Manti Te'o Girlfriend Hoax: The Psychology Behind Romance Scams And Media Laziness

 @rpalmerscience
on January 17 2013 1:56 PM
Manti Te'o
Notre Dame inside linebacker Manti Te'o recorded 111 tackles and seven interceptions last season, and could go in the first round of the 2013 NFL Draft. thefinalhorn.wordpress.com

The revelation by Deadspin that Notre Dame footballer Manti Te’o’s supposedly late girlfriend is a work of fiction may prompt the question: How did anyone believe this story in the first place?

Though most of us would like to believe that we can see through such scams, whether we’re targeted by them or reporting on them, it’s easy for the brain to be swayed. For possible explanations behind the behaviors of the players involved in this story, we can turn to psychology.

Manti Te’o: Idealization

Notre Dame and the linebacker’s family say that Te’o wasn’t in on the scam, which is hard to square with media stories about how he and “Lennay Kekua” met in person first. (The party line from Notre Dame is that Te’o and Kekua’s relationship was entirely virtual, a disclosure made only after Deadspin reported on her nonexistence.)

If Te’o was the victim of a kind of “catfish” scam, he wouldn’t be the first. And he certainly may come off easier than other victims that have been bankrupted by fake girlfriends and boyfriends.

University of Leicester psychologist Monica Whitty spent a year studying online dating romance scams, and her team’s report provides some insights to the perils of love in the time of Twitter.

Whitty and her team found that people who possessed high romantic beliefs were more likely to be victimized, particularly those people that tend to idealize their romantic partners.

Idealization tends to lead to ignoring signs of trouble. A person that puts their lover on a pedestal can be blind to the ugly details. If doubts arise, the idealizing party can invent rationalizations for the seeming incongruities -- a defense mechanism that psychologists call “minimization.”

Many of the victims the psychologists interviewed find themselves with empty wallets in addition to broken hearts. The Internet Crime Complaint Center, a joint effort of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the National White Collar Crime Center, reported that victims in the U.S. lost an average of $8,900 to online romance scams in 2011.

But even when the truth shatters the illusion, the victim of a “catfish” hoax may still have trouble letting go.

“Victims found it very difficult to let go of the relationship and visualize that it was not real even when they believed they had been scammed,” Whitty’s team wrote. “Victims went through the stages of grieving after learning they had been scammed, and those in denial were vulnerable to a second wave of the scam.”

Media: Confirmation Bias

“How exactly does every major sports media organization in the United States repackage a story that turns out to be wholly false?” Atlantic writer Jake Simpson asked, with palpable frustration. “Budgets are stretched, but do major magazines not even fact-check their cover stories?”

The answer may lie in confirmation bias, where people ignore evidence that contradicts a belief -- or as seen in this case, don’t even look for facts that could challenge their attitude toward something.

Confirmation bias tends to flourish in the soil of entrenched belief and emotional attachment, and the sports media had already become invested in the narrative of Te’o’s rise.

“Manti Te’o was a sports hero, and his standout play this year demanded the details to flesh out that storyline,” Slate writer Josh Leven wrote.

This kind of collective media adherence to the narrative may be why it took an outsider outlet like Deadspin to break the story that neither Sports Illustrated nor the New York Times could uncover. Though sometimes excoriated for their tabloid-style viciousness, Gawker Media writers specialize in iconoclasm, less pushing idols off their pedestals so much as gleefully chucking them into the snake pit.

On Wednesday, former Gawker writer and current Atlantic scribe Richard Lawson wrote about how Gawker’s fearlessness and obstinence is a much-needed shot in the arm to a media industry often steeped in deference to powerful figures.

“This Notre Dame thing, it’s completely telling that all major sports outlets completely dropped the ball on it,” Lawson said. “Just totally sh**ted the bed on doing even the most minor bit of digging required to show that some grand washed-over, soft-focus, readily accepted media yarn was a complete fabrication.”

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