Let Their Words Do the Talking

Verbal cues to detect deception.

Catphish or Caviar

A Simple Solution to avoid being hooked by a catphish.

Catphish or Caviar

Internet relationships lack the cues necessary for people to accurately assess a person's  personality, sincerety, and veracity. Emoticons help decode written communications, but they are not enough. People are poor judges of Internet communications because the verbal and nonverbal cues they rely on in face-to-face exchanges are absent. The key to successful Internet relationships is your ability to guide an internet relationship from a world devoid of nonverbal cues into the visual world, where you have the skills to identify predators and imposters, commonly referred to as catfish.

Truth Bias

People tend to believe others. This phenomenon, referred to as the truth bias, allows society and commerce to run smoothly and efficiently. Absent the truth bias, people would spend an inordinate amount of time checking data collected from others. The truth bias also serves as a social default. Relationships with friends and business colleagues would become strained if their veracity were constantly questioned. Consequently, people typically believe others until evidence to the contrary surfaces.

The truth bias provides liars with an advantage because people want to believe what they hear, see, or read. The truth bias diminishes when people become aware of the possibility of deception. The truth bias predisposes people to believe what others write in emails and texts. Absent verbal and nonverbal cues, the veracity of written communications are not called into question.

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Another characteristic of the truth bias is that when people do see a few loose ends or minor contradictions in a person’s story, they tend to excuse the discrepancy because, to do otherwise, would call the person's words or behaviors into question. Minor differences are easier to excuse away rather than igniting a personal confrontation. The best defense against the truth bias is judicious skepticism.

Competing Hypotheses

Developing competing hypotheses prevents the truth bias from unduly influencing your ability to judge the character and veracity of the person who is writing to you. Hypotheses are nothing more than educated guesses. A competing hypothesis is an educated guess that supposes a different outcome based on the same or similar set of circumstances. For example, one hypothesis posits that the person who is writing to you is genuine and telling the truth. A competing hypothesis posits that that the person who is writing to you is an imposter and a liar. During the course of your Internet exchanges, you should seek evidence to support your initial hypothesis or your competing hypothesis. Rarely does all the evidence support the initial hypothesis or the competing hypothesis because honest people often say and do things that make them look dishonest and, conversely, dishonest people often say and do things that make them look honest. In the end, however, the weight of the evidence should support one hypothesis over the other. Countering the effects of truth bias reduce your vulnerability to Internet deception.

Laws of Attraction

Attractive people receive preferred treatment and garner more attention than unattractive people. The effect of physical beauty is reduced in Internet communications, unless a picture accompanies an internet profile. Keep in mind that people often lie in their Internet profiles to enhance their ability to attract Internet partners. Since people do not have face-to-face interaction with the person writing to them, they have no point of reference, against which to judge their written communication. Contrast plays an important role in attraction. When two people stand side by side, people tend to contrast one person against the other person. In the absence of a second person, people tend to compare the person against an idealized person. Since the person writing to you on the Internet is singular, you will have a tendency to compare that person against your idealized person. Over time, people tend to attribute the characteristic of their idealized person to the person writing to them. This misattribution leads to the increased probability of being the victim of a catphish.

Rapport Building

Building rapport on the Internet relies solely on written text. This limits the techniques people normally have available to establish rapport in face-to-face communications. Finding common ground is powerful technique to establish rapport. In order to find common ground on the Internet, you must disclose personal information. Disclosing personal information is another powerful technique to develop rapport. Since Internet communications are anonymous, people tend to disclose more information than they would in face-to-face communications. One reason for this is that the sender does not have verbal and nonverbal cues to provide feedback to judge the acceptance or rejection of the information of the person reading the communication. When people receive rejection cues in face-to-face communications, they tend to stop disclosing. This is not the case with Internet communications. In fact, people tend to increase the disclosure of sensitive personal information. Increased self-disclosure propels the relationship to a higher level than if the relationship were a face-to-face encounter. In essence, a vital step in the relationship developing process is skipped. During this vital step in face-to-face communication, prospective partners have the opportunity to slowly disclose information using verbal and nonverbal cues to pace the development of the relationship. If things go awry during this initial step, the two people can go their separate ways without having disclosed too much sensitive information to create personal vulnerabilities.

Emotional Investment

The longer the Internet relationship goes, the more likely people are to remain in the relationship because of their deep emotional investment. Internet relationships that should have ended continue because the relationship intensified too quickly and too much of an emotional investment has been expended to opt out. People become psychologically vulnerable to people that cannot be proven to be wholly trustworthy. A false trust is built on the projection of idealized character traits.

Exposing Catphish

To prevent yourself from being hooked by a catphish, force him or her into the visual world, where you can use your well-practiced skills to detect imposters, liars, and con artists. During the early stages of an Internet relationship, you must realize that the lack of nonverbal cues puts you are at a disadvantage. Establish competing hypotheses to prevent the relationship from developing too fast. Always assume that you are the victim of a catphish until visual evidence proves otherwise. Insist on a fact-to-face meeting as soon as possible. This meeting should take place in a well-populated, public area to reduce the possibility personal danger. In the event a face-to-face meeting is not practical, insist on a visual meeting on Skype or on another similar service. An Internet partner who makes excuses to avoid a face-to-face meeting or constantly makes excuses as to why a visual meeting on the Internet is not possible is a strong signal that something is amiss. At this point, you should immediately break off your Internet relationship. To continue the relationship puts you in peril, great peril.

Demanding a visual meeting early in the relationship is a simple, yet effective technique to avoid being hooked by a catphish. Visual meetings allow you to evaluate visual cues to assess the veracity of your Internet partner. Visual contact also prevents the attribution of idealized characteristics to an unknown person. Developing competing hypotheses reduces the effect of truth bias. The need to reveal sensitive, personal information is reduced in face-to-face encounters, thus preventing the relationship from developing too quickly. Slowing the development of the relationship reduces your emotional investment, thus minimizing the emotional cost of breaking off the relationship. This preventative measure exposes catphish but does not discourage genuine Internet relationships. In genuine relationships, people are eager to communicate visually, especially early in a relationship. People feel more comfortable in visual relationships because they can use the social skills they have come to rely on to evaluate others. Visual meetings expose catphish and level the Internet relationship playing field. Meaningful Internet relationships are possible but some basic precautions must be taken to avoid becoming the victim of a catphish.


John R. "Jack" Schafer, Ph.D., earned his degree in psychology from Fielding Graduate University, Santa Barbara, California and served as a behavioral analyst for the FBI.


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