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Online Flirting 101: What is “Catfishing”?

Last Updated: October 29, 2020

What does it mean to be “catfished”?

Catfishing is pretending to be another person on the Internet—at times creating whole profiles complete with pictures and biographical information—usually for the purpose of attracting someone else.

Recently Jack Swarbrick, Notre Dame’s athletic director, likened the Manti Te’o Internet girlfriend-hoax to the MTV show Catfish. Ronaiah Tuiasosopo has admitted to being the perpetrator behind the hoax.

Why Catfish?

The MTV series, Catfish: The TV Show, is a show about risks of meeting new love interests online. It was inspired by the 2010 documentary Catfish, which tells the story of a man who is discovering that his Internet friend “Megan” is not who she claims to be.

In the film, the perpetrator of the hoax is likened to a catfish thrown into a fish tank to keep codfish active: online charlatans like this keep us on our toes.

Lying in Online Dating Profiles

Online flirtation and dating is common today. Between 2007 and 2009, 22% of couples had met each other online. (As a side note, my wife and I are among that percentage.)

However, lying online to impress a love interest is not uncommon.

According to one study published by Cornell University, 80% of online daters lie about their height, weight, or age. Weight is the most frequently lied about attribute. While the majority of lies were slight, other lies in the sample group were more extreme: like being 35 lbs. heavier or 11 years older than one’s profile indicated.

According to a poll taken from those who have profiles on BeautifulPeople.com…

  • 21% of women use an older photo, 38% lie about their weight, and 11% lie about bust size. 8% of women make their job sound more glamorous than it is.
  • 22% of men lie about their height, 20% about their physique, and 22% about their weight. 18% of men lie about how much money they make.
  • 17% of men have women have added or subtracted a year or two from their age. 10% have added or subtracted five or more years from their age.

Other Kinds of Online Lies

According to a recent MTV poll of 15- to 24-year-olds…

  • 11% have experienced someone using social networks, text messages, or instant messages to say they were interested in dating them, and later told they were only pretending.
  • 26% have seen someone say something about them online that wasn’t true.
  • 5% have experienced someone impersonate them online, creating a fake Facebook or Myspace profile.

Catfishing: Part of a Larger Online Problem

Yes, catfishing is an enormous and capricious lie compared to most online lies, but all these lies are part of what Psychologist John Suller calls the online disinhibition effect: in the anonymity of the Internet, people say and do things online they could never do in the face-to-face world. We lose our inhibitions online.

Because it is possible to hide behind technology, we are not only more able to lie, we also don’t feel the impact of our lies quite the same way, freeing us to lie more without the benefit of a social conscience.

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