Searching for love on the Internet may be a viable option in today's technological age, but the feeling of safety that a computer screen offers could be misleading.
The recent media sensation, which was created by Notre Dame football player Manti Te'o's three-year relationship with hoaxer Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, put the word "catfish" in the mouths of reporters nationwide. "Catfish," a term coined after the release of a documentary by the same name in 2010, is defined by the victimization of a person who was deceived by someone they met via an Internet dating medium. In Te'o's case, Tuiasosopo, a 22-year-old man, created a fake persona named Lennay Kekua, a 22-year-old female Stanford University student, that he used to lure the football player into an online romance. Tuiasosopo even went as far as creating a female voice to hold phone conversations with Te'o, who had no idea that his love interest was a man.
Frank Corapi, assistant professor of psychology at JCC, attributes many of the issues that arise from Internet dating to fundamental attribution error.
"When I hear about something that happens to you I don't know any of the situational factors, so I blame it on you," said Corapi. "Once I become aware of situational factors, now I have have the opportunity to place less blame on you."
Corapi thought it would be a good topic to discuss in class. So, he brought Te'o's story to the attention of his students.
"I asked them what they thought about it and how many of them felt that Te'o was innocent in this whole thing - and very few did," said Corapi. " So, then I asked them if it was possible that more information would come to light that could change their mind. Once the so-called perpetrator of this hoax came out we talked about it again, and a number of them had now moved away from blaming Te'o."
According to Tom Watkins, writer for CNN, one piece of information that came to light when Tuiasosopo was interviewed by Phil McGraw, host of the "Dr. Phil" show, was that, "The ruse had its roots in sexual abuse he endured from someone close to his family that began when he was 12 years of age." However, the motivation for catfishers to create such elaborate hoaxes can stem from a wide variety of reasons. The Better Business Bureau reports that while the purpose for which someone creates a false identity varies, the most common progression of the scam is the development of a relationship in hopes that the scammer will be able to ask for and receive money. Yet, Corapi believes another reason someone may go so far is to create an exciting fantasy.
"It's a way of creating a much more interesting reality and in many ways these are very real relationships," said Corapi. "Even though you are creating a persona that's not you, the interaction, gratification, feelings of caring and sharing, those are all very real feelings. So, it's a way for me to create an alternate reality to compensate for the deficiencies in my current reality. In the original documentary 'Catfish,' that is exactly what was happening. It was a very kind woman who created a fake persona. If you looked at her life, and what she had to deal with, you could certainly understand that this gave her a lot to look forward to. It was exciting, she felt alive, wanted and she felt a kindred spirit as well as some intimacy."
When two people become intimate, they are likely to have a greater tendency to disclose personal information about themselves. Yet, Corapi believes that people disclose much more in online relationships than they do in live relationships.
"The anonymity and safety of it allows them to disclose much more and much sooner," said Corapi. "They certainly embellish and fabricate, but not as much as people might think. Online there are so many people out there that I can find somebody that is like a kindred spirit. And, if I don't find one, it's not like being rejected in live relationships."
Corapi's take on why Te'o perpetuated the lie about his relationship with Tuiasosopo for so long is that it is uncharacteristic for a star football player to have a long-term relationship with someone whom he had never met. So, if one believes that they can find true love in the digital world, Corapi recommends taking one simple measure of protection - meeting in person.
There should come a time in an online romance when it is time to take the relationship further than behind the safety of a computer screen. If an offer is extended to meet a potential love interest, and the offer is rejected or avoided, it should serve as a huge red flag, said Corapi.
According to Corapi, one in five relationships today are formed online, and that number is still increasing. So, he believes that it is a viable means to finding a successful relationship. But, his suggestion to those who use an Internet dating medium to find the perfect match is to not base so much off someone's profile, but rather to use it as an icebreaker.
"The problem is that I don't think most people know who would be a good match for them," said Corapi. "So, I would say to move away from that profile and be a little bit more open to meet people rather quickly and then judge it there. Use it more as a way to get a relationship off the ground in terms of a meeting, rather than cultivate something and then meet when you already feel like you're involved."
In a survey given to 20 JCC students from Corapi's social psychology class, none reported that they utilize Internet dating mediums and further reported that they had not been involved in a catfishing hoax as a victim or perpetrator. All of the students felt that meeting someone in person is the preferred method to finding a date. Twenty-five percent reported that they felt that someone they met personally took advantage of them in a similar nature to the way in which people are lied to online. Twenty percent reported that they would practice precaution if they were to ever choose to utilize Internet dating mediums as a result of Te'o's catfishing hoax.
Katelyn Armstrong, of Jamestown, who majors in psychology, said that she prefers not to use Internet dating mediums because, "I like in-person experiences, it's more fun and exciting. You also want to have a great story to tell your grandkids - we met online is not a good story,"
A student who chose to remain anonymous stated, "I think Internet dating is strange and unnatural. You can't build a relationship through a machine."
Tabetha Bedner, a psychology major, also felt it isn't a good idea to use Internet dating mediums.
"You can fall in love online, but when you meet the person, they might be completely different in real life," said Bedner.
Kim Bean, of Panama, who majors in psychology, said that for her physical contact is an important part of deciding whether to date someone.
"Being attracted to someone physically is essential," said Bean.
Amanda Hodges, of Gerry, who majors in psychology, believes it is just as easy for people to exclude information face to face as it is online.
"Though the Internet is a good way to be bold and honest with your feelings behind a keyboard," said Hodges. "There is a lack of information you receive without body language."