Credit: Nairne Clark

Dating in the time of tech

By Lucy Dunn

Editor-in-Chief Lucy Dunn speaks to Glasgow’s Dr Chris Hand about issues of identity and catfishing in the era of online dating.

Over the winter break, I became an avid listener of an investigative podcast series, Sweet Bobby, that examined the murky mistruths of the online dating scene. In the lead-up to Valentine’s Day, I was keen to speak to the expert involved in the podcast series – and not least because he is also one of Glasgow’s own lecturers. 

Sweet Bobby dealt with a horrific case of scamming that resulted in a duped woman losing 10 years of her life to a fraudulent lover: an extreme example with a twisted truth, yes, but catfishing is a phenomenon that, with the constant digitisation of all parts of our lives, many students and lecturers alike may fall victim to. 

Dr Chris Hand is an applied psychologist and a senior lecturer in psychology at Glasgow University, with interests in language processing, cyberpsychology and the impact psychology has in the criminal justice system. I’d heard his analysis of the above catfishing case in the podcast, but I wanted to find out a bit more about the psychology behind online dating fraud, and what motivated people to put in such time and effort to fake an entire relationship.

The Glasgow Guardian: So, Chris: tell me a bit about yourself, and how you got involved in this podcast series. 

Dr Chris Hand: My background in this type of psychology comes from the work that I do on online impression formation: how do we form impressions online and do we use different pieces of information than what we’d do if we met someone face-to face in the real world?

What I started getting interested in were things like cyber-abuse, and victim-blaming, that kind of happen in the real world, but with which there are specific ways that they’re carried out online. I started getting interested in things like the characteristics of the people that perpetrate these kinds of acts and although my background is in cognitive psychology, very quickly I was questioning how we apply social psychology, and personality psychology, and individual differences, and forensics to real world situations. And so the catfish thing came about from that. 

“Very quickly I was questioning how we apply social psychology, and personality psychology, and individual differences, and forensics to real world situations.”

GG: What have you learned from looking more in-depth at “catfishing”, or similar phenomena?

CH: Years ago, we used to do a lot of social psychology stuff around the psychology of attraction, and how we approach partners, and the way that we selectively present information about ourselves… There’s a reason they call it “the ugly truth” to a certain extent. 

There is always a bit of impression management that goes on [when we approach potential partners], and what I was interested in was: what is acceptable, in terms of how we present ourselves, and how we choose to selectively present certain things over others – and when does it become problematic?

What catfishing shows us is simultaneously the best and worst of our online existence. It’s a bit like the cyber-bullying stuff; there’s a desire to find a balance between these fantastic platforms and tools for good, while trying to minimise the use of them for bad. It’s complicated, and it’s fascinating, and as an applied psychologist that’s the kind of stuff that really gets me motivated. It’s kind of sexy, and attractive, and all that stuff. 

“What catfishing shows us is simultaneously the best and worst of our online existence.”

GG: Yeah, it must be fascinating! When I was listening to the Sweet Bobby podcast, what struck me was that the victim seemed very relatable, in the sense that she wasn’t this really vulnerable person. She was just living a normal life, she wasn’t even that “young and naive” when it all happened. Her relatability really caught me off guard. 

CH: Absolutely. And that, to me, is one of the really important things about learning more about this kind of thing. We’ve maybe got a stereotypical view of who a victim is going to be. We think they’re going to be older, less computer-savvy; we think that they may be intellectually or socially less capable… But the reality is that we’re all vulnerable in one way or another. 

In the Sweet Bobby case it shows that when we are living cognitively busy lives – we’re trying to do lots of things, or we’re maybe overwhelmed at work, or maybe we are emotionally not in the best place – those kinds of things open the door and allow people to sneak in and exploit us. Those kinds of “perfect storms” of circumstances make even the most resilient and savvy person a little bit more vulnerable to clicking on the wrong link, or replying to the wrong person, or opening the wrong attachment. The romance fraud element is one part of it, but this does tie in with other types of phishing, and malware, and other types of digital cyber-crime. 

This stuff is not just limited to an older age group. You don’t want to make people paranoid, or scare people away from trusting others too much, but I do think there is an element of a little bit of naivety… And a little bit of a willingness to accept things at face value. Part of that probably does just come from how busy we all are. We operate almost on autopilot, just because cognitively we don’t have the resources to process everything completely systematically. Again, that’s one thing that catfishers and scammers can prey upon. If I get an email from Lucy Dunn, my immediate thought is not: “Is that really Lucy Dunn? Has someone got their account and are they trying to get something from me?” And maybe that’s where we need to give a wee bit more support from people, to help them look out for the warning signs. 

GG: So when it comes down to online dating, how should we approach apps where we’re meeting people that we don’t actually know that much about? And how can we try and present enough information about ourselves, without giving too much away too soon?

CH: When it comes to things like dating, and particularly online dating, the whole point is that you are meeting someone who’s unknown. It’s so, so difficult to know what you should be doing to protect yourself, as well as appreciating that people have the right to not present certain information about themselves. That for me is where it gets really interesting. 

If I was to put up an account under my name, but use another person’s photo – that’s inappropriate, and I think most people would agree that’s inappropriate. But where do we draw the line with photo editing, and lighting, and all those kinds of things? There was something in the news recently about influencers being asked to use a watermark on any images that have been edited… That’s where this issue of catfishing is particularly complicated, because it comes back to that idea of impression management.

The main cases are the catfish cases where people assume completely different identities, whereas a little bit of impression management to me isn’t necessarily a bad thing. 

“If I was to put up an account under my name, but use another person’s photo – that’s inappropriate, and I think most people would agree that’s inappropriate. But where do we draw the line with photo editing, and lighting, and all those kinds of things?”

GG: When it comes to deliberately faking an identity, I struggle to see the benefit for the catfisher: surely in the long term, the truth must come out, at some point? Obviously there are different types of cases: if you’re just trying to get money out of people, after a certain time you may not care whether there’s a relationship breakdown. But I found this podcast series very interesting, as it felt like there was a connection on both sides. The mindset of this catfisher was pretty complex to understand. 

CH: Yeah, the “for love or money” side of things is an interesting distinction. A lot of these incidents do happen one-to-one. They’re not part of some bigger scam. And I think they highlight that we all share a fundamental need for connection. Ultimately, it’s like that: the truth will “out”, or the relationship will have to end in order to prevent the truth from coming out. But I think digitally that’s more straightforward than it would be in the old days. 

GG: Is “catfishing” a new type of scam then, thanks to almost every part of our lives moving online?

CH: Romance fraud has been about for centuries. People have done it through old-fashioned telephone ads, and you know, there was a Simpsons episode about 25-30 years ago where Bart pretended to be an ice hockey player and swapped letters with Mrs Krabappel, and that was essentially catfishing but in Simpsons’ form. 

It does tie into that thing: we all yearn for connection. It doesn’t have to be sexual; it can just be at a platonic level. And that’s what these platforms that enable that connection are absolutely phenomenal for. They give that connection to people who otherwise might not have it. But, at the same time, they are open to exploitation. 

GG: Going off of “what type of people make catfishers”, I wondered whether most are aware that what they are doing is immoral. Are catfishers necessarily bad people?

CH: I think there will be some who have malicious intent, that get their gratification from knowing they’re leading someone up the garden path. I do believe that the majority, though… It’s sometimes called a “double empathy” problem, where they don’t necessarily understand how the other person is feeling, and they themselves are also not necessarily forming the correct emotional response to the situation. So you’ve got this situation where a person a) doesn’t necessarily realise that they’re doing wrong, and b) isn’t necessarily capable of forming a response to that, and that’s difficult. 

“It’s sometimes called a ‘double empathy’ problem, where they don’t necessarily understand how the other person is feeling, and they themselves are also not necessarily forming the correct emotional response to the situation.”

It’s very hard to understand, and I think that’s one of the areas in which I think the research is lacking. We’ve probably not spoken enough to people who do it. It tends to be victim-focused, and rightly so. The people that have experienced really negative consequences do need support, they really do. But I think we need to understand more about the, particularly non-financial, catfishers. What is it about their makeup that makes them do what they do? And we need to hone in on where that line is, between what is acceptable, and what’s not. 

So again, they are not always bad people. Some people may have an, albeit misguided, altruism: “I am helping someone fulfil their need. Does it actually matter if I’m doing it as me, or as Jeff, or as Tony, or Sarah?” Because that’s the beauty of it; you can be anyone or anything. This may be a safe way for people to explore that side of themselves and to get that connection in a way that, legally or socially or physically, might be beyond them in the real world.

GG: So in an age of growing social media, especially given the pandemic where we weren’t left with any alternatives, is there any way to make these catfish “extinct”, so to speak? 

CH: I think what we are in a position to do is educate people and support people to become less likely to get caught in the trap. I don’t think you’re ever going to be able to stop people presenting as an alter-ego, or through an avatar, and I think part of that comes back to something I’ve mentioned earlier: safety online. So conversely, to be safe, we maybe can’t force people to present as themselves, because I keep thinking of things like the obsessive partner, or the abusive spouse, or former spouse, or family member. That, to me, is where I would be a bit scared of going down a line of “you must be completely identifiable, you must have metadata”, because if the wrong person gets hold of that information then we have a whole different set of problems. 

Maybe we can try and encourage a bit more empathy amongst users; this isn’t just about catfishing but it’s about cyber-abuse and cyber-bullying. If we make people aware of the impact of their actions, that might help. If we can equip people with the right skills about how to do their due diligence about who they’re talking to online, then that’ll help too. So yeah, I don’t think we’re ever going to “make the catfish extinct”, but hopefully we can try and mitigate their impact a wee bit. 

GG: What stood out to me about this case was the length of time – a decade – over which it occurred. Have you ever come across any other catfishing scandal that’s taken place over such a long period of time?

CH: Off the top of my head, no. I hope things like Sweet Bobby have made people who have experienced this come forward and ask for support and help, because it can be incredibly disruptive. People may have ended or spurned relationships, or made really quite dramatic life choices based on these catfishes, and that, to me, is really sad. 

I would say to any of your readers, if they’ve had any negative experiences like this, then please do ask for help. There’s no shame, seek support, and be reassured that this happens to lots and lots of people. 

You know, we mentioned something right at the start: this is all connected to one of our most primal needs, and that’s the need to be connected, the need to be liked, the need to be loved. If you’re going to hurt someone, that’s the way to do it. 

Only love can break your heart.


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