An image of the logo for docuseries “La science des coeurs brises." The logo is compromised of the series' name and an illustration of a human heart.

Darcey Powell, a Roanoke College professor and leading researcher on ghosting in relationships, recently appeared as an expert commentator in a Swiss docuseries: “La science des coeurs brises” or “The science of broken hearts.” Image courtesy of Radio Télévision Suisse.

By Roanoke College News

“The science of broken hearts”

It’s been fodder for happy hour vent sessions with friends, romcoms, think pieces and even a new dating app that’s straight-up banned it as toxic behavior. 

Ghosting: What is it? Why do we do it? Is it ever okay? 

That great dating debate has grown to haunt people amid the rising ubiquity of online dating and the ease of dropping off the map by just exiting the chat. But, for years, ghosting remained a seldom-studied subject among researchers who could help shed light on the human impulses and patterns that shape our dating foibles.  

Enter Darcey Powell.  

“One of the things that pushed us to start researching ghosting was that a lot of people were talking about it. But there was no oomph behind it. There was no data,” said Powell, interim chair of the Psychology Department and an associate professor with focuses on personal relationships, family dynamics and developmental psychology.   

“It’s not always great for things just to be talked about with no science to it,” she said. “Relationships in particular tend to get that a lot and, you know, there can be some questionable opinions and beliefs floating around out there.” 

In 2016, Powell teamed up with a visiting professor, Gili Freedman now of St. Mary's College of Maryland, as well as Purdue University’s Kipling Williams and Haverford College’s Benjamin Le to dig into the topic that has since become so firmly ensconced in the zeitgeist that it’s spun off its own subgenres (soft ghosting, slow ghosting, zombie-ing and more).  

The team’s first paper, “Ghosting and destiny: Implicit theories of relationships predict beliefs about ghosting,” caused a splash. Their findings, one of the first quantitative papers on ghosting, were featured in The New York Times, Psychology Today, Seventeen Magazine and more.

“Relationships are inherently interesting to people,” Powell said of the reaction. “Everyone wants to have successful relationships and hates being rejected because, let’s face it, it kind of sucks, right? 

“So, in ghosting, I think we see a lot of things coming together. People are trying to find a fulfilling relationship. They’re going through the perils of dating, and this is one of those topics that comes up and gets people talking. What is ghosting? How do we handle it?”

Recently, interest in Powell’s research which she’s continued with new joint studies published as recently as 2022 went international. She was approached by Radio Télévision Suisse, a Swiss public broadcast organization, to take part in a new docuseries: “La science des coeurs brises” or “The science of broken hearts.”


The term "ghosting" goes back years but secured the official blessing of wordsmiths at Merriam-Webster in 2017 (read more). In announcing the addition to the dictionary, officials wrote:

"Ghosting (the noun) and ghost (the verb) both describe this phenomenon of leaving a relationship of some kind by abruptly ending all contact with the other person, and especially electronic contact, like texts, emails, and chats. Ghosting itself has gotten quite a bit of attention over the last year, but we have evidence of this use of ghost that dates back to 2006."

The French-language series, which started airing in 2022, combines firsthand accounts of heartache with scientific insights into the psychology at play. As the series described itself, “The frustrations, pains and sorrows that result from our love stories are often considered with great levity. And yet, they constitute real traumas and are a fascinating subject of study." 

Powell, who was interviewed by a producer via Zoom, was part of the premiere episode carrying the title: “Ghosting: from passion to radio silence.” 

She shared one of the major findings of her early research: that higher rates of ghosting are seen among people who take a kismet or destiny-based view of relationships. 

“Individuals who possess higher destiny beliefs tend to believe that relationships either work out or they don’t, and if you’re with the person that you should be then the relationship should be easy,” Powell explained in the series, contrasting that with growth mindsets that lean more heavily toward the belief that relationships can grow and deepen over time by working through challenges with your partner. 

Destiny beliefs carry a higher association with ghosting than growth-based beliefs in studies conducted by researchers. That association is correlative, not causative, Powell stressed. Those who subscribe to destiny beliefs aren’t fated to ghost but tend to report a higher incidence rate of it in research surveys. 

The widening interest in ghosting — its norms, its motives and its emotional weight — is popping up on multiple fronts, Powell said. 

The once little-studied phenomenon is now the focus of research projects in several U.S. labs as well as labs based in Italy, Spain and beyond. Whole podcasts have been devoted to ghosting (Powell was interviewed by one series, “Coping with Ghosting,” in 2021). Now, a new dating app dubbed “Tame” has generated a flurry of debate for banning ghosting on the grounds that transparency makes for healthier interactions. 

“We’re delving into a niche that people find really interesting,” Powell said. That includes her students here at Roanoke. 

“Oh, we definitely talk about it,” she said. “I teach courses on interpersonal relationships and emerging adulthood, and there’s always a point where I put a pin in all the textbook stuff. And we just talk. We talk about what it means to have healthy relationships. We talk about the good and bad that happen in relationships. Ghosting is one of those things that come up. They all have thoughts about it, and we talk about my group’s research. 

“It gets them animated. It’s fun to talk about, and it gets them thinking about the real-world applications of research. I also hope it shows them that their faculty understands the things they’re experiencing and that what they’re learning in the classroom connects to those things.” 

Powell and her collaborators already have new research questions lined up to explore. Their team was part of a string of researchers that submitted questions to a large, multi-nation survey delving into issues surrounding love in the pandemic era. The data amassed from that project has just recently been compiled and released to researchers. Powell and others are beginning to analyze the results. 

“We’re also hoping to make more contacts with other research teams that are doing relationship-y and ghosting projects around the world so we can do a cross-cultural collaboration,” Powell said. “It’d be really interesting to see how different cultures talk about ghosting and the belief structures associated with it. That’s one of the things we’d like to expand on. 

“There’s still so much more work to be done on this issue,” she added. “It’s interesting because the idea itself isn’t totally new, right? Ignoring a romantic partner has been around since people were sending letters delivered on horseback. It’s not a novel concept. But it’s something we talk about more because so much of our communication happens through technology now, and exchanging messages is instantaneous. We know more people are engaged in online dating and are meeting prospective partners at higher rates, and reports of ghosting experiences are happening at higher rates too. 

“So, it’s going to continue to be an issue. We’ve got a lot of work ahead of us.” 

Five Takeaways On Ghosting With Darcey Powell