August 12, 2021

Credit: Getty Images

By Lida Tunesi

The term and practice of ghosting has now been around long enough that researchers have started to study it.

“Right now, to my knowledge, the research on ghosting is mostly about asking ‘do you ghost, is ghosting acceptable to you, how do you feel after being ghosted?’” recent Psychology Ph.D. graduate Maureen Coyle told the Graduate Center in an interview. “But I was more interested in how people behave.”

In her dissertation, which she defended this summer, Coyle posed the question: When someone is ghosted, how does it affect their decisions around pursuing new partners? 

Coyle’s research revealed that things can go one of two ways. It depends on whether the person is promotion-focused or prevention-focused, concepts that come from regulatory focus theory in psychology, she explained. Promotion-focused people wants to make progress toward their goals and avoid stagnation. In her experiments, these people weren’t fazed by ghosting, and kept a positive outlook on finding a partner. But when prevention-focused people, who value feeling secure over making risky decisions, were ghosted, they tended to start feeling like finding a meaningful relationship was less important than it was before. Coyle offered encouragement for people who fall in this category.

“It’s important to keep putting yourself out there, even after being ghosted,” she said. “We tend to perceive that if we’ve been ghosted, we’re likely to be ghosted again. But people are just individual trials — it doesn’t mean we’re doomed for failure again. Remember to take what you learn from previous interactions and use that to think about how we can improve our sense of communication.”

In a different study, on how emojis affected people’s perception of interactions over text message, communication proved crucial. Instead of finding that emojis were plainly good or consistently bad, Coyle discovered that people’s perception depended on whether the other person’s emoji use matched their own. This isn’t very surprising, Coyle explained, because whether in texting or face-to-face, people like to feel like they’re on the same page. Mirroring another person’s communication style helps build closeness.

Maureen-Coyle headshot

Coyle knew she wanted to study media and technology since she was an undergraduate student.

“I’m a millennial,” she said, “and I remember my house pre-internet, I remember my non-smart phone, and watching that transition happen in real time led me to wonder what all this technology is doing to us and how we see ourselves and other people.”

Her interest in psychology and relationships led her to the lab of Professor Cheryl Carmichael (GC/Brooklyn, Psychology), where she brought up the idea of studying those things in the context of technology.

“Maureen has contributed immeasurably to the communal culture and smooth function of our lab,” Carmichael said when she introduced Coyle at her dissertation defense. “She has also been an incredible mentor to the research assistants who have worked in our lab over the years … It has been such a pleasure for me to have the opportunity to work with Maureen over the last six years and to have her evolve into a colleague.”

Given the experience she has now, Coyle said if she could go back in time, she would advise her younger self to take a deep breath and slow down when it comes to research.

“It’s so easy to be eager and want to have an answer for everything, but you’ll never remember every question you wanted to ask and you’ll end up with more data than you have the ability to process,” Coyle said. “You’re going to have a full career of research and you’ll be able to ask more questions. Take a step back, you’re learning incrementally.”

Coyle has accepted a position as a visiting assistant professor in the psychology department at Seton Hall University, where she’ll start teaching at the end of August. The school has also encouraged her to continue her research, and she’s considering doing some follow-up work to her dissertation. In the meantime, Coyle is teaching an online social psychology course for Brooklyn College. Teaching students and getting them excited about doing research, she said, has been one of her favorite parts of an overall valuable and rewarding graduate experience.

“I’ve really cherished my time at the Graduate Center,” Coyle said. “My program has been wonderful. They really are a community. Knowing I have lifelong colleagues I consider to be friends has made this journey so much easier.”

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing.