Learning And The Challenges That Scam Victims Face From Trauma And Related Cognitive Effects

Often Scam Victims believe that the aftermath of a scam is just that their feelings are a little out of control, but the betrayal trauma from these crimes can lead to serious mind/brain dysregulation and impairment

•  Vianey Gonzalez B.Sc(Psych) – Psychologist, Certified Deception Professional, Psychology Advisory Panel & Director of the Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams Inc.
•  Tim McGuinness, Ph.D. – Anthropologist, Scientist, Director of the Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams Inc.

About This Article

Scam victims often endure profound trauma due to the betrayal they experience, leading to significant psychological impacts. Recovery requires professional support, including psychological education and therapy.

Cognitive overload is common among victims, hindering their ability to learn. Learning involves encoding, consolidation, storage, and retrieval of information in the brain, influenced by neurotransmitters and synaptic plasticity. Trauma affects learning styles, impairing concentration, memory, and executive functions.

Cognitive dissonance exacerbates this, causing resistance to new information and reinforcing biases. Victims also face cognitive impairment, hindering logical thinking and comprehension.

Misunderstandings arise due to distorted perception, impaired critical thinking, emotional reactivity, confirmation bias, and avoidance behaviors. Support and therapy help victims cope and recover, addressing trauma and facilitating learning.

Overall, understanding the impact of trauma on learning is crucial for effectively supporting scam victims in their recovery journey.

Learning And The Challenges That A Scam Victim Faces From Trauma And Related Cognitive Effects - 2024

A Note About Labeling!

We often use the term ‘scam victim’ in our articles, but this is a convenience to help those searching for information in search engines like Google. It is just a convenience and has no deeper meaning. If you have come through such an experience, YOU are a Survivor! It was not your fault. You are not alone! Axios!

Understanding what is Happening in a Scam Victim’s Mind & Brain can Help Them Overcome Learning Challenges After the Scam 

Let’s begin with a basic fact. Scam victims are almost always traumatized by the betrayal of the deep relationship they had during these scams. It doesn’t even matter how short or long it was for the impact to be significant, however, the longer it went on, the more profound the psychological impact is likely to be.

This is but one of the significant reasons why all scam victims need real, professional support and counseling or therapy. Being on a zoom call only with other victims is not going to be enough for most victims to successfully recover from this experience. They are going to need real psychological education about these crimes and their impact on victims/survivors, and counseling or therapy for the deeper injuries caused by the betrayal trauma.

A typical scam victim often says they feel overloaded. This is, in part, what causes that overwhelming of their cognitive ability.

What is Learning and How Does it Work in Our Brain?

Learning is how animals (yes, we are animals) acquire new knowledge, skills, behaviors, or attitudes through experiences, interactions, and exposure to stimuli in their environment. It involves the encoding, processing, storage, and retrieval of information in the brain, leading to changes in behavior, cognition, or neural connectivity over time.

Got that? There will be a test! ;) Not really, your life is the test!

The process of learning involves several key components:

  1. Encoding: This refers to the initial intake and processing of sensory information or stimuli from the environment. During encoding, sensory inputs are transformed into neural signals that can be processed and interpreted by the brain.
  2. Consolidation: Once information is encoded, it undergoes a process called consolidation, where it is stabilized and integrated into existing neural networks or stored in long-term memory. This process involves synaptic changes and the strengthening of connections between neurons, facilitating the retention of learned information over time.
  3. Storage: Learned information is stored in various regions of the brain, including the hippocampus (responsible for short-term memory) and cortical areas (responsible for long-term memory). Information stored in long-term memory can be retrieved and accessed when needed.
  4. Retrieval: Retrieval involves the recall and utilization of stored information from memory when needed to guide behavior, solve problems, or make decisions. It requires the activation of specific neural networks and pathways associated with the learned information.

However, all of these are also significantly impacted by the amygdala when it is hyperactivated. It can result in the complete loss of, limited access to, or improperly stored learning.

Learning can occur through various mechanisms and processes, including:

  • Classical conditioning: Involves associating a neutral stimulus with a biologically significant stimulus to evoke a learned response (e.g., Pavlov’s experiments with dogs).
  • Operant conditioning: Involves learning through reinforcement or punishment, where behaviors are strengthened or weakened based on their consequences (e.g., Skinner’s experiments with rats).
  • Observational learning: Involves acquiring new behaviors or skills by observing and imitating others’ actions, attitudes, or outcomes (e.g., Bandura’s Bobo doll experiment).
  • Cognitive learning: Involves acquiring knowledge, understanding, or problem-solving skills through mental processes such as attention, perception, memory, reasoning, and problem-solving.

In the brain, learning is facilitated by the coordinated activity of neural networks and circuits, involving the release of neurotransmitters, synaptic plasticity, and changes in neuronal connectivity. Neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and glutamate play crucial roles in modulating learning processes by facilitating communication between neurons and strengthening synaptic connections associated with learned behaviors or memories.

Learning is a dynamic and complex process that involves the interaction of biological, cognitive, emotional, and environmental factors, shaping individuals’ ability to adapt, grow, and thrive in their surroundings. But that is on a good day. When you are confronted with psychological trauma, grief and other emotional issues, or manipulation, learning becomes impaired – both learning new things and accessing what someone has previously learned.

Learning Types

From a nuts and bolts perspective, people and animals learn in different ways. Part of this is their brain part is their personality, and a big part is damage that has happened in their past – past traumas.

There are several different types of learning, each catering to different styles and preferences.

Here are some of the main types:

  • Visual learning: Visual learners prefer to use images, diagrams, charts, and other visual aids to understand and remember information.
  • Auditory learning: Auditory learners learn best through listening. They prefer spoken explanations, lectures, podcasts, and discussions.
  • Kinesthetic learning: Kinesthetic learners learn best through hands-on activities and physical experiences. They prefer to touch, manipulate, and interact with objects to understand concepts.
  • Reading/writing learning: These learners excel at reading and writing activities. They prefer to read textbooks, take notes, and write summaries to absorb information.
  • Experiential learning: Experiential learners learn best through direct experience and experimentation. They prefer to learn by doing, engaging in real-world activities, and solving problems hands-on.
  • Social learning: Social learners thrive in group settings. They prefer collaborative activities, group discussions, and peer interaction to learn from others.
  • Reflective learning: Reflective learners prefer to process information internally. They enjoy quiet, solitary activities such as journaling, self-reflection, and meditation to internalize concepts.

These learning styles are not mutually exclusive, and most individuals incorporate elements of multiple styles in their learning preferences. Understanding one’s preferred learning style can help optimize learning experiences and improve retention of information.

But there is also a little secret that we should have been teaching everyone. When a person’s mind is resistant to learning using one method, they can switch to another and usually, the challenge or block is overcome.

Psychological Trauma and Learning

Psychological trauma can significantly impact various learning approaches by affecting cognitive, emotional, and behavioral dysfunctions.

Here’s how trauma typically influences different learning styles:

  • Visual learning: Trauma can impair visual processing and memory, making it challenging for individuals to concentrate on visual stimuli or recall visual information accurately. Flashbacks or intrusive memories related to the trauma can also interfere with the ability to focus on visual learning materials.
  • Auditory learning: Trauma can heighten sensitivity to sound or trigger auditory triggers related to the traumatic event. This heightened arousal can make it difficult for individuals to concentrate on auditory information or engage in listening activities without becoming overwhelmed or triggered.
  • Kinesthetic learning: Trauma can manifest in physical symptoms such as tension, dissociation, or hypervigilance, which can interfere with hands-on learning activities. Individuals often struggle to engage in physical tasks or avoid tactile experiences due to sensory sensitivities or discomfort.
  • Reading/writing learning: Trauma can impair concentration, attention, and executive functioning, making it difficult for individuals to focus on reading or writing tasks. Intrusive thoughts or emotional distress related to the trauma can interfere with comprehension, concentration, or retention of written information.
  • Experiential learning: Trauma can lead to avoidance behaviors or difficulties with emotional regulation, making it challenging for individuals to engage in experiential learning activities or tolerate exposure to new experiences. Fear of triggering memories or re-experiencing trauma-related emotions can limit participation in hands-on learning.
  • Social learning: Trauma can affect interpersonal relationships, trust, and communication skills, impacting individuals’ ability to engage in group settings or collaborative learning activities. Social withdrawal, isolation, or hypervigilance may hinder participation in social learning environments.
  • Reflective learning: Trauma can disrupt self-awareness, introspection, and emotional processing, making it challenging for individuals to engage in reflective learning practices such as journaling or self-reflection. Avoidance of traumatic memories or emotions can lead to difficulties in processing and integrating new information.

The impact of trauma on learning approaches can vary widely depending on individual experiences, coping mechanisms (good or bad,) and the nature of the traumatic event. We all need to recognize the potential effects of trauma on learning and to offer trauma-informed approaches that prioritize safety, validation, and empowerment in educational settings. Remember, trauma doesn’t just affect scam victims. It can affect your children, families and friends, and co-workers. Knowing how trauma affects learning can help you both support them and overcome the difficulty.

Cognitive Dissonance and Learning

Most scam victims face cognitive dissonance in the weeks and months following the end of a major scam.

Cognitive dissonance can significantly impact learning by creating psychological discomfort or tension when individuals encounter information or experiences that conflict with their existing beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors.

Here’s how cognitive dissonance influences the learning process:

  • Resistance to new information: When individuals are exposed to information that contradicts their existing beliefs or knowledge, they can experience cognitive dissonance. This discomfort can lead to resistance or reluctance to accept the new information, as it challenges their established understanding of the world.
  • Selective attention and perception: To alleviate cognitive dissonance, individuals engage in selective attention and perception, focusing only on information that aligns with their existing beliefs while ignoring or discounting contradictory evidence. This selective processing can hinder the acquisition of new knowledge and impede critical thinking skills.
  • Confirmation bias: Cognitive dissonance can reinforce confirmation bias, a cognitive bias, leading individuals to seek out information that confirms their pre-existing beliefs or attitudes while dismissing information that challenges them. This cognitive bias can limit exposure to diverse perspectives and inhibit intellectual growth.
  • Rationalization and justification: To reduce cognitive dissonance, individuals may engage in rationalization or justification, attempting to explain away or minimize the importance of conflicting information. By distorting reality or attributing alternative explanations, they can maintain cognitive consistency and protect their self-image. This is closely related to the ‘victim mentality‘.
  • Resistance to change: Cognitive dissonance can create resistance to change by making individuals reluctant to modify their beliefs or behaviors, even in the face of compelling evidence. Fear of admitting error or facing uncertainty may lead to inertia or stagnation in the learning (also recovery) process.
  • Emotional distress: Cognitive dissonance can evoke emotional distress, including feelings of anxiety, guilt, or frustration, as individuals grapple with conflicting information or beliefs. This emotional discomfort can impair concentration, memory, and motivation, hindering effective learning and retention of new information.
  • Reconciliation and adaptation: To resolve cognitive dissonance and restore cognitive harmony, individuals may undergo a process of reconciliation or adaptation. This may involve revising their beliefs, integrating new information into their existing schema, or seeking additional evidence to support their conclusions.

Cognitive dissonance can pose significant challenges to the learning process by creating resistance to new information, reinforcing biases, and impeding critical thinking skills. Recognizing and addressing cognitive dissonance through open-mindedness, critical reflection, and willingness to consider alternative viewpoints are essential for promoting intellectual growth and enabling lifelong learning.

Cognitive Impairment (Brain/Scam Fog) and Learning

The cognitive impairment that scam victims often experience after their scam ordeal often results from trauma and emotional dysregulation, and their effects on the brain, especially impairing logical/critical thinking functions, can significantly impact learning and comprehension.

Here’s how this works:

  • Impaired concentration: Trauma can lead to difficulties in maintaining focus and attention, making it challenging for victims to concentrate on learning tasks or absorb new information. Their minds can easily be preoccupied with intrusive thoughts, memories of the scam, or heightened anxiety, affecting their ability to engage with educational material effectively.
  • Memory difficulties: Emotional dysregulation and trauma can impair both short-term and long-term memory function. Scam victims can struggle to retain new information or recall previously learned concepts due to disruptions in memory encoding, consolidation, or retrieval processes. This can hinder their ability to comprehend and apply knowledge in their recovery and daily life.
  • Reduced cognitive flexibility: Emotional distress and trauma can limit cognitive flexibility, making it difficult for victims to adapt to new learning environments or approaches, this can include support groups or therapy. They may experience rigid thinking patterns or perseverate on negative thoughts and emotions, inhibiting their capacity to explore alternative perspectives or problem-solving strategies.
  • Impaired executive functions: Scam victims can experience deficits in executive functions such as decision-making, planning, and organization, which are essential for effective learning. Emotional dysregulation can compromise their ability to set goals, prioritize tasks, and manage time efficiently, leading to academic challenges and reduced comprehension of complex concepts. This is an example of why it is important to be careful of decision-making in the months following a scam.
  • Negative impact on self-esteem: The emotional toll of scam victimization usually undermines victims’ self-esteem and confidence in their mental abilities, with good cause. They often develop feelings of inadequacy, self-doubt, or worthlessness, which can create psychological barriers to learning and recovery and hinder their willingness to engage with new information.
  • Disrupted learning environment: The aftermath of scam victimization can disrupt victims’ learning, causing them to experience heightened stress, fear, or distrust in educational settings such as in support groups. They may struggle to form trusting relationships with both professionals or peers, hindering collaborative learning experiences and recovery progress.
  • Coping mechanisms: Scam victims often resort to maladaptive coping mechanisms, such as avoidance, resistance, anger, denial, withdrawal, or substance use, as a means of coping with trauma-related distress. These coping strategies can seriously interfere with their ability to participate actively in learning activities or seek support from professional resources.

Overall, the cognitive impairment resulting from trauma, scams, and emotional dysregulation can pose significant obstacles to learning and comprehension for scam victims.

Getting It Wrong

Trauma and its associated cognitive dissonance and impairment can lead to misunderstandings and miscomprehension of learning material or information and incorrect understanding and conclusions. In other words, getting it wrong.

Here’s how that works:

  • Distorted perception: Trauma can distort an individual’s perception of reality, leading them to interpret information or learning material through a biased or skewed lens. They may misinterpret instructions, misremember facts, or misconstrue concepts due to cognitive biases or emotional triggers associated with their traumatic experiences.
  • Cognitive dissonance: When individuals encounter information that contradicts their existing beliefs, values, or self-perceptions, it can create cognitive dissonance—a state of psychological discomfort. In an attempt to reduce this discomfort, individuals engage in defensive mechanisms such as rationalization, denial, or selective attention, which can distort their understanding of learning material or information and lead to incorrect conclusions.
  • Impaired critical thinking: Trauma-related cognitive impairments, such as difficulties in concentration, memory, and executive functioning, can impair individuals’ ability to engage in critical thinking and analytical reasoning. They may struggle to evaluate evidence, weigh alternative perspectives, or discern logical inconsistencies, resulting in flawed interpretations and erroneous conclusions.
  • Emotional reactivity: Trauma survivors often experience heightened emotional reactivity to learning material or information that triggers trauma-related memories or emotions. This emotional arousal can interfere with their cognitive processing, leading to impulsive reactions, black-and-white thinking, or overgeneralization, which contribute to misunderstandings and inaccuracies in their comprehension.
  • Confirmation bias: Individuals affected by trauma usually exhibit confirmation bias, a tendency to seek out or interpret information in a way that confirms their pre-existing beliefs or expectations while disregarding contradictory evidence. This bias can lead them to selectively perceive learning material or information in a manner that aligns with their trauma-induced cognitive distortions, reinforcing misunderstandings and reinforcing incorrect conclusions.
  • Avoidance behaviors: Trauma survivors can engage in avoidance behaviors as a coping mechanism to avoid distressing stimuli or triggers associated with their traumatic experiences. This avoidance can extend to learning situations where they may avoid challenging or unfamiliar concepts, leading to gaps in understanding and incomplete or inaccurate conclusions.

Trauma and its associated cognitive dissonance and impairment can significantly impact an individual’s ability to comprehend information accurately.

The good news is that the impairment usually fades over time. However, if the rest, including the trauma, is not managed this can lead to lifelong issues.


Almost all scam victims experience some trauma and some impairment resulting from this. How severe it is depends on many factors.

In almost all cases victims benefit from both professionally managed support and recovery programs, and counseling or therapy. Through these, victims can not only learn about the impacts on them but how to cope positively as well.

Important Information for New Scam Victims

Statement About Victim Blaming

Some of our articles discuss various aspects of victims. This is both about better understanding victims (the science of victimology) and their behaviors and psychology. This helps us to educate victims/survivors about why these crimes happened and to not blame themselves, better develop recovery programs, and to help victims avoid scams in the future. At times this may sound like blaming the victim, but it does not blame scam victims, we are simply explaining the hows and whys of the experience victims have.

These articles, about the Psychology of Scams or Victim Psychology – meaning that all humans have psychological or cognitive characteristics in common that can either be exploited or work against us – help us all to understand the unique challenges victims face before, during, and after scams, fraud, or cybercrimes. These sometimes talk about some of the vulnerabilities the scammers exploit. Victims rarely have control of them or are even aware of them, until something like a scam happens and then they can learn how their mind works and how to overcome these mechanisms.

Articles like these help victims and others understand these processes and how to help prevent them from being exploited again or to help them recover more easily by understanding their post-scam behaviors. Learn more about the Psychology of Scams at www.ScamPsychology.org

SCARS Resources:

Psychology Disclaimer:

All articles about psychology and the human brain on this website are for information & education only

The information provided in this and other SCARS articles are intended for educational and self-help purposes only and should not be construed as a substitute for professional therapy or counseling.

Note about Mindfulness: Mindfulness practices have the potential to create psychological distress for some individuals. Please consult a mental health professional or experienced meditation instructor for guidance should you encounter difficulties.

While any self-help techniques outlined herein may be beneficial for scam victims seeking to recover from their experience and move towards recovery, it is important to consult with a qualified mental health professional before initiating any course of action. Each individual’s experience and needs are unique, and what works for one person may not be suitable for another.

Additionally, any approach may not be appropriate for individuals with certain pre-existing mental health conditions or trauma histories. It is advisable to seek guidance from a licensed therapist or counselor who can provide personalized support, guidance, and treatment tailored to your specific needs.

If you are experiencing significant distress or emotional difficulties related to a scam or other traumatic event, please consult your doctor or mental health provider for appropriate care and support.

If you are in crisis, feeling desperate, or in despair please call 988 or your local crisis hotline.

PLEASE NOTE: Psychology Clarification

The following specific modalities within the practice of psychology are restricted to psychologists appropriately trained in the use of such modalities:

  • Diagnosis: The diagnosis of mental, emotional, or brain disorders and related behaviors.
  • Psychoanalysis: Psychoanalysis is a type of therapy that focuses on helping individuals to understand and resolve unconscious conflicts.
  • Hypnosis: Hypnosis is a state of trance in which individuals are more susceptible to suggestion. It can be used to treat a variety of conditions, including anxiety, depression, and pain.
  • Biofeedback: Biofeedback is a type of therapy that teaches individuals to control their bodily functions, such as heart rate and blood pressure. It can be used to treat a variety of conditions, including stress, anxiety, and pain.
  • Behavioral analysis: Behavioral analysis is a type of therapy that focuses on changing individuals’ behaviors. It is often used to treat conditions such as autism and ADHD.
    Neuropsychology: Neuropsychology is a type of psychology that focuses on the relationship between the brain and behavior. It is often used to assess and treat cognitive impairments caused by brain injuries or diseases.

SCARS and the members of the SCARS Team do not engage in any of the above modalities in relationship to scam victims. SCARS is not a mental healthcare provider and recognizes the importance of professionalism and separation between its work and that of the licensed practice of psychology.

SCARS is an educational provider of generalized self-help information that individuals can use for their own benefit to achieve their own goals related to emotional trauma. SCARS recommends that all scam victims see professional counselors or therapists to help them determine the suitability of any specific information or practices that may help them.

SCARS cannot diagnose or treat any individuals, nor can it state the effectiveness of any educational information that it may provide, regardless of its experience in interacting with traumatized scam victims over time. All information that SCARS provides is purely for general educational purposes to help scam victims become aware of and better understand the topics and to be able to dialog with their counselors or therapists.

It is important that all readers understand these distinctions and that they apply the information that SCARS may publish at their own risk, and should do so only after consulting a licensed psychologist or mental healthcare provider.


The opinions of the author are not necessarily those of the Society of Citizens Against Rleationship Scams Inc. The author is solely responsible for the content of their work. SCARS is protected under the Communications Decency Act (CDA) section 230 from liability.







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