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Understanding the Zeigarnik Effect: The Psychological Impact of Being Ghosted

Updated: Jun 7

Recently, I saw a social media post about a mom who planned a birthday party for her 5-year-old son. Even though she got lots of RSVPs, not a single person showed up.



 

Who ghosts a child?!

 

We all hate it when someone ghosts us, both professionally and personally because of the Zeigarnik Effect. This is a phenomenon that makes our brain linger on to something that is unresolved, unfinished or demands closure.

 

Sadly, even though everyone agrees that ghosting is a horrible way to treat people, it has become commonplace. The biggest contributing factor to this trend: the rise of online dating and digital communication. But it doesn’t take a dating app to get ghosted. It also happens in friendships and professional interactions — all the time — and the effects are insidious.


The Irony of Social Media by Melissa Hughes

Ironically, advances in technology have made us both more connected and more lonely. There’s more spontaneity in a face-to-face conversation and more nonverbal communication such as body language, facial expression and tone of voice.

 

But digital communication is at our fingertips at all times. That smartphone we simply can’t live without creates a heavy reliance on asynchronous communication.  You text me. I read your text. I send my response. I wait for your response. We crave instant gratification.  And as easy as it is to communicate, it’s even easier to disappear without a trace. Many times, it isn't malicious; it's more like indifference. Benign neglect.


Benign neglect: well-intentioned noninterference in the hope that a situation or problem will resolve itself

 

Professionally and personally, neglect is rarely benign, and it is destructive to any relationship. For more about how ghosting manifests in the workplace, check out Yonason Goldson's FastCompany piece.


Because our devices archive our relationships—including open loops and fragmented conversations—we are hyper-aware when we’ve been ghosted. And it sucks. We can rationalize that it says more about the ghoster then the ghostee, but logic is rarely a match for the power of emotion.




 

The Zeigarnik Effect


The Zeigarnik Effect partially explains why being ghosted is so unsettling. The Zeigarnik Effect is the psychological phenomenon of tasks and events that have been interrupted or left incomplete having more of an emotional impact than those that have been completed.

 

Bluma Zeigarnik (1927) first saw this effect in waiters, who seemed to remember orders only so long as the order was in the process of being served and promptly forgot the order as soon as it was finished. Zeigarnik investigated this by asking participants to complete a series of tasks. Some involved tactile tasks (such as stringing beads), while others involved applying mental abilities to, for example, solve a puzzle.



Zeigarnik allowed half of the participants to complete their tasks and interrupted the other half of these participants partway through, asking the participants to move on to something else. The tasks were intended to take from 3-5 minutes and were interrupted when the patient “was most engrossed” in the task.


As the participants grew nearer and nearer to completing each task they were interrupted in, they became increasingly more likely to remember these incomplete tasks over completed ones. Zeigarnik hypothesized the incomplete tasks spurred “psychic tension.” The lack of closure from unfinished tasks causes the brain to continue exerting effort related to that task, even if we’re not consciously focused on it. We can only eliminate this if we clarify or complete the task.



Ghosting and the Zeigarnik Effect

While the Zeigarnik Effect primarily pertains to memory and cognition (and can give us an advantage in reaching our goals), it has a profound influence over how we perceive the complexities of personal and professional relationships.  Ghosting leaves the relationship incomplete, creating a sense of unresolved emotional business and psychic tension.

 

The hyper-connectivity of life has made it simpler to keep in touch but also simpler to disengage from relationships without facing the emotional turbulence of dealing with immediate consequences. By extension, we have become desensitized to the impact our actions have on others. Less empathetic. More apathetic.

 

If you're being ghosted, remember it's not as much about you as it is the ghoster. Ask yourself how much more time you should waste on this person. If you're thinking about ghosting someone, remember that it's a form of emotional cruelty. Ask yourself if you're emotionally immature or just plain mean. If the answer is no, the old adage applies here: “Treat others like you would like to be treated.”


It makes you less of a jerk.


 

Happier Hour with Einstein

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