The Science of Ghosting

It has probably happened to you, but you just didn’t know it by name: Ghosting. Ghosting is the act of actively ignoring or dodging attempts to be contacted through various mediums—e.g., texts, phone calls, WhatsApp, LinkedIn…you get the idea.

In its simplest form, ghosting is NOT responding. In the science of human behavior, ghosting is a good example of another cool term: Extinction.

Extinction is the process of decreasing behavior by withholding reinforcement for a behavior that has been previously strengthened by reinforcement. A funny thing happens when behavior undergoes extinction—it initially increases, sometimes rather dramatically, suddenly, and emotionally. This is called an extinction burst. The behavior appears to “burst” in a flurry of activity

As long as any hint of reinforcement is no longer forthcoming, the extinction burst will fizzle and the behavior pretty quickly reduces down to almost nothing.

So what does this have to do with ghosting? As I mentioned, ghosting offers some good examples of extinction. When we are trying to reach someone for a conversation or correspondence, our behavior of texting, calling, or writing, would presumably be reinforced by a fairly immediate response or conversation. When this doesn’t happen, you tend to see the sender’s behavior go through an extinction burst. In the case of texting, this often takes the form of a series of rapid fire texts that get increasingly desperate in their attempts to gain the receiver’s attention. This could include the use of memes, gifs, emojis, different colored texts, ALL CAPS, highlights, etc. From there things may deteriorate into profanity and pleading, and/or the attempts to reach out progress to some of the other means mentioned above.

The younger you are, the more likely it is that your extinction burst starts in texts and progresses to a live phone call or voicemail. If you are in the older generation, you likely started with a phone call, progressed to a few messages, and then ended with a tart email.

The difficulty with extinction/ghosting is that, to do it right—meaning you ignore the behavior until it stops—you have to ensure that you don’t accidentally reinforce or respond to the behavior in any way. Failure to do so guarantees that you have just extended the behavior through many, many more attempts. In the example of ghosting, you have essentially restarted the clock and will experience a completely new round of texts, calls, etc.

This becomes painfully clear when you are somehow looped into a group text, group email, or chat. Try as you might to ghost the annoying sender, one chance response by anyone in the group serves to accidentally reinforce the behavior and keep it going.

This is an important point when it comes to ghosting/extinction: You have to be completely in control of all of the sources of reinforcement. If you are not, it’s unlikely that extinction is going to work.

One final point: extinction/ghosting is a perfectly fine option for decreasing annoying behavior. If behavior is worse than annoying, if it is harmful, dangerous, offensive, unethical, or illegal—you should not employ extinction/ghosting. You need a more direct approach.

Nevertheless, if the behavior is merely annoying, then you can probably ghost it away.

Posted by Tim Nolan, Ph.D.

Tim Nolan is a trusted advisor to business and organizational leaders, partnering with his clients to achieve the outcomes they seek for themselves and for their businesses.