The sad truth behind this cruel hoax
WITH so many of us spending more time online, a new phenomenon caught the interest of Eric Vanman, a social neuroscientist at the University of Queensland.
One of his students was a fan of a TV show called Catfish, which takes its name from the term used to describe when someone deliberately deceives a person by carrying on an online relationship with them while pretending to be someone else.
The relationships are often romantic in nature (despite the complete lack of physical contact) but at least on one side, are completely duplicitous.
"I had seen the show as well and between us we thought it would be fascinating and then we discovered that there's not much academic research done on this yet," Dr Vanman told news.com.au.
"We realised we had something that we could go into that was new territory."
The phenomenon has arisen in the age of social media and the culprits rely on stolen or edited photos usually taken from an unwitting third party to form their fake identity.
Dr Vanman's student found a forum where people involved in catfishing talked about their experiences, shared tips and confessed their sins. She joined and started cultivating relationships, hoping some of them would be willing participate in a research project.
Eventually, Dr Vanman and his student recruited 27 people from around the world who self-identified as catfish to be interviewed and were surprised by what motivated them.
One women, who pretended to be a man online, spoke about how it allowed her to explore what it would feel like to court a fellow female.
"I was catfishing women because I am attracted to women but have never acted on it," she told the researchers. "I pretend to be a man as I would prefer to be in the male role of a heterosexual relationship than a female in a homosexual relationship."
While rare, the desire to explore a different part of their sexuality through catfishing intrigued the researchers.
"We were interested in the ones whose gender switched when they did this," Dr Vanman said. "A lot of those happened to be people who were interested in using this experience to explore their sexuality. To see what it is like to have a relationship with somebody of the same gender.
"That was something we didn't expect to see, we found that really interesting."
Instagram star Jessica Hunt, from Plymouth in the UK, discovered last year a picture she had posted was photoshopped and used to create a fake online profile.
Australian Idol and I'm A Celeb winner Casey Donovan has also revealed how she fell victim to a catfishing scam perpetrated by a female friend.
In 2017, she told campmates on I'm A Celeb that for six years she had a dysfunctional, telephone-only relationship with a man named Campbell who told her that he loved her - but refused to ever meet in person.
But Campbell never existed. He was an invention of a woman, Olga, who had befriended and groomed Donovan shortly after she won Australian Idol.
According to the researchers, loneliness was mentioned by 41 per cent of the respondents as the reason for their catfishing.
"The other surprising thing we found was that some people started accidentally catfishing. That was mainly because they were on some forum or online game with a fake ID anyway, and then they never corrected who they were when they started having a relationship," Dr Vanman said.
Writing in The Conversation, he shared a sample of responses given during the interview process about why people kept engaging in the practice. For some it stemmed from insecurities about their own physical appearance and catfishing provided a form of escapism.
"I had lots of self-esteem problems … I actually consider myself ugly and unattractive … The only way I have had relationships has been online and with a false identity," one participant said.
A separate person said: "It's a form of escapism, or a way of testing what life would be like if you were the same person but more physically attractive."
Many were repeat offenders and spoke of the addiction of carrying on the fraudulent relationships.
"It's hard to stop the addiction. Reality hit, and I felt like a sh**ty human," one participant said.
It was common for those catfishing to have numerous victims. "We had some people who had done it nine or 10 times," Dr Vanman told news.com.au.
"They mostly tended to do it in a serial fashion, they'd get done with one and then start up with another one."
The move was often because the original relationship had gotten out of control and they feared they would be discovered, he said. "Most of them feel quite badly about it, they feel very guilty."
Although still in its early days, Dr Vanman is continuing his research into the subject. He has identified a further 45 catfish who he intends to interview and hopes to get that number into the hundreds.
The greater sample size will allow researchers to get a better idea of the psychological factors in play in the unusual behaviour.
"The new research is focused on their personality and psychological profile," Dr Vanman said.
"The other thing is we would really like to locate more victims of catfishing but they've been harder to find. Probably because a lot of them don't want to admit they've been catfished," he said.
Many of the people he interviewed never told their victim the truth about who they were and just "ghosted" them.
"So the person never knew they were actually having a catfish experience in the first place."