01/29/2013 08:57 am ET Updated Mar 30, 2013

The Psychology of a Prank: Was Manti Te'o a Victim or Perpetrator?

It was the most inspirational story of the college football season. We were all literally witnessing a modern day Rudy. Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o was playing to honor his grandmother and girlfriend, who both tragically passed away on the same day. Everyone thought the same thing: How could a kid that just lost his grandmother and girlfriend within hours of one another still go out and play a football game just a few days later?

It was because that something that actually seemed impossible in any variation of human strength -- physical, emotional, or mental -- was actually impossible. And we further learned as the story unfolded that believing the story actually happened as Manti Te'o described it was highly improbable as well.

The news broke last week and has been continuing to swirl daily. The young lady who Manti Te'o claimed to be his girlfriend didn't actually exist. Her profile and picture did, but not the person. Te'o and the University of Notre Dame both claim and believe that this entire scenario has been a part of a prank gone awry, but you can't help but think whether or not Te'o himself actually knew what was going on. He says that he had no idea, but the contradictions abound, beginning with interviews as far back as September 2012.

Such contradictions would lead most people to believe that he knew a lot more than he will ever admit. It is simply hard to explain why a guy playing college football for one of the most prestigious universities in the country would lie about a girlfriend who didn't exist. It is also hard to explain why someone would go out of his or her way to pull a prank of this magnitude on that same guy. With the details we have been given, something just doesn't add up on a pure intellectual level, but it does on a psychological one, as there is a strong psychological component at play here. It is called emotional dissonance. In short, it is the emotional version of "pay for play." In sports, it is a term used to describe how one must pay to "get in the game."

We can all point fingers at the media for fueling much of this story, but the role of media is to report the news and frankly, that is simply what happened. However, once the media started talking about his girlfriend who had passed away, Te'o started getting mentioned in consideration for the Heisman Trophy. The story did more than get him in the game. He was in the headlines and a potential Heisman contender. Let's go beyond the bounds a bit more. He became apart of global headlines around the world. Now, let's pull in the bounds a bit. If you know anything about college football, then you know Heisman candidates aren't being spoken about in September, when the first interval of interviews occurred, highlighting the first crack in the concrete of Manti Te'o story.

The fault line expands when you consider that in order for Te'o to attend Notre Dame, he has to be a smart kid. Not just anyone gets into Notre Dame even when it comes to playing football. Notre Dame has a world-class reputation for matriculating stellar student-athletes, in that order, across all sports. One would think that a kid as smart as Te'o would know that in this day and age if he were to make up something of this magnitude that it's eventually going to get out or be found out. There are simply too many reputable (and investigative) social media outlets, traditional news outlets, and brilliant, passionate journalistic storytellers for something like this not to be figured out. The shocker is that it was not figured out sooner. And for those who want to say that he still mentioned her even after he knew she wasn't real, I just have one question for you. What did you want or expect him to say? When the media asked him about his girlfriend did you want him to respond with something like, "I've never actually met her, but yes we've been dating for a two years"?

It is unreasonable to expect or require that a kid who has grown to celebrity status, in a meteoric fashion, to go on national television and tell people that he's in an online relationship with a girl he has never met.

Was it a hoax? Or was Te'o actually duped? Realistically, we'll never know the whole story. I don't believe it was Te'o who masterfully concocted the relationship nor its "timely" demise to gain Heisman Trophy consideration that seems too far-fetched. Or is that why digital love it is called "catfishing" because the realm in which on-line relationships emerge and evolve is so far-fetched.

I do believe that Manti Te'o knew a lot more than people or even his lovely parents think. I think the relationship was something that he always had his doubts about, as he confessed during his interview with Katie Couric, but I also believe he wanted to believe it. Intuition is stronger than intention and the simple truth is that the DNA of the human mind has built into it the mechanism to sense danger or duping. We have all heard the popular phrases, "I can't put my finger on it, but something just isn't right. Something just isn't adding up." The general public instantly had and has continued to hold that sentiment. It is hard to believe that Manti Te'o never had the same. Never.

Maybe Manti wanted to believe in the relationship so much that he ran with the lie. That doesn't make him a villain or a victim. It makes him human. We can all identify with that.