My new obsession is Catfish. No, I’m not talking about the whisker-faced, water-dweller. I’m referring to the documentary and subsequent MTV reality series about online romances. Given the heightened frequency of internet dating, the premise doesn’t sound all that unique. However, this show highlights relationships that have gone on for months, and in some cases years, without the partners ever meeting face-to-face. In a fascinating and unfortunate twist (SPOILER ALERT), the show typically ends with one partner realizing that his or her online love is not who he/she has been pretending to be. Think it couldn’t happen to you? Just ask Manti Te’o how real a virtual romance can feel.
In some cases of faux online love, partners have lied about their physical attributes, like weight, height, or age. In the grand scheme of things, I’d argue that these are milder transgressions, given the frequency with which people fib about these types of descriptors in online profiles1 (see more about lying and online dating here). In other cases, we find out that individuals are completely different from who they have portrayed themselves to be, or, in worst-case scenarios, merely figments of someone else’s imagination. Imagine spending years of your life sharing the most intimate details via emails, text messages, and phone conversations, only to realize that your romantic partner was conjured out of thin air. To my great shock and dismay, it appears that some individuals are willing to create fake online dating and Facebook profiles in an effort to advance their own motives or for the sheer enjoyment of deceiving others. Curious how elaborate the deception may go? Flashback to the Te’o saga and recall the soap opera-like storyline of car crashes, leukemia, and death. Quite an emotional rollercoaster to endure, considering that the woman he was in a relationship with never existed!
After watching a number of these Catfish tragedies unfold, I am left with two intriguing questions: 1) What type of person would spend years pretending to be someone that they are not? and 2) Who would remain in a romantic relationship for an extended period of time without ever meeting the love of their life? Here’s my take:
1. The transgressor: I am a social, rather than clinical psychologist, so I will refrain from diagnosing these individuals with a psychological disorder. However, I do feel comfortable saying that the deceivers’ behaviors often show narcissistic characteristics2 (read more about narcissism and relationships here). For instance, these individuals selfishly pursue what is best for them and use the anonymity inherent in online communication to manipulate the relationship they have developed with their unwitting partners. Moreover, the lack of empathy exhibited by these individuals when they are ultimately confronted with what they have put the other person through is quite telling. When asked why they have invested the time to create and maintain an alter identity, some give the chilling response that it was a form of amusement or in other cases it was a strategy aimed at frustrating the partner’s efforts to develop an actual relationship.
2. The victim: I understand that practical logistics, like time and money, may make it difficult to traverse the distance to your online love. However, with the proper patience and planning these obstacles could be overcome. Yet that isn’t the case with these Catfish romances. Why might these individuals drag their feet when it comes to meeting in person? An interesting explanation stems from the allure of ambiguity and the fear of disappointment.3 Research on the perceptions of online daters shows that when first meeting someone, we have little information. We often fill in the “gaps” in overly positive ways that exaggerate our similarities. It is reality that tempers our naively optimistic impressions. Unfortunately, getting to know more about the individual can lead to shattered expectations and disappointment. On some level, the daters may have known that things sounded too good to be true, and by consenting to a drawn-out courtship, they were able to remain in their fantasy. Although generally speaking, greater familiarity leads to greater attraction,4,5 in this particularly peculiar situation, reality was the pin that burst the bubble of their fictional romance.
I urge you to heed the lessons of Catfish as a cautionary tale. It’s perfectly fine to meet someone online, and I do not believe that all would-be suitors are apt to lie or manipulate. However, we should all be skeptical of things that seem too good to be true (particularly, lonely supermodels or wealthy philanthropists trolling the internet for companionship) and be wary of anyone who refuses to commit to a face-to-face interaction.
New technology means new rules for dating. In the good-ole-days, you would meet someone at work or through friends, and they would drive to your house and pick you up for your first date. Just as you wouldn’t give your home address to someone you recently met online (or offline for that matter), you may not want to give your heart to someone who you have never met in person. To say the least, online technology has made the dating world more complicated than it used to be. We may have to develop new ways to protect ourselves from crafty charlatans, like Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, the mastermind behind the Te’o hoax.
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1Toma, C., Hancock, J. T., & Ellison, N. B. (2008). Separating fact from fiction: An examination of deceptive self-presentation in online dating profiles. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 1023-1036.
2Sedikides, C., Campbell, W. K., Reeder, G. D., Elliot, A.J. & Gregg, A. P. (2002). Do others bring out the worst in narcissists? The "Others Exist for Me" illusion. In Kashima, Yoshihisa, Foddy, Margaret and Platow, Michael (eds.) Self and Identity: Personal, Social, and Symbolic (pp. 103-123). New Jersey, USA: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
3Norton, M. I., Frost, J. H., & Ariely, D. (2007). Less is more: The lure of ambiguity, or why familiarity breeds contempt. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 97–105.
4Moreland, R. L., & Beach, S. (1992). Exposure effects in the classroom: The development of affinity among students. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 28, 255–276.
5Reis, H. T., Maniaci, M. R., Caprariello, P. A., Eastwick, P. W., & Finkel, E. J. (2011). Familiarity does indeed promote attraction in live interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 557-570.
Dr. Sadie Leder - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Leder's research focuses on how people balance their desires for closeness and protection against rejection, specifically during partner selection, goal negotiation within established romantic relationships, and the experience of romantic love, hurt feelings, and relationship rekindling.