Catfishing. The Dark Psychology Behind This Deceptive Online Behavior


Catfishing refers to the act of creating a false online identity or persona in order to deceive someone, often for the purposes of starting a relationship. The term was popularized by the 2010 documentary film Catfish and later an MTV series of the same name, which followed people investigating their online romantic relationships (

Catfishing involves using someone else’s photos and biographical information, or fully fabricating an identity, to misrepresent oneself online. Catfishers typically pursue emotionally intimate relationships, seeking attention, money, or even revenge. Their victims are led to believe they are talking to a real person when in fact that person does not exist or is completely misrepresented. Catfishing violates trust and can cause psychological harm through manipulative lies and abuse (

This article will provide an overview of catfishing, including motivations behind it, psychological factors, and potential legal consequences. It will also offer guidance on how to avoid being catfished and what to do if you are a victim.

Prevalence of Catfishing

Catfishing has become increasingly common, especially among younger internet users. According to a survey by Zipdo, in 2021 18% of internet users between the ages of 16-24 reported experiencing catfishing [1]. The United States alone accounts for 62% of all reported catfishing cases globally [1]. Statistics show that catfishing scams in the US cost an average of $132.5 million per quarter in 2022, an 11.2% increase from 2021 [2]. Alaska has the highest number of catfishing victims per capita at 11.5 per 100,000 residents. Alaskan residents also reported losing $1 million in 2018 due to catfishing scams [3]. As social media use continues to grow, catfishing is likely to increase in prevalence as well.

Motivations for Catfishing

There are a variety of reasons why someone may engage in catfishing behavior. Some of the most common motivations include:

Loneliness – Catfishing can provide a way for lonely individuals to find friendship, companionship and feel connected to others online. Pretending to be someone else allows them to overcome social anxieties and insecurities.

Attention Seeking – Catfishing enables people to gain validation, admiration and interest from others that they may not experience in real life. The false persona allows them to fulfill unmet needs for attention.

Romance – People sometimes catfish to find relationships or romantic partners online. They may feel insecure about themselves or think creating an alter ego will help them find love.

Escape – Catfishing can provide an escape from real life problems or serve as a coping mechanism. The fictional identity allows temporary relief from struggles with self-esteem, mental health, disabilities or other issues.

Financial Gain – In some cases, catfishers seek to defraud people out of money. They may ask for gifts, loans or bank details under false pretenses.

Revenge – Individuals who have been rejected or hurt emotionally may catfish to get back at a previous partner or humiliate someone who has wronged them.

Experimentation – For some, catfishing starts out as experimenting with a different personality online. But it can spiral out of control over time.

Overall, catfishing is often driven by unfulfilled emotional and psychological needs. While the motivations vary, deception and pretending to be someone else allows catfishers to gain something they feel is missing in real life.

Psychological Factors

Research indicates certain psychological traits are more common among people who engage in catfishing. According to a 2023 study from Nottingham Trent University and the University of Nottingham, catfishers tend to display higher levels of the so-called “dark tetrad” of personality traits. This includes psychopathy, Machiavellianism, narcissism, and sadism.

Specifically, the study found catfishers exhibit more psychopathic tendencies like being manipulative, as well as higher narcissism which involves an inflated sense of self-worth and need for attention. They also display increased sadism meaning they enjoy causing harm or distress to others.

In addition, catfishers often suffer from low self-esteem, loneliness, or emptiness and create fake identities to fulfill unmet emotional needs. Some may have anxiety, depression, or other mental health issues impacting their actions. Catfishing provides them an escape from real-life problems and a way to create an idealized persona.

Mental Illnesses

Though catfishing itself is not classified as a mental illness, some underlying mental health conditions may contribute to someone’s motivation to catfish others. According to research, certain personality disorders and mental illnesses tend to be more prevalent among catfishers.

One mental illness that has been linked to catfishing is borderline personality disorder (BPD). Those with BPD often struggle with unstable personal relationships and issues with identity and self-image. To fill these voids, some with BPD create fake personas and relationships online. Catfishing can provide them with the intimacy and validation they crave but have difficulty finding in real life (

Other mental health conditions tied to higher rates of catfishing include narcissistic personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, and factitious disorder. In many cases, the root cause stems from problematic behaviors like compulsive lying, manipulation, and seeking attention or sympathy from others.

It’s important to note that while certain mental illnesses may motivate catfishing in some individuals, they are not the direct cause. Most people with mental health issues do not catfish others. Evaluating each case individually is necessary to understand what drives any given catfisher’s behavior.

Catfishing and Relationships

Catfishing can have a profoundly negative impact on romantic relationships and friendships. When someone finds out they have been catfished, it can lead to serious emotional trauma and trust issues. According to BulliesOut, catfishing victims often experience damage to their self-esteem and confidence. The lies and deception involved in catfishing can make it extremely difficult for victims to trust others again.

In romantic relationships, catfishing often leads to feelings of betrayal, heartbreak, and grief over the loss of what victims thought was real love. A catfish may manipulate someone’s emotions and take advantage of their vulnerabilities. According to PsychCentral, catfishing can create anxiety, depression, and uncertainty about relationships. Victims may develop deep insecurities and have trouble connecting authentically with future partners.

Catfishing can also fracture friendships. When the catfish is revealed to be someone completely different than expected, victims feel shocked and deceived. They can no longer trust that person or feel close to them. Victims may isolate themselves and have difficulty making new friends, fearing they will be deceived again.

In summary, catfishing erodes trust, harms self-esteem, and can leave victims with lasting relationship trauma. The betrayal involved makes it extremely challenging to rebuild connections and intimacy. Therapeutic support is often needed to process the emotional damage. With help, victims can heal and develop skills to forge healthy relationships again.

Legal Consequences

While catfishing itself is not illegal in most states, certain actions associated with catfishing may be considered criminal fraud or identity theft. For example, if someone uses a fake identity to trick someone else into sending them money or private information, they could face charges like wire fraud, computer fraud, or obtaining money under false pretenses (1).

Catfishers who use someone else’s name, photos or other personal information without consent could also face identity theft charges, which can carry hefty penalties. According to federal law, the maximum sentence for aggravated identity theft is two years in prison (2).

In addition, victims of romance scams or other catfishing schemes may be able to pursue civil lawsuits against their catfisher for intentional infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy, or defamation if the catfisher spread lies that damaged their reputation (3).

Overall, while innocently pretending to be someone else online is not illegal, catfishers who use deception for financial gain or to harm others may face serious criminal and civil consequences.




Avoiding Catfishing

With the rise of online dating and social media, catfishing has become increasingly common. However, there are steps you can take to avoid falling victim to a catfisher:

Be wary of profiles with too-good-to-be-true details or with pictures that look professionally done or overly edited (1). Examine photos closely for signs of editing and inconsistencies. Do a reverse image search on the profile pictures to see if they show up elsewhere online (2).

Take the time to get to know someone before sharing personal information or making plans to meet in person. Ask lots of questions and look for inconsistencies or vagueness in their responses (3). Video chat to verify appearance and identity early on (1).

Do outside research by looking up the person’s name, username, email or phone number. Catfishers often reuse personal details across multiple fake accounts (4). Be extra cautious when connecting with people exclusively online who you’ve never met in person.

Listen to your instincts. If something feels off or too good to be true, proceed slowly and keep looking for warning signs. It’s better to end communication early than become emotionally invested in a fictional relationship (5).

Tell friends and family about the new online connection so they can provide an outside perspective and support. Having others aware of the situation can help spot red flags (3).

With vigilance and by trusting your judgment, you can avoid manipulated relationships and entanglements with catfishers. Take it slowly and don’t ignore any behaviors or details that appear suspect or dishonest.

Resources for Victims

If you believe you are the victim of being catfished, there are resources available to help you cope and potentially take action against the perpetrator:

Online Support Groups – There are many online forums and groups dedicated to supporting victims of catfishing, such as the subreddit r/catfish on Reddit and support groups on Facebook.

Reporting to Authorities – Depending on the circumstances, you may be able to file a report with local law enforcement or the FBI’s Internet Crime Complaint Center. This can help in recovering lost funds or holding the catfisher accountable.

Professional Counseling – Speaking with a therapist or counselor can help process feelings of betrayal, grief, anger, and confusion that often accompany catfishing victimization. They can provide coping strategies.

Educational Resources – There are many articles and videos available to help explain what catfishing is, how to spot signs of it, and how to avoid falling victim in the future. Understanding the motivations behind catfishing can aid recovery.

Victim Advocacy Organizations – Groups like Working to Halt Online Abuse offer legal resources, counseling referrals, and advocacy to assist victims of online harassment and abuse.

Supportive Friends and Family – Don’t go through this alone. Speak to trusted friends and family who can provide emotional support and encouragement during this difficult experience.


In summary, catfishing involves creating a fictional online identity in order to deceive someone. While catfishing itself is not a diagnosable mental illness, some underlying mental health conditions may contribute to this behavior in certain individuals. Specifically, those with narcissistic, antisocial or borderline personality disorders often exhibit manipulative behaviors and a lack of empathy that could motivate catfishing. However, more research is needed to fully understand the psychology behind this phenomenon. The takeaway is that catfishing stems from a complex interplay of motivations, personality factors and mental health issues for certain individuals. If you suspect you have fallen victim to a catfish, know that help and support are available to process this violation of trust.

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