As someone who communicates for a living, the "ghosting" phenomenon (wherein dates allegedly fail to respond to follow-up texts) is baffling, even though it's unfortunately become more common. Personally, it seems easy enough to reply to a message, even if it takes two weeks (better late than never, right?)
Language is the lone gift that allows us to control the narrative. Far and away our favorite idiom about the human psyche is All human behavior is useful. Ghosting then, may not be noble, it may not be cool, but if it's happening, there's a payoff somewhere for somebody. If ghosting, aka the absence of behavior, has value, what is it?
In behavioral psychology, doling out random rewards without pattern or warning is an effective technique to get an animal to repeat a behavior at will. Is the sporadic lack of response a power play to keep you on the hook? Or in our overly documented, social media–consumed lives, does silence speak louder than words? Or, are we just overthinking things?
To find out, we turned to the most time-honored of research traditions: The focus group. In this instance, we focused on ghosting between heterosexual couples; specifically, the reasons why men ghost on women. Plied with promises of anonymity and free beer, we texted our band of brothers. Our selection process was strategic: Choose a range of single friends across the full spectrum of male stereotypes, from well-meaning playboy to overly articulate nice guy. These were real-life men we could trust to give us the honest scoop.
Not a single guy failed to reply. We received a string of woeful diatribes lamenting the emotional land mines of casual relationships. Participants contributed everything from lengthy, self-reflective prose evaluating their life decisions to bulleted lists of real-life dating scenarios gone awry. Not only have we ranked the top 10 responses from males here for you, but in the interest of fair play, we also showed the responses to a separate group of single ladies and let them sound off. Pull up a chair; we're going to take this "he said, she said" ghosting thing apart for you brick by brick to decipher what might be motivating this all too common disappearing act.
First things first: Let's get the white knights out of the way. To directly quote Matt, 34, of Los Angeles, "The only person I do not respond to over the phone is a debt collector. That is the only human being deserving of that level of disrespect."
Multiple men answered along the same lines of "I'm a gentleman. I always text back." And for this, we thank you, because (yay!) chivalry is not dead.
However, we're all flawed human beings, and we make many a mistake in the name of self-preservation. Here are the top other excuses guys just don't text back.
This excuse falls in the niche category; however, in the interest of being thorough, we shall include anomalies. Our favorite reason cited for not texting a girl back involved the guy being literally afraid of her sexual advances. In all seriousness, lack of sexual chemistry was a running theme among our male audience.
Our best guess is this is a Y-chromosome affliction. Before you roll your eyes, science says men are indeed slower and less organized than women when switching between tasks. A review of controversial neural circuitry maps revealed the male brain fires strongest between the front and back regions of each hemisphere. Women’s brains have more heavily connected circuitry between the left hemisphere (logic) and right hemisphere (intuitive thinking.) The female brain is theoretically more capable of processing things like emotions and memory. Men have the upper hand on coordination and perception. So then, maybe he was honestly distracted at the moment and all reason went out the window.
Before you roll your eyes, science says men are indeed slower and less organized than women when switching between tasks.
We say this with love and the spirit of true sisterhood, ladies: Stop blindsiding dudes with emotions so early on into your interactions. Example: If you've been on only two dates with the guy, you do not get to have a four-hour conversation about why it's not working, especially if you don't know much about the guy at this point? (This was an actual complaint from one of our focus group participants.) And guys: Don't feed the proverbial bears. You don't ever need to make future plans with a woman out of a sense of obligation. We're all adults here, right? If you're not into it, please say so, so both parties can move on to potential partners that are a better match.
Stop blindsiding dudes with emotions so early on into your interactions.
We're actually fans of this one (with a time limit caveat.) If you’re out on the town with another babe, bravo for giving her the courtesy of putting your phone away. Want to keep it casual? Just ask. She may not be looking to lock in an exclusive contract with you either. If you are going to make an assumption, the only safe one is that the woman you're seeing is likely entertaining other offers.
Same. (See above.)
Yes, battle fatigue in the technology realm was an actual response. We feel you. Sometimes we just need to unplug for a bit. "I don't want to use my phone either," says Emma, 32, of Manhattan.
If it had been a multiple-choice quiz, "Pimpin' ain't easy," would have accounted for a large percentile of our answers. Most of the guys we interviewed who were dating multiple girls at once, however, favored a direct approach to communication. On the whole, it seemed like players respect the game; nice guys overthink it.
What do we do with the nice guys having a moment? Show no mercy, and move on says, Kyle, 31, of Portland.
"Don't be more proactive, and don't advise your girls to be more proactive. That’s a waste of time. If a guy is really interested in you as a person, and not just passive-aggressively trying to go to bed with you, he will set a time to see you–and that time won't be 10 p.m.," says Kyle. "The problem with dating nowadays is most people can find someone to sleep with as quickly as they can order a pizza or something on Amazon Prime," he continues. "You are not a pizza, and Prime doesn’t have a return policy for your dignity. Don't waste your time."
If anything gets a bye from us, it's this one. Floating in the limbo of a fledgling romance is tough to navigate. A couple of our guys admitted to meeting incredible women at a time where they were in no way emotionally available. Therefore, a full retreat was the only recourse.
For what it's worth, it took some of these guys several days to ponder exactly why they weren't texting girls back. We received a slew of "I need to go think about my decisions, and let you know" texts day one of our query.
Far and away, the universal response for not texting back ended up being to "avoid emotions." Some of the men even admitted to only texting back while in the throes of the "Sunday Scaries," that raw cloud of emotion that creeps across the brain in the twilight hours between Saturday night revelry and Sunday-evening regret.
"Feelings on Sundays" were a potent incentive for our focus group participants to issue an out-of-the-blue recovery text to a girl or two. What’s more: All of the guys who admitted to ghosting confessed it was due to avoiding emotional repercussions. In response, 100 percent of the ladies we polled in response to this answer told these guys to chill. Could the pervading answer really be, "He didn't have anything nice to say, so he didn't say anything at all?"
Let’s assume the premise to the slow fade to black leaves less of an emotional scar than the cold hard (and we repeat, really simple) "no." For argument's sake, we shall set aside the opinion most women share that a lack of response is "disrespectful" and assume the men of this study meant no disrespect.
What would it look like if we all collectively agreed to stop taking things personally and fill the silence with the simple act of articulating what we really want (or don't)?
Here's the real problem: Not texting back is inefficient. Happily single individuals don't predicate their self-worth upon the approval or esteem of their love interests, it comes from within. Are we not a match? Cool, on to the next. Our number one complaint with being ghosted feels crummy, though admittedly, we've all probably done it at some point or another, as a 2019 New York Times article points out.
Instead, what would it look like if we all collectively agreed to stop taking things personally and fill the silence with the simple act of articulating what we really want (or don't)? What if, in the poignant words of Brene Brown, we were more vulnerable in our interactions instead? Psychologist Jennice Vilhauer told the New York Times, "Being vulnerable is the number one thing that creates intimacy between people and if you worry about being hurt all the time, you’re not able to be vulnerable and it affects the quality of connection.”
Then again, maybe ghosting points to a lack of emotional depth, and there's no harm done throwing small fish back to sea. We asked our favorite energy healer and Reiki master, Jenni Finley, for her perspective. "When the universe swipes left, listen," she said. And science says even though some closure would be nice, it's important to remember that being ghosted on usually has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with the ghoster. "Ghosting has a lot to do with someone’s comfort level and how they deal with their emotions,” said Dr. Vilhauer told the New York Times.
Blackman DE. Operant Conditioning: An Experimental Analysis of Behaviour. Philadelphia, PA: Taylor & Francis; 2017.
Ingalhalikar M, Smith A, Parker D, et al. Sex differences in the structural connectome of the human brain. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2014;111(2):823-8. doi:10.1073/pnas.1316909110
Popescu A. Why People Ghost and How to Get Over It. New York Times. January 22, 2019.