CHICAGO — It started out a stunner: The Heisman Trophy runner-up had told heartbreaking stories about a dead girlfriend who didn’t exist. Then it became unreal: The All-American linebacker said he had been duped, and theirs was a relationship that existed only in phone calls and Internet chats.
The reaction was predictable: Unbelievable. Couldn’t happen.
Yet even people who really ought to know better say what Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o says happened to him has happened to them, and they believe it happens far more often than people care to admit.
“If we shake the tree, we would find hundreds of thousands of people falling out of the tree who are experiencing something like this,” said Robert Epstein, a senior research psychologist at the California-based American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology.
It’s just human nature, Epstein said, something known formally by psychologists as “confirmation bias.” We watch the news that matches our political beliefs. We discount viewpoints we don’t like. We ignore good advice and miss red flags, so we can continue believing in something we want to be true….
For a young woman in Chicago, it started last February when a potential love interest responded to a personal ad she’d posted in the Craigslist “W4M” section. They communicated for several months online, first by email, and then instant messaging and then online voice chat.
She sent him her photo. He delayed sending his, again and again, and put off meeting in person. He wasn’t ready, he told her. It bothered her, but she was so taken with the ease and intimacy of their long, daily conversations — about their lives and their jobs, their family and friends, even sex.
After this went on for eight months, he abruptly deleted his email and Yahoo Messenger accounts, the only means she’d had to reach him. She didn’t even know his last name and wouldn’t know him if he passed her on the street.
“It all sounds ridiculous when you’re not immersed in the situation, but when you are, it’s incredibly easy to get sucked in and not want out,” said the 23-year-old, a young professional who shared her story on the condition of anonymity, still hesitant to admit how truly heartbroken she was over a person she’d never met in person.