The Psychology of Catfishing, From Its First Public Victim

The internet didn't invent the concept of people not being who they say they are. It simply gave them a better vehicle, and gave these deceivers a name: catfish. That term came into our consciousness first in a documentary, followed by a TV series, and now it's a book. You may be wondering why.

And who would know best but author Nev Schulman? Schulman is the original victim of the catfishing hoax—the one to gave the phenomenon its name. He told his story first in the 2010 documentary Catfish, where he chronicles his falling in love over the internet, and his ultimate quest to meet the girl he carried out an online relationship. As you can guess, she was not who she said she was.

That experience made Schulman a sort of de facto sounding board for people who felt they had found themselves entrapped by a digital menace pretending to be someone else. So then came the MTV show, which has just been renewed for a fourth season. Often the story is similar, but each time the set of circumstances are more ridiculous and more unbelievable.

The framework is this: A person has met a potential flame online, but for whatever reason they've never been able to meet in person. My personal favorite episode was in season two when a woman thought she was dating the rapper Bow Wow over the internet. Spoiler alert: Her internet boyfriend was definitely not Bow Wow.

So after the TV show has now come the book, which may seem like somewhat of a backward progression for a topic so deeply ingrained in the digital realm. But as Schulman explained to me, it's not. Because catfish don't discriminate.


In the book, you use an example of Cyrano as how catfishing has existed in the world before the internet. There's sort of a chicken/egg dilemma there.

Yes, this existed before the internet, but the internet has blown out this phenomenon of people not being who they say they are to a whole other level. Do you think it's existed and we just hadn't seen it?

Schulman: I think people have been dishonest and falsely representing themselves probably just as much over the course of history pre-internet. But they did it in real relationships where they perhaps spent months or years dating or married before the other person realized, like, "Oh my god, this guy is a total jerk, or he's cheating on me, or she's using me because she doesn't want to be alone."

Now the internet just makes it sort of that much easier and accelerates that process because you can be doing it with multiple people at the same time from anywhere in the world.

It sort of just opened up the community of individuals that would have otherwise had a harder time doing it, because in your town, one or two people start talking about how you're a liar, people are going to hear about it. But online, there's an endless supply of people who have no idea who you are, who have no relationship to you or your past who you can kind of bullshit your way into a relationship with.

I bet there are times when you want to shake people and say "use Google!" It must be frustrating to see people go through these heartbreaking scenarios. Does it take a toll?

The number one reason I am eligible for this job is because I was the dope that you would want to shake and say, come on how could you be so dumb, how could you not Google this person, how could you not make a few phone calls, how could you believe that?

And again 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.

Do you still find yourself being surprised at these situations after a film, three seasons of a TV show, and a book?

Not so much surprised as often by the situation and the circumstances as I am surprised by the choices people make in presenting themselves on national television. I just can't believe that someone would think, "Oh yeah I'll go on TV, I'll meet these strangers, and I'll also meet this person that I've been talking to for a long time and be obnoxious."

Even though for many years of my life I think you could say I was obnoxious, I always had the ability to present a much more mature, respectable and likable person when I wanted to. So I don't understand how people could choose to present the version of themselves that they must know is not positive. And yet they seem to think that they attention and potential fame they'll get as a result of that monster they'll reveal is worth more than the respect or admiration they'll get for being real and kind and compassionate.

That's what I'm trying to do with the show: suggest or perhaps offer to young people that compassion and kindness and respect are actually cool, and being obnoxious and loud and confrontational is not. Unlike every other show on MTV, and reality shows in general.

Is there a generational bent to catfishing?

No, it's not just teenagers. [It's] anybody. Despite MTV's desire to keep people on the show young, I think it's just as prevalent if not more so with adults and people further along in their lives.

Do you hear from a lot of older people?

Yes, a lot. Mostly I hear from them in person, when they approach me in public whether it's an airport or a restaurant to tell me about their story or a friend's story or a story about their parents because there are seniors (to use a sort of PC term), a lot of whom are finding themselves using the internet now, sort of coming to it fresh and very vulnerable to whether it's a scam or a relationship from someone who perhaps has ulterior motives.

The difference is adults have much different and oftentimes more significant set of circumstances that sway them from wanting to publicly reveal their situations, because they're divorced or they have kids or a job, and coming on a TV show and either being embarrassed or revealing themselves as a liar is not something that they think is a good decision, which I totally understand.

So we do tend to feature younger people more, which i am very happy about because I think there is a lot more life ahead of younger people and if we can encourage them to be more honest and open and accountable and live their life in a more meaningful way, that will serve them for many years to come.

Rarely, on Catfish, do you see people finding love as they would hope. Even so, you actually care about these people. I get the sense you actually want to change/improve people's lives?

Yeah, I mean I like the idea that on my show, if nothing else, we help two people extricate themselves from a situation that is potentially not good for them … I do go into this episode hoping we'll bring people together to find meaningful love or to pursue a real relationship.

The reality is, if nothing else, I'm hoping that these two people can grow from the experience. And then the bonus is that people watching will hopefully see some reflection, will perhaps understand something about themselves that they hadn't before.

That's a lot of what I'm hoping to do with the book. Which is simply offer my own experiences and my own reflection in the hopes that people will see it and say, wow okay that actually sounds a lot like me. And just becoming aware of that they've taken a step toward understanding and hopefully if it's something they want to change, facing it.


In Real Life: Love, Lies, & Identity in the Digital Age is out today on Grand Central Publishing.