Catfish: Psychology of Online Deception

Social media has made it increasingly easier to facilitate a crisis of identity. This common practice seems to have become synonymous with social media. The term that describes a person who misleads another online for the means of facilitating online relationships is called “catfish“. The second form of online facilitated identity confusion involves someone who pretends to be of a gender which they are not.

Gender Identity Confusion

Taking on the persona of a gender in which you are not by means of social media is a more common practice than you would think. Specifically speaking, this is the practice of falsely identifying one’s gender to others via social media. For some this is simply a means to mislead others for some personal gain or prank. For others, however, this is a symptom of gender identity confusion. Gender identity confusion is a state or condition of disorientation and role confusion occurring as a result of conflicting internal and external experiences, pressures, and expectations and often producing acute anxiety.

Gender identity confusion can more easily be described as confusion between the biological make-up of a human being and that human being’s gender perspective. The male person tends to express himself socially as feminine. The female person tends to express herself with more masculinity. In social media this can be an outlet for the person experiencing gender identity confusion to act out these tendencies in a potentially unhealthy manner. The role confusion and disorientation is further facilitated when others are inadvertently drawn into a fantasy. We describe this behavior as potentially harmful not only to the perpetrator but also to those misled. When the charade is brought into the open it can result in emotional pain and disappointment for both parties.

Identity Misrepresentation

Unlike gender identity confusion, identity misrepresentation does not involve misleading others as to one’s gender. This involves portraying oneself as a totally different person to another online. This includes creating a public profile bearing someone else’s likeness and identity. The persona can be totally fictitious but is more often the identity of someone the perpetrator knows. In psychology, this is called factitious disorder.

In cases of identity misrepresentation mothers have taken on the persona of their daughters to facilitate a relationship with the younger male online or vice versa. It is more common for perpetrators to inherit the persona of someone they know to more easily facilitate the charade.

It is not believed those that perpetrated this misleading of others online do so out of malicious intent, although sometimes this is the case. It is believed in both scenarios that the perpetrator is seeking acceptance by others in a way which they believe they could not achieve personally.

Those who have been misled online in this manner often feel betrayed, humiliated and the subject if someone’s practical joke. However, upon closer inspection they often find the one who misled them suffers from deep emotional pain.


In both scenarios, those experiencing gender identity confusion and those perpetrating identity misrepresentation require counseling to address their emotional issues. These people should not necessarily feel shame for how they are. They may require help coming to terms and accepting who they are. The person experiencing gender identity confusion may need counseling to become comfortable with their gender identity. Those who feel they must misrepresent themselves in order to gain affection from others require counseling to overcome their feelings of self consciousness.

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