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.
People speculated he must be a straight-laced Mormon, naive and unfamiliar with modern-day dating hazards. Or he must be part of an elaborate hoax designed to bolster his image. Because no big-time college football player, beloved on campus and adored by millions, could have a girlfriend he’s never ... actually ... met.
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.
In Epstein’s case, it was believing he’d made a real connection with an attractive Russian woman named Ivana he met online. In fact, she was nothing more than a computer bot someone had set up to respond to queries on an online dating site.
“A lot of people still make fun of me,” he said.