Magic & Relationship Scams – Both Involve Similar Manipulation & Control

Lessons Learned From Magic In How Scammers Manipulate Scam Victims Into and During Relationship Scams

•  Tim McGuinness, Ph.D. – Anthropologist, Scientist, Director of the Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams Inc.

Just Like Scammers, Magic Relies On Significant Manipulation & Control

In fact, what we call magic today began in ancient history as methods to scam people from their wealth

Magic tricks and relationship scams may seem worlds apart, but both rely on intricate psychological manipulation techniques to achieve their ends.

While magic aims to entertain and amaze through illusion, relationship scams prey on emotions and trust, resulting in deceit and exploitation.

Let’s explore the parallels and differences in the manipulation techniques employed in both scenarios.

Definition of Relationship Scams

A relationship scam is any scam or fraud where there is a trust relationship between the victim and the criminals. This includes with a romantic partner, an investment advisor, a friend or family member, a major corporation, a government agency, or an institution (including banks.)

1. Misdirection and Distraction

Misdirection and distraction are foundational tools used by magicians and, interestingly, employed in the deceptive tactics of relationship scams. In both scenarios, these techniques operate by redirecting attention to elements designed to captivate or engage, while the real intention or manipulation occurs away from the focus.

• Misdirection in Magic Tricks

Misdirection is the magician’s bread and butter, diverting attention to a specific area while the actual trick happens elsewhere. It relies on redirecting focus to create an illusion, deceiving the audience into believing what isn’t true.

In the realm of magic, misdirection is the cornerstone of illusion. Magicians skillfully divert the audience’s attention, leading them to concentrate on specific actions, gestures, or items, while the actual sleight of hand or pivotal maneuver occurs elsewhere, unnoticed. This could be the flourish of a hand, a conversation with the audience, or an unexpected element introduced to capture attention.

The magician’s ability to manage what the audience sees or thinks they see is the essence of misdirection. They exploit how human attention works, creating a narrative that leads observers to believe they’ve understood what transpired, while the real trick remains concealed.

• Misdirection in Relationship Scams

Similarly, scammers divert attention from their true motives by creating a compelling narrative or emotional connection. They might distract their victims from red flags or inconsistencies in the story, building a false sense of trust and security.

Similarly, in relationship scams, misdirection takes a different form. Scammers use carefully crafted narratives, emotional appeals, or shared experiences to direct the victim’s focus away from discrepancies or inconsistencies in the scammer’s story. They might employ elaborate backgrounds, fabricated details, or even feigned emotions to divert attention from red flags, engrossing victims in an emotional connection.

By creating a compelling story or establishing a rapport with the victim, scammers aim to lead them away from suspicions or doubts. They effectively steer attention toward the emotional bond they’re cultivating, while hiding their true intentions—typically financial gain or other deceitful objectives.

• Distraction’s Role in Both Areas

Distraction, a close ally of misdirection, operates in synergy. In magic, it involves creating an engaging or visually stimulating environment to draw attention away from crucial moments. Magicians might introduce dazzling props, employ engaging banter, or use physical movements to keep observers enthralled.

In relationship scams, distraction takes a more emotional form. Scammers might exploit the victim’s emotions, often focusing on a narrative of love, shared experiences, or fabricated crises to divert attention from their ulterior motives. They might employ intense emotional appeals or urgent situations to distract victims from critical analysis or doubts.

• Understanding the Power of Redirected Attention

Recognizing the manipulation inherent in misdirection and distraction is crucial for individuals vulnerable to scams. Both techniques rely on guiding attention away from critical details or motives. By understanding how these tactics operate, individuals can better assess situations, identify discrepancies, and maintain a level of critical thinking in emotionally charged scenarios.

• Insight

Whether in the mesmerizing world of magic or the insidious realm of relationship scams, misdirection and distraction are potent tools. By being vigilant and mindful of where attention is directed, individuals can better protect themselves from falling victim to deceitful schemes that rely on these psychological maneuvers.

2. Exploiting Cognitive Biases

Exploiting cognitive biases is a profound aspect of both magic tricks and relationship scams, capitalizing on the innate tendencies of the human mind to perceive, remember, and make decisions in specific ways.

• Cognitive Biases in Magic Tricks

Magicians exploit cognitive biases, such as inattentional blindness or confirmation bias, to manipulate perception. By utilizing these biases, they guide the audience’s attention and shape their interpretation of events.

Magicians leverage cognitive biases to create illusions that deceive the audience’s perception and memory. For instance, the confirmation bias prompts people to interpret information in a way that confirms their preconceptions. Magicians use this by subtly directing attention toward a false conclusion or an expected outcome, prompting the audience to overlook what’s genuinely happening.

Another bias, the anchoring effect, influences people to rely heavily on the first piece of information offered when making decisions. Magicians cleverly use this by establishing an initial premise or visual cue that becomes the focus, often diverting attention from the actual secret behind the trick.

• Cognitive Biases in Relationship Scams

Scammers capitalize on emotional vulnerabilities, leveraging biases like the halo effect (where positive traits overshadow negative ones) to portray themselves as trustworthy. They create an illusion of compatibility and reliability to lure victims into their web.

In relationship scams, perpetrators exploit cognitive biases to manipulate victims’ emotions, decisions, and perceptions. The halo effect, where positive qualities in one aspect lead to an overall favorable judgment, might be used by scammers to portray themselves as highly desirable or trustworthy. Victims might overlook inconsistencies or warning signs due to this perceived positivity.

Similarly, the scarcity effect, where people place higher value on limited resources or opportunities, is exploited by scammers who create a sense of urgency or scarcity to prompt victims to act quickly without thorough scrutiny. Emotional manipulation, like love bombing (excessive affection and attention), triggers the reciprocation tendency, causing victims to feel obliged to return the emotional investment.

• Impact on Decision-Making

Both in magic and scams, cognitive biases influence decision-making. In magic, the biases shape how an audience interprets what they perceive. In scams, they influence victims’ judgments, leading them to overlook inconsistencies or warning signs due to emotionally charged narratives or perceived urgency.

• Vigilance and Awareness

Understanding these cognitive biases is critical for recognizing manipulation. Being aware of these mental shortcuts and how they might be exploited allows individuals to apply critical thinking and skepticism, reducing susceptibility to deceptive tactics. By recognizing when biases are being triggered, individuals can pause, reassess, and avoid hasty or emotional decisions that might lead to being deceived.

• Insight

In essence, cognitive biases are powerful tools employed in both magic and relationship scams. Acknowledging their influence and learning to navigate around them empowers individuals to maintain clearer judgment, enabling them to see through illusions and deceitful ploys that rely on these inherent human tendencies.

3. Suggestion and Illusory Choices

Suggestion and illusory choices are psychological tools extensively used in both magic and manipulation scenarios, influencing decision-making and perceptions to create a false sense of control or understanding.

• Suggestion in Magic Tricks

Magicians often utilize suggestion to steer the audience’s thoughts or actions without their awareness. They may seemingly offer free choices while subtly nudging towards a desired outcome.

Magicians often employ suggestion to guide the audience’s thoughts or actions subtly. Through verbal cues, body language, or tone, they implant ideas or manipulate perception without explicitly stating them. This technique directs attention away from the magician’s actual actions or intentions, leading the audience to perceive what the magician wants them to see.

For instance, a magician might use suggestive language or subtle prompts to steer the audience into thinking a specific outcome is their own choice, while it’s actually a pre-determined result. This influences the viewer’s perception of free will and control while the magician is orchestrating the entire process.

Illusory Choices in Magic

Illusory choices involve presenting options that seem independent and significant but are, in reality, predetermined or controlled. Magicians employ this technique by offering audience members what appears to be a free choice among several options, yet all choices lead to the same outcome. This creates an illusion of agency while the magician remains in control of the situation.

• Suggestion and Illusory Choices in Relationship Scams

In scams, suggestion plays a pivotal role in manipulating victims’ decisions. Scammers craft scenarios that give victims a false sense of control while guiding them toward actions that benefit the scammer.

In scams, perpetrators use suggestion and illusory choices to manipulate victims into believing they have control or agency in the situation. They might present victims with apparent choices, leading them to feel empowered or involved in the decision-making process. However, these choices are often meticulously crafted to steer victims towards the scammer’s intended outcome.

For instance, a scammer might offer victims seemingly different options for investment or assistance, all of which ultimately benefit the scammer. This illusory choice provides victims with a false sense of control, making them more susceptible to manipulation.

• Impact on Perception

Both in magic and scams, the use of suggestion and illusory choices distorts perception and influences decision-making. It creates a sense of involvement or control while masking the true intentions or predetermined outcomes. Victims often believe they are making informed choices or decisions, unaware that their options have been strategically manipulated.

• Heightened Awareness

Recognizing suggestion and illusory choices is crucial in avoiding manipulation. Being mindful of subtle cues, seemingly open choices with similar outcomes, or situations where options may be pre-determined can help individuals discern between genuine choices and orchestrated ones. It encourages critical thinking and skepticism, fostering a more vigilant approach to decision-making.

• Insight

In summary, suggestion and illusory choices wield considerable influence on perception and decision-making, whether in the context of entertainment through magic or the manipulation seen in scams. By understanding these psychological tools, individuals can better navigate situations where choices might be disguised or controlled, promoting more informed and autonomous decision-making.

4. Leveraging Memory and Perception

Leveraging memory and perception involves manipulating how individuals recall and interpret events, creating a reality that aligns with the manipulator’s intentions. This psychological tool is central in both magic and manipulation scenarios, influencing how people perceive and remember information.

• Memory in Magic Tricks

Magicians manipulate memory and perception by planting false memories or altering the perception of events, creating an illusion that defies reality.

Magicians often play with memory to distort the audience’s recollection of events. They might introduce false memories by subtly altering details or introducing distractions, causing the audience to misremember the sequence of events. By manipulating attention and focus, magicians influence what the audience stores in their memory, enabling them to create illusions that defy logic.

For example, a magician might create a distraction at a crucial moment during a trick, causing the audience to misperceive or forget an essential step, enhancing the mystique of the illusion.

Perception in Magic

Perception manipulation involves altering how individuals perceive reality. Magicians exploit visual and cognitive perception to direct attention away from crucial actions or objects, inducing misperceptions that contribute to the mystery of the illusion. By controlling what the audience sees, hears, and interprets, magicians create an alternative reality that aligns with their intended outcome.

For instance, through sleight of hand or misdirection, a magician can make an object seemingly disappear or transform, exploiting perceptual limitations and biases.

• Leveraging Memory and Perception in Relationship Scams

Similarly, scammers manipulate victims’ perceptions of reality by distorting information or creating false narratives. They might craft stories or experiences that seem genuine but are entirely fabricated.

In scams, perpetrators use memory and perception manipulation to create false narratives or reshape events in the victim’s mind. They might employ gaslighting techniques to distort the victim’s recollection of past interactions or conversations, making them doubt their own memories or judgment. By manipulating perception, scammers create a distorted reality where victims are more vulnerable to manipulation and control.

For instance, a scammer might alter the victim’s memory of previous conversations or agreements to their advantage, undermining the victim’s confidence and fostering dependence on the scammer.

•  Impact on Decision-making

Manipulating memory and perception can significantly impact decision-making. In both magic and scams, it influences how individuals interpret events, recall information, and ultimately make choices. By exploiting cognitive biases or limitations in memory, manipulators steer individuals towards predetermined outcomes, often without their awareness.

•  Enhancing Awareness

Awareness of memory and perception manipulation is crucial in safeguarding against manipulation. Being mindful of inconsistencies, discrepancies in recollections, or attempts to alter one’s perception can help individuals recognize and resist manipulation. This awareness promotes critical thinking, enabling individuals to question and verify information rather than accepting it unquestioningly.

• Insight

Leveraging memory and perception is a potent tool used in both magic and manipulation. By understanding how memories are formed and perceptions shaped, individuals can become more vigilant and discerning, mitigating the impact of memory and perception manipulation in various contexts, from entertainment to safeguarding against scams and manipulation.

5. Emotional Engagement and Control

Emotional engagement and control are fundamental aspects of manipulation, influencing individuals’ feelings, behaviors, and decision-making. In both magic and manipulation scenarios, emotional engagement plays a pivotal role in captivating an audience or a victim.

• Emotional Engagement in Magic

Magic performances elicit emotional engagement by creating suspense or surprise. Magicians control the emotional flow of their audience, enhancing the impact of their illusions.

Magicians leverage emotions to create a captivating experience. They craft narratives and performances that evoke emotions such as wonder, anticipation, and surprise. By tapping into these emotions, magicians keep the audience engaged, directing attention away from critical actions while enhancing the allure of the illusion.

For example, a magician might build anticipation or suspense before revealing a trick, fostering emotional investment and curiosity among the audience.

Control in Magic:

Control in magic involves the illusionist’s ability to guide the audience’s emotional responses and perceptions. Magicians use their control over the performance, timing, and presentation to influence how the audience interprets the events unfolding before them. This control establishes an emotional connection between the audience and the performance, enhancing the impact of the illusion.

For instance, by creating a relatable or intriguing narrative, magicians draw the audience into the performance, making them more susceptible to emotional manipulation.

• Emotional Engagement and Control in Relationship Scams

Scammers manipulate emotions, often preying on loneliness or vulnerability. They control the emotional narrative to keep victims invested, using emotions as a tool for exploitation.

In scams, emotional engagement and control are crucial tactics used by perpetrators to manipulate victims. Scammers exploit emotions such as trust, affection, fear, or urgency to gain control over victims’ thoughts and actions. They craft elaborate stories, feign emotions, and create a false sense of intimacy to emotionally engage and manipulate victims.

For instance, a scammer might simulate a romantic relationship, eliciting emotions of love and attachment to manipulate the victim into providing financial or personal information.

• Impact on Decision-making

Emotional engagement and control can significantly influence decision-making. In both magic and scams, emotional manipulation alters the victim’s perception of reality and impairs their judgment. Victims emotionally invested in a narrative or relationship may overlook warning signs or red flags, making decisions based on emotions rather than logic.

• Building Resilience

Building resilience against emotional manipulation involves developing emotional awareness and critical thinking skills. Recognizing and regulating one’s emotions can help individuals maintain clarity of thought and avoid making impulsive decisions driven solely by emotions. Additionally, questioning emotional appeals and verifying information can mitigate the impact of emotional manipulation.

• Insight

Emotional engagement and control are powerful tools used in both entertainment and manipulation. By understanding how emotions are exploited to control perceptions and behaviors, individuals can cultivate emotional resilience and critical thinking, reducing susceptibility to emotional manipulation in various contexts, from enjoying magic shows to protecting oneself from scams and manipulation.

6. Establishing Rapport and Authority

Establishing rapport and authority are fundamental psychological techniques used by magicians to captivate and deceive audiences. These tactics play a significant role in creating illusions and manipulating perceptions, similar to how they’re utilized in relationship scams, albeit in different contexts.

Rapport Building in Magic Tricks

Magicians establish rapport and authority through their performances, guiding the audience’s experience and maintaining a sense of control and trust.

Magicians excel in building rapport by engaging their audience emotionally. They establish a connection by making spectators feel involved and comfortable, creating a sense of camaraderie. Mirroring behaviors, using humor, and establishing eye contact are common rapport-building techniques. The goal is to forge a bond that makes the audience more receptive and engaged.

In a magic performance, this rapport sets the stage for the illusion. The magician creates an environment where the audience is more willing to suspend disbelief and accept what they see, despite it defying logic or reality.

Authority in Magic Tricks

Magicians exude an aura of authority and expertise, portraying themselves as masters of their craft. They use this authority to manipulate perceptions and control the audience’s attention. By presenting themselves as knowledgeable and in control, they dictate the narrative and guide the audience’s focus.

Similarly, in relationship scams, perpetrators assume authoritative personas, presenting themselves as reliable, trustworthy individuals. They might pose as professionals, experts, or influential figures, wielding their perceived authority to gain the victim’s trust and compliance.

• Rapport Building in Relationship Scams

In relationship scams, scammers build rapport and trust by adopting personas that seem relatable and trustworthy. They create an illusion of connection and intimacy to manipulate victims’ emotions.

• Rapport Building in Manipulation

Rapport refers to the harmonious connection or understanding between individuals. In manipulation scenarios, manipulators strive to establish rapport to build trust and create a sense of camaraderie with their targets. This is often achieved through mirroring behaviors, finding commonalities, or employing persuasive language to create a bond.

In scams, fraudsters skillfully build rapport by feigning shared interests, offering empathy, and portraying themselves as relatable and trustworthy figures. By fostering a sense of connection, they lower the victim’s guard and enhance their susceptibility to manipulation.

• Authority in Manipulation

Authority pertains to the perceived expertise, power, or credibility of an individual. Manipulators often leverage authority to sway opinions or control others’ actions. In scams, perpetrators pose as authoritative figures, such as law enforcement officers, financial experts, or influential personalities, to assert control over their victims.

By assuming authoritative roles or displaying convincing credentials, manipulators create an illusion of legitimacy. Victims, influenced by the perceived authority, are more likely to comply with requests or directives, even when they seem dubious or unusual.

• Impact on Decision-making

Establishing rapport and authority significantly influences decision-making processes. When individuals feel a sense of connection or perceive someone as an authority figure, their susceptibility to influence increases. They may be more inclined to trust, comply, or acquiesce to requests, even if they seem unreasonable or contradict their usual judgment.

• Recognizing Manipulation

Recognizing manipulation tactics involving rapport and authority involves being vigilant about discrepancies, inconsistencies, or suspicious behavior. Questioning the legitimacy of claims, verifying credentials, and critically evaluating the motives behind actions can help discern between genuine rapport and deceptive manipulation.

In both magic tricks and relationship scams, establishing rapport and authority serve as pivotal tactics. Magicians leverage these techniques to create an illusion, while scammers exploit them to deceive and manipulate emotions.

In magic, the magician’s authority is accepted willingly by the audience for entertainment purposes. However, in relationship scams, the authority is deceitfully utilized to take advantage of victims’ trust, often for nefarious ends.

• Building Resilience

Building resilience against rapport and authority-based manipulation involves honing critical thinking skills and skepticism. Being cautious about forming quick alliances or trusting individuals solely based on perceived authority can help individuals avoid falling prey to manipulative tactics.

Developing skepticism and critical thinking helps individuals discern between harmless illusions and deceptive tactics. Being cautious about forming quick alliances or trusting unknown entities solely based on perceived authority can help avoid falling victim to manipulation, whether in a magic show or a relationship scam.

• Insight

Establishing rapport and authority are potent tools employed in manipulation, influencing perceptions, decisions, and actions. By fostering awareness, critical thinking, and a healthy level of skepticism, individuals can safeguard themselves against manipulative tactics aimed at exploiting rapport and authority, both in personal interactions and when encountering potential scams or deceptive behavior.

Rapport and authority play dual roles in the psychology behind magic tricks and relationship scams. While magicians utilize these techniques for entertainment purposes with implicit consent, scammers exploit them for deceitful gains, undermining trust and exploiting vulnerabilities. Recognizing the nuances of these techniques can empower individuals to distinguish between benign entertainment and manipulative behavior, protecting themselves from potential scams and exploitation.

7. Ethical Differences and Outcomes

While magic tricks aim to entertain and create wonder through deception, relationship scams are malicious, aiming to exploit trust for personal gain. Magicians, after stunning their audience, reveal the illusion’s secrets, aiming for joy and amazement. In contrast, scammers conceal their deceit, leaving victims emotionally and financially devastated.

Understanding the psychological parallels between magic tricks and relationship scams sheds light on the intricacies of manipulation techniques. While magic tricks are intended for entertainment and leave audiences in awe, relationship scams exploit trust and emotions, resulting in significant emotional and financial harm.

In essence, both rely on the manipulation of perception, emotions, and trust. Recognizing these similarities can help individuals be more aware of potential manipulation and protect themselves from falling victim to scams that prey on their vulnerabilities.

• Consent and Entertainment & Magic

Magic tricks inherently rely on the voluntary participation of the audience for entertainment. The audience willingly suspends disbelief, knowing they’re engaging in a performance. The magician’s intention is to entertain, bringing joy and wonder through deception, but the audience consents to this deception for the sake of entertainment.

• Deception and Malicious Intent in Relationship Scams

Conversely, relationship scams involve deceitful manipulation without genuine consent. Scammers exploit trust, emotions, and vulnerabilities to achieve nefarious objectives. Unlike magic shows where participants knowingly engage for entertainment, victims of scams are unaware of the deceit and often suffer emotional and financial harm due to the manipulative tactics used against them.

• Differing Outcomes

Positive Engagement vs. Negative Exploitation

In magic, the outcome is typically positive—a sense of amazement, wonder, and entertainment. Participants leave feeling exhilarated by the experience and might even admire the skill behind the deception. It’s a temporary suspension of reality for the sake of enjoyment.

Harm and Victimization

Conversely, in relationship scams, the outcome is detrimental. Victims are often emotionally and financially exploited, leading to severe distress, trauma, and financial loss. The manipulation techniques used in scams exploit vulnerabilities, leaving victims devastated and with long-term repercussions on their trust and well-being.

• Comparison of Manipulation Techniques

Illusion vs. Deception

Both magic and scams utilize manipulation techniques like misdirection, suggestion, authority, and emotional engagement. However, in magic, these techniques are openly used to create an illusion, where the deception is acknowledged and accepted for the purpose of entertainment. In scams, these same techniques are used deceptively, exploiting trust and emotions to deceive victims for malicious gains.

Intent and Consent

The critical ethical distinction lies in the intention behind the manipulation. Magicians aim to entertain and provide an enjoyable experience within the realm of consent. Scammers, on the other hand, have malicious intent, aiming to deceive and exploit victims without their informed consent.

• Insight

In the realm of manipulation techniques, the ethical distinctions between the psychology behind magic tricks and relationship scams are profound, leading to vastly different outcomes.


The psychology behind manipulation techniques in magic tricks and relationship scams starkly differs in ethical intent and outcomes. Magic tricks are designed for entertainment, with participants engaging willingly and knowingly in the suspension of reality. On the contrary, relationship scams involve unethical manipulation tactics that exploit trust and emotions, causing emotional and financial harm to unsuspecting victims. Recognizing these ethical differences is crucial in understanding the impact of manipulation and deception in different contexts and safeguarding oneself from potential exploitation and harm.


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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 Relationship 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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