The Science Behind Catfishing: How To Detect Fake Profiles and Create Real Connections

In the film Catfish, Vince Pierce thanked God his wife kept their marriage fresh. Their lives were never boring, especially when she stole their own 19 year old daughter’s online profile. What motivates someone to steal an identity and fabricate a life to talk with people? 

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Natalie Geld author, producer of breakthrough neuroscience education, founder of MedNeuro, and all around badass examines the science beneath subtle emotional manipulation and that ‘click’ of the perfect relationship in this piece. Read on to learn why people how to avoid being catfished.

The rush of desire and being linked with someone special is a juicy lure for all of us. However, 54% of online daters believe that someone else has presented false information in their profile, and nearly a third have been contacted in a way that left them feeling harassed or uncomfortable. 

The more we talked about being catfished, the more stories surfaced. We all have a story of our own, or know someone that does. People don’t normally share these stories because, well, it can be embarrassing—even painfully humiliating—to admit that you’ve been catfished. Self-doubt kicks in and you reach for the tequila, or Nutella, or binge watch some Netflix to avoid thinking about it.

Why would someone want to lead us through a labyrinth of lies to catch our attention?
There are so many possibilities – loneliness or boredom, body or self-esteem issues, being discriminated against, taking revenge for being hurt or dumped previously, pathological lying – even sex addiction. 

I talked with Dr. Kelly Campbell, Associate Professor of Psychology at California State University, San Bernardino. Her research includes a study with over a thousand catfish targets and perpetrators. Dr. Campbell shared her insights with us: “Some catfish were bullied and create fake profiles to mess with that person. Others want to test their partner’s fidelity, so they put up false profiles to lure them.” 

We can’t control someone else’s behavior, but we can develop our own radar for what’s real in order to detect this deceptive bait and avoid the hook altogether.

Like a bear swiping up stream for fresh salmon, the surefire method for enjoying something real is a face-to-face with your catch. Propose a Google Hangout or Skype if the river’s too wide to cross. Just do it, and soon. Excuses for avoiding Facetime are deal breakers. 

Take it from Keri, a beauty entrepreneur who was catfished. She tells us: “It was magical for months, connecting on social media and talking on the phone from different states and cities we were in. It felt so good to have this ‘cool’ person in my life thinking about me, always knowing what to say, write, or text. He was a travel photographer (or so he said) and every time we Skyped, he could see me but always had a reason why I couldn’t ‘see’ him. His camera wasn’t working, he was really ill, or WiFi service was patchy, blah blah blah. I told myself just hearing his voice was enough, everything else felt so right. It got deep, then it got creepy. I was totaled when it all came crashing down. I couldn’t believe I fell for him and all those lies, I felt stupid and humiliated. How did I let myself get so manipulated?” 

Good question. Time for some analysis.

We hear what we want to hear.
Subconsciously, we tend to build our own storybook around someone new. We build castles and kingdoms around them in a world of “as if”. When we’re texting and emailing with an attraction, we develop a mental dialogue with them as if we’re really talking – imagining their responses, emotions, actions, and even their voice. Our hopes and expectations soar beyond what’s real. 

From a psychological perspective, Dr. Suler tells us how “online relationships form an interpersonal space that is part self, part other. The very nature of text relationships – reading, writing, thinking, feeling, all inside our head as we sit quietly at the keyboard – encourages us to continue carrying that internalized interpersonal space with us throughout the day. How often do we compose email messages in our head as we wash our dishes and drive our cars?”

Start to observe these ‘castles’ you build in your imagination around someone you’re attracted to online. Doing this shapes your emotions and experience of this person before you ever hear their voice or meet face to face. These hopes and expectations are snares for you that jam your radar when you need it most. These patterns are natural, but getting to neutral is healthier. You’re worth it.

Free yourself up for a real connection by bringing awareness to the thought patterns and visuals you create and the emotions they conjure.

Your nose knows how to a smell catfish.
If you get a whiff of excuses and tragic stories about being in accidents, having a life-threatening illness, the unexpected death of someone close, traveling to remote places, money upsets, and getting taken advantage of, coupled with a bounty of compliments, a detailed map of your life together, plus a rush to impress and sext you – tug the line.

This is subtle manipulation at play. It tricks your brain and body’s systems into feeling empathy for them, drops you into their soap opera, and clicks into your social bonding circuitry. This releases oxytocin, your trust and attachment hormone. This is the hook. By being a “do-gooder” in this set up, your “altruism” triggers your brain’s reward system to serve you a double shot of dopamine. Feels really good to do good, right? Can you feel yourself being reeled in?

“It comes as no surprise that the biggest catfish predictor is narcissism. In their game-playing style of love, they feel rewarded by maintaining attention from many people, which transfers into their relational style to get attention from you. They often project low warmth and a sense of entitlement,” says Dr. Campbell. These traits could come off as aloof or powerful, but are simply smoke and mirrors. 

Co-host of the television series Catfish, Max Joseph, agrees. “The biggest red flag is generally serious accidents or grave illness that either befall the catfish themselves or people close to them. Because serious illness or accidents provide the perfect excuse to not meet up and to basically tell the other person to back off and stop asking questions.”

I know how compelling it is to be needed and worshipped, but all catfish offer is BS. Own your integrity, value yourself, and cut the line. 

The science beneath deception’s surface
In the beginning of relationships, live or online, we tend to show our best selves in alignment to our perceived communities. Sociologist Erving Goffman calls this the “editing of self”, which shapes social interactions and is intrinsic to self-deception. 

The cool qualities that our “catch” projects in sync with our own desires amplify our body’s responses. Hormones and neurochemicals surge beyond normal level, which dulls inner discomfort and generates feelings of trust instead. This persuades us to lower our guard and let shit slide. We notice red flags, yet tell ourselves a happily ever after fairytale to stay in the story.

But truth is always apparent in these early stages of getting to know a potential honey. 

Chris Rock infamously said, “When you first meet someone, you’re not meeting them, you’re meeting their representative.” And their representative shows or tells you exactly what you’re getting in the first 10 minutes to an hour when you meet face to face. Seriously, tune your radar and try it. Kick back and listen to your date’s asides, straight up confessions, and pay attention to their body language – they’ll tell you what’s real. 

Don’t wait – check the bait!
When you’re online, asynchronicity – the ability to self-edit profiles and responses over time – enables deceptive behavior to evolve without suspicion. 

Dr. Kelly Campbell, also Director of the Psychology Honors Program at California State University, San Bernardino, tells us, “Until a person confirms their identity in person or on Skype, do not allow yourself to get emotionally involved. Verify someone’s identity before you get invested and feel too scared to check.” 

She suggests you learn more about who’s behind messages and texts. “Before you get nervous or invested, lift a text from someone and put it into a web search.”

She’s definitely surprised by her catfishing research. “People will go ten or more years without meeting. One study participant who was testing their partner’s fidelity with a fake catfish profile actually fell in love again with that very same mate they were in a relationship with. Others say that sometimes good comes from these relationships – that beyond feeling euphoric and amazing, they are sometimes inspired to improve themselves. When the truth is revealed and it ends, they’re devastated.”

Be your beautiful self!
Show your real deal in your profile to prime your experience for honest connections. Be bold! Insist you meet face to face on a real date together. I uploaded photos of me wearing my glasses, hair up, no makeup, flaws and all and a connection who later became a close friend confessed they thought my profile was fake because of it. You can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself!

The most intriguing, memorable stories are driven by flawed and therefore inspiring characters. At Bumble, we encourage you to embrace your true self to be truly fabulous.