Artwork By Kiki Pino
If you’ve ever used an online dating app, chances are your friends convinced you that you had nothing to lose. After creating your profile, you start swiping left and right for the sake of entertainment only to notice that there are two types of people: verified and unverified users. At first, though, you don’t think much of it because while there are a decent amount of real unverified accounts, it isn’t until you get catfished by a guy named Sergio that you realize how common catfishing is.
Sergio and I texted on and off for about three months. It was harmless conversation – nothing fishy – until the topic of face timing and going out came up. There were one too many “family trips” and a verified profile with the same photos that took away the benefit of the doubt. The guy I was talking to was not Sergio which, if anything, explained the broken English of someone who supposedly studied his bachelor’s degree in English.
By definition, catfishing refers to “a person who creates a fake online profile to fraudulently seduce someone”. The term itself wasn’t a regularly used verb until Catfish (the documentary) came out in 2010. The film tells the story of a man who fell in love with a 19-year-old woman who, of course, was a 40-year-old housewife in disguise. In the director’s investigation, the woman’s husband coins the term and contrasts his wife’s situation to Codfish being shipped from Alaska to China, where the codfish would go bad on lengthy trips and become mushy and tasteless after hours at sea (Haris, 2013). It wasn’t until fishermen put catfish in the containers to keep the cod active that the fish were ‘on their toes’ and tasty again. Through the husband’s eyes, life would be “dull without someone nipping on our fins” (McCarthy, 2016). If you’re anything like him, catfishing is much more than personality fraud; it’s the near romanticization, chase, mystery, and freedom of pursuing a new shiny personality.
That being said, modern Luddites rant for hours on end, for example, about the downsides of social media; how people use anonymity to spread hate, and how cybersecurity is a threat to pretty much any aspect of our everyday lives. In their defense, scientific data indicates the negative effects of personality fraud and catfishing on the brain. For starters, fake online profiles and relationships may create an illusion of connection and love but 41% of catfish survey respondents accredit loneliness and the need for acceptance to their personality fraud saying, “I just wanted to be more popular and make friends that could talk to me, some part of the day.” (Vanman, 2018).
A third of respondents also expressed that they struggle with self-esteem and feel the need to escape from reality and from feeling unattractive. While we all have bad days and can feel unattractive, a study found that it’s people who struggle to find security and love in a relationship and need extra assurance and attention that are more likely to be and get catfished (Mosley et al, 2020). This anxious attachment style is motivated by the Online Disinhibition Effect, whereby anonymous identity makes a person less likely to stay aligned to their moral codes. The more we lie, for example, the more the amygdala – the part of our brain tasked with triggering emotions, in this case more specifically guilt – is desensitized. In other words, practice makes perfect and lying is no exception. Whether we get caught or not, the more we lie, the less discomfort we feel. This science explains why catfishers who are lonely and feel the need for human connection are willing to pay the cost of honesty. From their perspective, they cannot be loved as they truly are and if lying is what it takes to attract someone, one extra lie will not make a difference.
Now on the receiving end, when you discover that the Sergio you’ve been talking to isn’t a Sergio, you feel confused, if not betrayed depending on how emotionally invested you have become. When deceived and taken advantage of, stress hormone levels spike and the brain reacts as if it is being attacked or preparing to manifest hypervigilant anxiety (Thorpe, 2021). The human brain makes way for thousands of automatic thoughts and assumptions every day and if someone’s trust is broken, it can create new pathways that cause people to distort the words and actions of current and future partners, making them more likely to be paranoid and pessimistic about relationships. (Complex Betrayal Trauma & Emotional Dysregulation, 2019). This, of course, has a greater effect on people prone to anxiety and depression and can onset more permanent trust issues. Given that we’re social beings who seek comfort and peers who will protect us from harm, catfishing can be playful and may almost seem intuitive because it can be, in a way, the rawest form of connection. Moreover, as Sergio showed us, it’s not always followed by harmful consequences. It’s important to remember, though, that at the end of the day, you never know who’s on the other side of the screen when you’re swiping and if you’re not the catfish, you might very well be the one being catfished.
Complex Betrayal Trauma & Emotional Dysregulation. (2019). Center for Relational Recovery. https://www.relationalrecovery.com/complex-betrayal-trauma-emotional-dysregulation/
Harris, A. (2013, January 18). Who Coined the Term “Catfish”? Slate Magazine. https://slate.com/culture/2013/01/catfish-meaning-and-definition-term-for-online-hoaxes-has-a-surprisingly-long-history.html
McCarthy, E. (2016, January 9). What is catfishing? A brief (and sordid) history. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/arts-and-entertainment/wp/2016/01/09/what-is-catfishing-a-brief-and-sordid-history/
Thorpe, J. R. (2021, April 28). Catfishing’s Effects On Your Brain, According To Experts. Bustle. https://www.bustle.com/wellness/catfish-effect-brain-psychology
Vanman, E. (2018, July 25). It’s not about money: we asked catfish why they trick people online. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/its-not-about-money-we-asked-catfish-why-they-trick-people-online-100381