How Manti Te’o Could Have Fallen in Love with Someone He Never Met

The brain chemistry and psychology behind falling in love with an online fiction.

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Te'o isn't the only person to have fallen in love with someone he'd never met.

In what must be the most jaw-dropping sports story to emerge in a week of jaw-dropping sports stories (hello, OprahLance!), it emerges that star Notre Dame footballer Manti Te’o had a girlfriend who never existed. That would not be much of a tale—who hasn’t had at least one fake dalliance?— except that Te’o, a probable first round pick in the NFL draft in April, became famous when his grandmother and that girlfriend were said to have died in the same 24 hour period in September and he still went out and left nothing on the field for the fighting Irish.

“I developed an emotional relationship with a woman I met online,” Te’o said in a statement. “We maintained what I thought to be an authentic relationship by communicating frequently online and on the phone, and I grew to care deeply about her.” Romantic stories of their ill-fated relationship were woven into many profiles about the rising sports star—as she was dying of leukemia, his voice over the phone would improve her vital signs, she’d send him letters timed to arrive before every game.

As of this writing, it’s unclear whether Te’o is the victim of an elaborate ruse or whether he is complicit in a plot to hoodwink the media. There are many questions still to be addressed, but one of the most fascinating is whether it’s possible to really be in love with someone you’ve never met.

The answer, surprisingly, is yes, or at least to believe you are. History and literature are, after all, full of examples of star-crossed lovers who communicate by letters or rarely see each other. Part of the romance is that the love is unfulfilled. Some of the great love stories of yore (remember Heloise and Abelard)—were conducted almost entirely by letters. Why not email, Twitter or IM?

(MORE: The Manti Te’o Hoax: 6 Questions About the ‘Fake’ Girlfriend That Has the Sports World Reeling)

As brain activity goes, love is pretty complicated, involving a mix of chemical, cognitive and goal-directed behavioral processes. The signature characteristic of being in love, however, is that it feels good—one of the neurotransmitters it activates is dopamine, which is the chemical associated with rewards. (Cocaine acts directly on the dopamine system). So the brain likes being in love. And when the brain likes something, some of its other functions— like reasoning or alertness to warning signals—might get overlooked.

“Love is a powerful mental state that has different manifestations, such as euphoria, loss of appetite, hyperactivity, delay of the onset of fatigue and loss of self-control,” says Stephanie Cacioppo, an associate professor at the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience at the University of Chicago. “People who are in love with love rather than with the person would read their [online] messages as they want them to be, rather than as they really are.” In other words, love may not be blind, but it can lose perspective.

In some ways, the fact that the relationship played out entirely in the digital realm makes falling in love —or at least believing you’re in love—more likely. “Humans have an innate sincerity detector,” says Barbara L. Frederickson, a psychology professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and author of the soon to be released book Love 2.0, “but only if we make eye contact.” Our brains and bodies detect authenticity by simulating what’s going on in the other person’s face and posture. When they cannot do this, communication can easily be misunderstood. The connections can feel very real, when in fact, they’re not.

“In retrospect, I obviously should have been more cautious,” said Te’o in his statement. “If anything good comes of this, I hope it is that others will be far more guarded when they engage with people online than I was.” But falling in love with someone online is quite common —and not always risky. “A growing body of research from the 1980s shows that people who first meet online (or in the dark) feel happier and more satisfied with their partner than people who first meet face-to-face,” says Cacioppo.

(MORE: Timeline of a Hoax: Four Years in the Life of Manti Te’o’s ‘Fake’ Relationship)

This is because they get to disclose their inner qualities and discover the other person’s early on in the relationship. One theory of love suggests that it has a component of what’s known as “self-expansion” to it; the beloved is seen as a person’s other half. “When you realize you share lots of values and interests with them, you feel you are more connected with them,” says Cacioppo. That process is sped up online, partly because it’s not hampered by the distraction of physical attraction, or lack thereof. Moreover, since in this case, the girlfriend had no real personality, she could be whatever Te’o wanted and rapidly become a dream that was too good to wake up from, even when alarm bells started ringing.

Certainly Te’o’s adoration seemed genuine to those around him. “Every single thing about this, until that day in the first week of December, was real to Manti,”said Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick at a press conference in support of Te’o.”There was no suspicion it wasn’t. No belief it might not be. The pain was real. The grief was real. The affection was real. That’s the nature of this sad, cruel game.”

Te’o, a devout Mormon, may have been relatively inexperienced about the way relationships feel, and sincerely believed he was in love, but experts have come to believe that genuine love is a double act. “We talk about emotions as if they belong to one person—his anger, her love,” says Frederickson, “But science is beginning to suggest that love requires two people—it’s a positivity that resonates between two people. He can have had strong emotions, but they need to be shared.”

It sounds completely bizarre to claim a woman you have never met is your girlfriend, but, especially in a tech-saturated generation, it’s not impossible. Donna Freitas, whose forthcoming book The End Of Sex examines how college students find love and intimacy, suggests that young people’s reliance on technology has meant that they sometimes overlook the appeal of bodily presence. “Bodies have become less important to them, especially in terms of relationship,” she says, noting how often college students will stand around in a group but all be texting or communicating with people who are not there. “It’s much more natural for them to not worry about interacting with their bodies.” Even, it seems when it comes to love.

MORE: As Hawaii Frets Over Manti Te’o, Locals Remember a Devoted Father-Son Team


“It has been a few month since my husband left home and every time we have the opportunity to talk we always argue. I contacted for a spell to restore my marriage. The following week my husband call me and asked for forgiveness for everything that he had done in the past. This weekend we are going to spend it together with our children to celebrate our anniversary I have faith in Dr Lawrence that He was going to save my marriage. Trust in Him; He has the last word in everything. thanks to !”


The really sad thing here is how quickly people voiced the idea that Teo was making it up. It made me sad at the volumes reached by congregated voices to the 'undeniable truth' that he was a part of this hoax. That was until I realised that I was doing the opposite. You see, I wanted this to be real. I was desperate for the hoax to actually be a hoax because I needed that. Sometimes I feel like we are drowning in a sea of heart-felt apologies brought directly to us by those that propose to pay the most for the 'truth'. Sports fans would feel justified to think that they can't swing a cat over their heads nowadays without hitting a talk-show host willing to air the tears and fears of the latest 'hero' to have fallen off of the wagon. I really wanted this to be real. I hate assuming guilt simply because someone is appearing on Oprah. Poor me... poor Teo... poor us.


Its very simple, really.   A GAY GUY was interested in Teo and created this fake "girl", establishing the bogus friendship which evolved into a "girl"friend/boyfriend internet affair.  It is not unusual for some gay guys to fake being a girl in chat rooms and on other NONVISUAL forms of internet communication (clearly they would have to make up some excuse as to why they could not connect via Skype or other means of seeing one another while chatting...which should make anyone suspicious these days as most laptops have built-in cameras). It is also possible to enhance the fake persona via telephone by using one of those voice changing devices so that while speaking with a male voice the other party hears a female fake voice (and vice versa). Thus, you have a naive young man being hoodwinked by another guy into establish a relationship, which is soon exploited by veering into SEXchat...thus is "LOVE" established now a days.  FAKE love is the easiest thing to foment with these tools. Easier than faking love in the flesh.  My advise to anyone developing online relationships:  Insist on live video chat with your "girlfriend". If "she" resists, then you should end your "relationship" and find another one (within 24 hours, guaranteed). I call it the "Skype Test".  


A little confused.  How did he talk to someone who didn't exist?  No doubt, you could be fooled by having someone misrepresent themselves in emails but who was the person he spoke to?  In watching this young man discuss "his love" I am forced to believe he has some serious problems. 


@AlexVallas   It seems that the GUY who was representing himself as a GIRL, got a friend or relative to talk on the phone. Or he could have used one of those voice modulators or whatever they are called which can turn a male voice into a female voice at the other end.  


 "As of this writing, it’s unclear whether Te’o is the victim of an elaborate ruse or whether he is complicit in a plot to hoodwink the media"

The guy makes himself look like a giant loser, just to make the media look bad? I don't even know why you are covering this, probably because you work for one of the largest tyrants in the world, Time Warner, and as long as they give you a check, you don't give a shit what stupid meaningless story you report on as long as you can pretend to be a journalist. Why don't you just leave this guy alone and go report on HSBC or any of the other ways our government screws us blindly every day.

thewholetruth 1 Like

There was a real  story last year of 15 teen guys who passed up dates with real good looking girls because they were obsessed with Japanese animation video girls.  It is the culture we live in today.  25 year old guys watching Bevis and B-tthead, Family Guy, Major dad, Ted(the movie)

It is safe to say this is the  dumbest generation of Americans ever. 


"...who hasn’t had at least one fake dalliance?" Really? Belinda, you need to step out of your 'soap opera' psychology column once and a while and check out the real world. 

JimMorrison1 4 Like

Just remember. If manti Te' O makes it to the NFL, he will not be able to blame the League for head injuries.

manotick 2 Like

At least we know the Alabama players have real girl friends....right Brent??