Catfishing is in the news again; this time at the University of Virginia, where Rolling Stone falsely reported the rape of a student named Jackie. Now it’s being reported that Jackie’s story involved the technique of catfishing—creating fake online personas to advance romantic or other relationship goals.
When Ryan Duffin and Jackie were freshmen, they developed a friendship, but Jackie wanted more than a platonic relationship. To induce him into developing romantic feelings for her by making him jealous, Jackie created a fake suitor from her chemistry class, “Haven Monahan,” who sent Duffin several text messages telling him that he should date Jackie and that she has a terminal illness—a sad ploy to garner his sympathy. It was a grand catfishing scheme that erupted into a fictional gang rape story reported as fact by journalist Sabrina Erdely.
This isn’t the first we’ve heard of fabricated online romances, coined catfishing by Nev Schulman, who starred in the 2010 documentary “Catfish.” The term became well-known when Manti Te’o, a linebacker at Notre Dame, fell victim to an online hoax involving a girlfriend he had never met. The love affair ended when the fake girlfriend died a fake death. The entire incident left many scratching their heads and wondering how someone could be so easily duped.
The documentary “Catfish,” starring Schulman, touched a nerve in the culture and quickly morphed into a popular MTV show that has been renewed for another season. The whole concept of being tricked into falling in love with false online personas has become a guilty pleasure for many people.
The question most of us want to know is, How can you fall in love with someone you’ve never met or even seen? After the Te’o affair, the question on everyone’s lips was “How can you be so stupid?”
Inventing Fake People Is Nothing New
Schulman reminds us that people being dishonest and falsely representing themselves in relationships isn’t anything new. We’ve seen it in life and literature. Christian in “Cyrano de Bergerac” was playing a kind of catfish, using de Bergerac’s poetic words to woo the beautiful Roxanne. A case can be made that Cupid played the catfish with Psyche when he brought her into his castle and made love to her without her ever seeing his face or knowing who he really was.
Even in real-life dating, many people lie about who they really are, what jobs they have, and whether they’re single or have kids, until the gig is up and reality forces them to divulge their secrets.
But the Internet has brought lying in relationships to a whole new level as people go months, even years, talking online without ever showing their true faces—ugly people pretending to be beautiful, fat basement-dwellers pretending to be fascinating world travelers, average people with boring jobs pretending to be fabulously wealthy, men pretending to be women and vice versa (remember that creepy scene in “Closer” between Clive Owen and Jude Law?). Why do people do it, and why do people so easily fall for it?
Psychology of a Catfish
Let’s begin with the psychology of the transgressors—a better term might be predators, because that’s what they are, no matter their motivations. Not to psychoanalyze from a distance, but when people engage in hurtful behavior with no empathy for the other person, even after they’re confronted with the reality of their behavior, they’re narcissistic at least to some degree.
But, to be fair, catfish can be rather complex—and there are different types. Some people are vicious and play games with people because they actually want to hurt them. They seek revenge, and want the other person to pay for hurting them in some way—usually because they’ve been rejected in real life.
Some catfish have no motivation beyond simple cruelty. They like messing with people and find some sort of sick empowerment by luring people into having feelings for them then crushing them with the truth. People like this are seriously twisted.
Others are simply lonely, insecure, or bored. These people just want someone to talk to, something to spice up their lives. Reality isn’t all that exciting, and they create a fantasy; people on the Internet become characters in their imaginary worlds.
Not everyone is so heartless. Some people really do want to connect with others, find some sort of “relationship,” but they don’t know how. They’re loners who don’t have the confidence to meet people in real life, so they create an online persona (sometimes several) to prop up their unfulfilled lives. They like the thrill of engaging with other people and getting some excitement in return. It doesn’t matter if it’s a complete lie.
Of course, there are situations, like the one with Jackie, where the catfish know their victims in real life, but they’ve been rejected. They don’t want revenge; they want love, but their feelings have been rebuffed. So they turn to subterfuge to ensnare the object of their desire. Of course, it’s all a ruse. Even if their love interest develops feelings for them online, it’s all a fantasy.
Still, the catfish might feel some sort of satisfaction from the game because they’ve created the fantasy; they’re the person behind the mask. The words they write are their own; their feelings are real. Just the face, the name, is a lie. They’re not thinking long-term because they’re trapped in the fantasy of the moment—the late-night emails and texting where they’re baring their soul to the other person. They’re, in a strange way, being themselves.
The Internet Factor
This is a point that we need to take seriously about catfishing and communicating with people online. Psychologists have found that people often feel more comfortable sharing aspects of their true selves online than they do in real life. This makes the development of online relationships compelling and in some sense real—not in a healthy way, but in a way that makes it more intense.
Psychology Today has written about this, focusing on a series of studies by John Bargh. The studies showed that some people are more able to express their real selves online than through more conventional means. “Not surprisingly, these individuals are especially likely to form close relationships to those they have met online,” the study reported. This is true for both the perpetrator and the victim.
A catfish on Season 1 of the MTV series confessed she was being her true self when she was talking online. “Pretty much all of it was me, but not me,” she said. “Everything, all the emotions, just a different face.” She told her online lover things about herself that she had never told anyone. In that sense, the relationship was real and the feelings were real—for both of them.
Oscar Wilde had it right: “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
This is what makes these relationships so intense—the feelings are often real. Yet, despite this fact, these nuggets of truth are nestled in a bed of lies. A lot of the time the victim senses what’s really going on but doesn’t try to find out the truth, which brings us to the psychology of the victim and the answer to the question, “How could you be so stupid?”
Tricksters Keep Life Interesting
Schulman, who fell for a catfish, is in the best position to answer this question.
I don’t think it has anything to do with intelligence or even intellect. It’s a psychological and emotional tool. I don’t know if it’s a defense mechanism or what, I’m not a psychologist, I’m not a psychoanalyst. I don’t really understand how it works.
But where I’m sitting, I think people want something, they believe they deserve something, they’re also likely trying to avoid something—and online relationships offer the perfect remedy or solution for those things. So finding out that the thing that makes you happy and distracts you from all your problems isn’t real is not what people want … So they choose not to.
Whether it’s a conscious choice or not, they don’t want to find out the truth. And will go to great lengths to hold onto the fantasy for fear of feeling like they’ve wasted both time and energy and reveal themselves to someone that they should not have if they were to find out that it was false.
This is why the term catfish is so perfect. Schulman coined the term after talking with the husband of his online interest, who seemed—oddly enough—sympathetic to his wife’s actions. He compared it to catfish that are put in large vats of cod to keep them from languishing during transport and making the meat mushy. The catfish poke and prod the cod, keeping them moving and agile.
“There are those people who are catfish in life,” he said. “And they keep you on your toes. They keep you guessing, they keep you thinking, they keep you fresh. And I thank God for the catfish because we would be droll, boring and dull if we didn’t have somebody nipping at our fin.” As an aside, I’m guessing the husband got a lot of real-life benefits from his wife’s imaginary online relationship. Just a theory, but it makes sense.
The tricksters keep life interesting and exciting—it’s as simple as that. Even when red flags go up, people don’t really want to know the truth. They don’t want to be disappointed. They want to hold on to the feeling they have when they first meet someone, when everything is positive because everything’s still fresh and mysterious.
Why We Want Catfish to Be Real
Isn’t it interesting how when you first start to fall in love with someone, you’re so much alike? You see similarities everywhere, even if they’re exaggerated. That person is your missing piece, your soulmate. But then, as time goes on, and reality sets in, you realize they’re not so much like you after all. When the break-up comes, you end up yelling, “You don’t understand me at all! I don’t even know who you are!” and slam the door behind you.
One of the temptations to maintaining a questionable online relationship is the exhilaration of finding someone who seems perfect for you, who listens as you tell them things you’ve never told anyone before. The world becomes a thrilling place because there are so many possibilities.
That’s a powerful feeling, and some people don’t want to let it go. If they can hold on to that in an online relationship where reality doesn’t get in the way of a good thing, then they’ll avoid the truth to maintain it. They’ll ignore the warning signs because they don’t want to let the euphoric feelings go.
Despite the temptation, falling for someone on the Internet you’ve never met is never a good thing. You wouldn’t give your address to a perfect stranger in real life, or your phone number, so it’s best not to give your heart to the faceless man or woman you’ve met on the Internet.
How to Know if It’s a Catfish
Here are some warning signs that you’re tangling with a catfish.
- They never have access to a Webcam or claim not to know how to use Skype.
- They can’t immediately send you pictures of themselves.
- When you plan to meet in real life, they always have an excuse and it’s usually something traumatic to gain your sympathy.
- They won’t give you a physical address.
- When you talk to them, there are never people in the background, which shows they’re being secretive.
- Their social media sites, if they have them, have very few followers, and if they have photos of themselves with other people, they’re not tagged. Also, there’s nothing personal on their pages, just a lot of filler.
- They tell you they’re in the modeling profession or they’re super-wealthy with a high-paying job and they travel all over the world. As much as you might wish otherwise, the lonely model looking for love on the Internet is a myth.
- They start having romantic conversations with you very quickly. Real feelings of intimacy take time to develop. The situation where coworkers who’ve worked alongside each other for over a year suddenly have romantic feelings is perfectly normal. The stranger you’ve never met and with whom you have no shared history has no basis to form deep romantic attachments.
In online interactions, trust your instincts and don’t let your emotions take over. Consider what is actually being said (and not said), not what you hope the person is saying. Keep track of what you’re being told and look for inconsistencies. Try not to fill in the gaps with positive assumptions.
Most importantly, if your gut starts tugging at you, listen to it. Search out the truth and be honest with yourself. Fantasies can be fun, but they’re not real, and when you invest in a lie, you’ll only get hurt.