On the MTV reality show, “Catfish,” the show’s hosts help a viewer track down an elusive online love. Almost inevitably, it is discovered that they have been fooled, and the person to whom they poured out their heart is not who they appeared to be. However, sometimes something very real has developed beneath the lies.
In each episode, a viewer involved in an intense online relationship contacts hosts Nev and Max, asking for help tracking down an online paramour, who has repeatedly refused to meet in person. In almost every episode, it is revealed that their love is merely a “catfish,” someone who has constructed a false identity with a fake online profile and lured the unsuspecting subject into a relationship.
The feelings expressed by the people on the show are intense. Some even claim to be engaged to online loves they have never met in person. In some cases the catfish themselves express strong feelings and a desire to continue the relationship after the deception has been revealed. Many viewers wonder how someone can feel such a strong bond with a person they’ve only met online and how some of the catfish can claim to truly care about a person they have been deceiving for months, or even years. However, research on the expression of the “true self” online suggests that the development of these intense bonds is not so surprising.
According to Katelyn McKenna (Bargh, McKenna, & Fitzsimons, 2002; McKenna, Green, & Gleason, 2002), each of us has traits that we feel we possess, but are reluctant to express to others. These traits comprise the “true self.” These are not idealized traits that we wish we possessed, but rather they are traits that we feel are an important, but often hidden, aspect of our real identity. McKenna’s research shows that we have an easier time expressing the “true self” online.
In a fascinating series of studies, John Bargh and colleagues (2002) asked undergraduate students to list traits describing their “true self” and “actual self” (traits they readily express in everyday interactions) and then chat with a stranger, either online or in person. After the chat, the students viewed a series of personality traits flashed on a screen, one at a time. As each trait appeared, they were asked to press a button, as a quickly as possible, to indicate “yes, this trait describes me” or “no, this trait does not describe me.” Mixed into the list of traits were the true and actual self traits the students had listed earlier in the study. The results showed that students were quicker to respond “yes” to their true self traits after an online than an in person meeting, but there was no difference in response time for actual self traits.
This shows that the true self traits were more cognitively accessible to the students following an online chat. That is, these traits were more salient to them and more on their minds. In another study, students were asked to list traits that they felt described the people they had just met. They were more likely to list their partner’s true self traits when the chat had taken place online than in person. Together these studies show that the anonymity and greater control provided by these online interactions enables the expression of aspects of the self that are very real, but often hidden from others.
Research has also shown that some people openly admit that they feel more able to express their real selves online than through more conventional communication channels. Not surprisingly, these individuals are especially likely to form close relationships with those they have met online (McKenna et al., 2002; Tosun, 2012). Unfortunately, in rare cases, they may find themselves involved in an intense relationship with a “catfish.”
Even the deceitful “catfish” sometimes develop strong feelings. For example, in Season 1 Episode 5, when Jarrod is finally united with his online love, Abby, after talking to her for a year and half, he discovers that she has been using a false name and photos. When confronted, she confesses “Pretty much all of it was me, but not me. Everything, all the emotions, just a different face” and she goes on to say how much she values the relationship and how she had told Jarrod things about herself that she had never revealed to anyone. The relationship is real, the feelings are real, and both participants in the relationship have expressed hidden, but real aspects of the self.
After the deception is revealed, sometimes the pair agrees to remain friends. Other times the hurt is too deep and the bond is irreparably broken. But often, despite the lies, a hidden truth about the self has been revealed.
As Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”
Gwendolyn Seidman, Ph.D. is an associate professor of psychology at Albright College, who studies relationships and cyberpsychology. Follow her on Twitter for updates about social psychology, relationships, and online behavior.
Bargh, J. A., McKenna, K. Y. A., & Fitzsimons, G. (2002). Can you see the real me? Activation and expression of the 'true self' on the Internet. Journal of Social Issues, 58, 33-48. doi: 10.1111/1540-4560.00247
McKenna, K. Y. A., Green A. S., & Gleason, M. E. J. (2002). Relationship formation on the Internet: What’s the big attraction? Journal of Social Issues, 58, 9-13. doi: 10.1111/1540-4560.00246
Tosun, L. P. (2012). Motives for Facebook use and expressing ‘‘true self ’’ on the Internet. Computers in Human Behavior, 28, 1510–1517. doi: 10.1016/j.chb.2012.03.018
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