Catfishing On M'sian Tinder: Breaking Down the Psychology Behind Fake Online Personas

What is the psychological basis for catfishing? Why do people feel compelled to lie?

Cover image via Bangladesh News

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Disclaimer: We have changed Harith, Alia, and Nadia's names to protect their identity.

If you've been on Tinder, you most definitely have experienced coming across a fake profile (a catfish) while you were busy swiping left and right

For those of you who have never used dating apps, the term "catfish" might not be an Internet slang that you're used to.

Cambridge Dictionary defines catfish as someone who pretends to be someone else on social media to deceive or attract other people.

Though that definition seems straightforward, things are far more convoluted in Malaysia.

Locally, there is a growing community of people who catfish on dating platforms with the sole intention of hurting others. In some cases, their activities can even be considered criminal.

Image via VPNOverview

So, what is it about catfishing that piques this writer's interest?

Recently, a close friend of mine posted on his Instagram Stories about being catfished by a man who was purportedly a girl and successfully deceived him into submitting his nudes. Where and how did he meet this girl? Tinder!

Recognising how terrible it must have been for him to be conned into giving something so personal, I began to wonder, "Does this sh-t happen all the time?"

My curiosity prompted me to share an Instagram Story in which I asked my followers if they had ever been catfished on Tinder. Here are some of the responses I received.

Being tricked to masturbate with a man's "adik"

Harith DM'd me about 15 minutes after I posted the Instagram Story and asked if he could share his experience.

The following is his story.

He was only 18 years old and in the first year of his diploma studies when he joined Tinder. Harith downloaded Tinder after hearing from his buddies that the app could provide the "good time" that his youthful mind sorely desired.

The young student trusted his buddies and quickly found himself creating his profile. He eventually met a girl after a few minutes of swiping left and right and in his words, "Nothing seemed amiss."

According to Harith, things escalated pretty quickly and they decided to take things to Snapchat shortly after.

"She asked me to join a video call session on the app to layan her adik (little brother). At first, I was a bit weirded out, but I said sure."

The woman then invited Harith for that "good time" that Harith's friends mentioned before. Harith admitted his naivety and accepted the invitation right away.

However, while he was entertaining the girl, she didn’t actually have her camera turned on.

Image via nordvpn

After a while, Harith asked the girl to turn on her camera since she wanted him to layan (entertain) her adik so bad. The girl then agreed and turned on her camera.

To Harith's surprise, he saw a hard penis on his iPhone's screen and he immediately freaked out and dropped the call. He was then told that the adik in question, was the man's penis and that he only wanted a good time with Harith.

"It was so traumatising. I blocked him immediately and I couldn't leave my bedroom for three days straight," Harith concluded.

Do people catfish to experiment on their sexuality?

After listening to Harith's story, I received a few other confessions from my followers and most of them are from straight men who were tricked into a similar situation.

The tale is simple.

A man downloaded Tinder, saw a believable profile of a girl, the conversation was convincing, and she asked him to exchange raunchy photos or go on these sexy video call sessions.

I received about seven similar Stories and my curiosity grew.

I saw the pattern in these Stories and most of them were tricked by someone who pretended to be a gender that they don’t identify with and used photos of someone else. Why does this happen so often though?

According to Logo TV, a study from the University of Queensland found that the desire to explore one's sexuality or gender identity is one of the more prevalent reasons for catfishing.

What this means is that a man might pretend to be a woman online because they’re exploring a gender identity or sexuality that they haven't yet realised to be their true self.

But hey, it's important to remember that Malaysia is recognised as one of the most homophobic countries in the world.

Some of these catfishers also use a fake persona to keep themselves in the closet in order to protect themselves from potentially being disowned, bullied, and possibly even killed just for being who they truly are.

While some are exploring an identity that they've never discovered before, some catfishers are also downright denying their identity

Internalised homophobia and transphobia are also the reasons why one would choose to catfish.

Now, before you start commenting on how this article is attacking a minority group, I would like to clarify that this is just one of the many reasons why people catfish. The queer community isn't the only one catfishing. In fact, a large number of catfishers identify as heterosexuals.

People don't just catfish for their sexual desires and needs. Back in July, JUICE reported on the case of a 64-year-old Malaysian company director who was catfished and scammed by an "American" man. The woman spent around RM5.29 million on the man after believing he was the love of her life before realising that she was catfished.

Almost getting married to a catfish

Aside from money and sex, some catfishers deceive others because they are seeking genuine love. Another one of my followers messaged me and stated that she knew a catfish while she was in high school.

This is Nadia's story.

Nadia has known Alia since they were in high school. Alia didn't have many friends and was regularly teased because of her appearance.

She was known in her class as a wallflower, but one day she decided to show her friends images of her boyfriend. However, the man she was "dating" was a fully grown adult.

Alia proceeded to inform everyone that they were foolish to judge her by her appearance since an older guy would not want to marry an ugly high school student. 

Writer's note: if an adult man proposed to you while you were in high school, do not ever engage with him and please report to an adult immediately.

The young girl's school friends didn't really believe her, but one fine day, they discovered something about Alia that explained the whole situation better.

According to Nadia, Alia got into a large quarrel with her family.

Her boyfriend came to her house to propose to Alia (yes, this man was serious), and he was surprised to find that Alia was nothing like the photographs she posted on the Internet.

Embarrassed by the ordeal, the girl's mother apologised to her "boyfriend" and the relationship ended there.

But what actually goes on behind the mind of a catfish?

Image via Bangladesh News

After listening to Harith and Nadia’s stories, I decided to contact a psychologist to understand more about the psychological reasoning behind catfishing.

I interviewed Ms Yuhanis Mohamed, a psychologist working at the Social & Welfare Department in Perak. Ms Yuhanis also graduated from Alfred University in New York City where she majored in Psychology.

The following is our conversation

SAYS: Hi Dr, so the existence of fake profiles on Malaysian Tinder is prominent. Based on your knowledge, why do people choose to be someone else on dating sites?

MS YUHANIS: Some people suffer from attachment anxiety which comes from a strong fear of abandonment. This fear often leads to them portraying themselves as weak and helpless to receive attention, support, and love from others. People who have been emotionally hurt in the past due to others focusing on their bad qualities are more likely to misrepresent those qualities in the future due to the fear of being rejected again. Thus, in order to cover their insecurity, they choose to be someone else on dating sites.

Catfishers also tend to catfish to fit the strict criteria of their potential partner on dating apps. For example, a woman only wants to date someone with a particular height, body shape, or body weight, so to fit the criteria, a catfisher has to lie about who they really are.

SAYS: Do catfish feel an adrenaline rush when they are speaking as someone else? Do they also experience other psychological effects?

MS YUHANIS: When a catfisher is speaking to someone, they experience a mind full of thoughts as they keep on thinking about how to deceive their victim. This may cause anxiety, stress, and worry as they are lying and they might feel afraid that their identity may get exposed. Other than that, researchers have also found that the part of the brain, the amygdala, that would otherwise send out guilt signals, stops responding when a liar becomes a natural at deceiving, hence they don’t feel discomfort about lying.

SAYS: According to one of the accounts we gathered from our readers, a reader's personal buddy became addicted to catfishing. Her relatives and acquaintances saw that she finally came to think that the identity she developed was indeed herself.

How frequently does a catfish get so engrossed in their own character that they are unable to see that they are not the same person they portrayed?

MS YUHANIS: It is difficult to mention how frequently catfishers might get engrossed in their own character. However, based on my personal opinion, catfish may have a false belief in their own character if they've been catfishing for a long time. This is because if a catfisher has been using a fake identity for let’s say, months, they would adapt to this character and actually forget who they really are.

SAYS: Which age and sex group is the most affected by catfishing?

MS YUHANIS: Teenagers aged between 12 and 18 years old are prone to getting catfish as they tend to explore and try new things, including online dating. Erik Erikson's theory of psychosocial development also says that identity vs confusion happens in the teenage years.

This stage is very important for developing a sense of self, which will continue to affect a person's behaviour and growth for the rest of their lives. Due to their curiosity and desire to know who they really are, teenagers are often the victims of catfishing.

Other than that, unmarried middle-aged people are also likely to be affected by catfishing as they may feel pressured to get married. Regarding the sex group, both males and females are likely to be affected by catfishing as catfishing is common among both genders. However, women are actually more likely to be victims.

A recent study by Mosley et al. in 2020 suggests that both men and women perpetrate catfishing, although proportionally, men are more likely to do so. The study, published in Sexual & Relationship Therapy in 2020, found that men are more likely than women to be catfishers. It was also found that people with higher attachment anxiety are more likely to go catfishing and are more likely to be catfished than people with more secure attachment orientations.

So, what's the future like for online dating apps?

Image via thedailystar

While we've explored the seriousness of catfishing on dating apps, there's no certainty that it will go away anytime soon. Because there is no law protecting Malaysians from catfishing, we are basically on our own.

Regular dating app users are aware of how to spot a catfish account, but if you're new to the online dating world, remember to stay guarded and avoid sending intimate or private information about yourself.

In the meantime, stay safe out there and always ask for a selfie with three fingers up from anyone you're chatting with online to avoid being scammed.

If you've had a horrible experience on dating apps, you're not alone. Check out these stories shared by fellow Malaysians: