Ghosting Is More Acceptable To People With “Dark Triad” Traits

By Emily Reynolds

Even the most shallow dater would have to concede that our personalities play a huge role in our romantic lives. How we start relationships, how we behave when we’re in them, and how they end are all intimately related to our personality traits, good and bad.

A new study, published in Acta Psychologica, looks closely at one way a relationship can end: through ghosting. For those lucky enough to be unfamiliar with the term, ghosting refers to the act of ending a relationship by simply ceasing to respond to the other person, removing them from social media, unmatching them on a dating app, or failing to ever text back. And Peter K. Jonason from the University of Padua and team find that this strategy is considered more acceptable by those high in the Dark Triad traits of psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism.

The participants, 341 American men and women, were first given a definition of ghosting (“when a person abruptly socially disengages with someone they are romantically/sexually involved with little to no explanation”). They then undertook measures of the Dark Triad traits, agreeing or disagreeing with statements including “It’s not wise to tell your secrets”, “people see me as a natural leader” and “payback needs to be quick and nasty”.

Participants also indicated how much they agreed with statements that ghosting is an acceptable way to end either a short or long-term relationship — and, finally, revealed whether or not they had ghosted somebody in the past.

The team found people who scored higher in the Dark Triad traits tended to see ghosting as more acceptable, at least in the context of short-term relationships. Men with narcissistic traits were also more likely to see ghosting as acceptable than women with those traits, while those who had ghosted in the past had more Machiavellian and more psychopathic traits than those who had not.

Unsurprisingly, ghosting was seen by all participants as more acceptable in shorter rather than longer-term relationships, and those who had ghosted people in the past rated ghosting as more acceptable than those who had not, with short-term ghosting especially okay. 

The team suggests that lower levels of empathy among those with Dark Triad traits could help to explain the results. People who are high in psychopathy and Machiavellianism in particular tend to have lower levels of empathy, so a deficit in their ability to feel the pain caused by ghosting a partner could leave them more likely to ghost them.

It’s important to take the results with a grain of salt, however. No matter how frustrating or hurtful it can be to be ghosted, assigning unpleasant or impolite dating behaviour to psychopathy or narcissism is unlikely to be helpful or even particularly accurate. There are many reasons someone might ghost a romantic partner, not all of them malicious — someone might have a lot going on in their personal life, have miscommunicated how important the relationship was to them, or have been hurt themselves by the person they ghosted.

Seeing such behaviours as a straightforwardly narcissistic thing to do potentially belies the nuances of human relationships. Future research could look more closely at why people find ghosting acceptable and why they themselves had ghosted in practice. These results may provide more insight into why people decide to cut ties.

Leaving without a word: Ghosting and the Dark Triad traits

Emily Reynolds is a staff writer at BPS Research Digest