The positive reinforcement of business-run catfishing

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Reading this freely available Ars Technica article “This is catfishing on an industrial scale” (Cole &, 2023) left me feeling like I was watching a train wreck in slow motion. Each paragraph left me more horrified than the last. Frankly, there is a lot of psychology in this article, but for the purpose of this blog post, let’s talk about who is being reinforced for and with what.

I learned in the article that some dating sites are not what they seem. After being hired by one dating site, “Liam was asked to adopt fake online personas—known as ‘virtuals’—in order to chat to customers, most of them men looking for relationships or casual sex. Using detailed profiles of customers and well-crafted virtuals, Liam was expected to lure people into paying, message by message, for conversations with fictional characters” (Cole &, 2023). Of course, the customers think they are interacting with a real person, not a fictional character.

Each virtual has a dossier as does each customer. Every two minutes, a different employee takes over the virtual persona and continues the chat. When the employee switches to a new virtual, the employee scans the dossiers of both the virtual and the customer as well as recent messages. This helps the employee know how best to respond to the customer’s latest message. The entire goal is to get the customer to send just one more message.

Why the switch every two minutes? The Ars Technica article does not address this, but it must be to keep the employees from getting attached to customers and to keep the customers from getting attached to a real person.

Customers pay about 2 euros to send a message to the virtual—who, again, they believe is a real person.

The employees get paid a mere 2 euros/hour. At today’s exchange rate, that is US$2.14. Since that is a very low pay rate for someone, say, in the U.S., such employees may sublet. For example, if I were hired by such a company at €2/hour, I could hire someone who lives somewhere where €0.80/hour is a decent enough wage to do my job for me. While the remaining €1.20/hour is not much to someone living in the U.S., it’s more than nothing, and, frankly, it’s not a bad wage for the amount of work required—which is nothing. The Ars Technica article does point out, “While illegal and not endorsed by the customer service companies, black market subletting is common in the industry” (Cole &, 2023). To sum up the experience of one subletter, “While he chats, he pretends to be the owner of the account, who is pretending to be a woman in the United States, who is pretending to be hundreds of virtual women” (Cole &, 2023).

Liam, who no longer works for this company, had “seen users talking to the virtuals about their heaviest emotional concerns: ‘one was talking about suicide and how the fake woman had saved him from it, now that he’d found love.’ Liam had seen marriage proposals from users, some who had been on there as long as four and a half years. ‘And how can you blame them,’ says Liam, ‘when the system is doing its best to get to know you as well as it can?’” (Cole &, 2023).

In this industry, there is a whole bunch of positive reinforcement going on. If you’d like, summarize the article for your students, and then provide examples of positive reinforcement.

Or if you’d like to use this as a launch point for discussion, ask your students to read the Ars Technica article “This is catfishing on an industrial scale” (Cole &, 2023). Next, ask whose behavior is being positively reinforced and with what. We have the customers who keep coming back, we have the owners of the company who keep running this service, we have the official employees, and we have the sublet employees. And then there are Liam and another employee, Alice, who no longer work for the company. For them, was the positive reinforcement too little to outweigh the positive punishment that came with #$%&ing* with people’s feelings?

Lastly, what does it say about how lonely people must feel that they turn to such sites in the first place?


*The article does use the f-word. If that’s an issue with your student population, consider sharing a redacted article instead.



Cole, L. & (2023, May 17). This is catfishing on an industrial scale. Ars Technica.


About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.