The Psychology behind the Te’o Scandal

In an article reported on the International Business Times website, the psychology behind the strange story of the Manti Te’o girlfriend saga is explored. In case you missed it, on Wednesday, it was revealed that the Notre Dame linebacker’s late girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, apparently never existed but was rather part of an elaborate internet hoax. While the news is abuzz with speculation as to whether Te’o was part of the hoax or is truly an innocent victim, one thing is for sure: popular media failed to catch onto the hoax for months.

In her piece, Roxanne Palmer explores two theories in psychology as to how a hoax like this may be advanced: idealization and confirmation bias. Frequently, people in online relationships are in danger of being conned because of their high romantic beliefs. These beliefs can lead them to idealize their idea of a romantic partner and ignore the warning signs that trouble could be brewing. Online romance scams are nothing new. In 2011, the Internet Crime Complaint Center (ICCC) estimated that victims of online dating scams lost an average of $8,900.00 each to frauds posing as romantic interests. Was Te’o merely a victim of a cold cyber scam or is there more to the story?

In addition to examining Te’o’s involvement, many are questioning how the media did not pick up on the irregularities in the Te’o story for months. The answer, according to Palmer, may lie in a theory known as confirmation bias. The theory explains how people believe and see what they want to see when they have a particular attitude towards something. In fact, people may ignore evidence that could tend to change their mind if they experience confirmation bias. With Manti Te’o being one of 2012’s collegiate sweethearts, is it possible the major news outlets simply did think to perform even the most basic of fact checks? Certainly, his rise to greatness in leading Notre Dame the BCS Championship game set the backdrop for the media’s seeming love affair with him. While this story of fact-checking gone wrong will not likely gain the significance of the Benghazi attacks anytime soon, it will surely be one for the history books no matter how it plays out over the coming weeks.