Scam Victim’s Sacred Beliefs & Their Brain

An Essay About Scammer Manipulation & Victim Recovery

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

Sacred Beliefs & The Brain

In A Very Real Sense, A Relationship Scam Is A Full-on Attack On Your Sacred Beliefs!

When we refer to “sacred beliefs” in this article, we are referring to a victim’s closely held core beliefs, not to their religious beliefs.

The Brain & Sacred Beliefs

A part of our brain is the focus of our actual belief system – we call these sacred beliefs. The frontal lobes, specifically the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) (and other parts) play a major role in beliefs. Mental representations of the world are integrated with sub-cortical information by the prefrontal cortex. Amygdala and Hippocampus are involved in the process of thinking and thus help in the execution of beliefs.

Each of us has logical, emotional, and memory systems in our brain that direct our behavior. But the brain has a special part that brings these together in what is sometimes referred to as Sacred Beliefs – including the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC).

The formation and processing of belief systems involve various regions of the brain, rather than being localized to a single area. Several brain regions contribute to belief formation, including the prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate cortex, insula, amygdala, and parietal cortex. These regions work in conjunction to integrate sensory information, emotions, memories, and social influences to shape our beliefs.

It’s important to note that the brain’s functioning is complex, and belief systems are influenced by a combination of genetic, environmental, cultural, and individual factors, as well as outside influence, manipulation, and control!

The Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex

The ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) is a part of the brain that is involved in a variety of functions, including:

  • Emotion regulation: The vmPFC helps to regulate emotions, such as fear, anxiety, and anger. It does this by integrating information from the amygdala (a brain region involved in processing emotions) with information from other parts of the brain, such as the hippocampus (a brain region involved in memory).
  • Decision-making: The vmPFC is involved in decision-making, especially when the decisions involve social or emotional factors. It does this by weighing the potential risks and rewards of different options.
  • Social cognition: The vmPFC is involved in social cognition, which is the ability to understand and respond to the thoughts and feelings of others. It does this by processing information about other people’s emotions and intentions.
  • Self-awareness: The vmPFC is involved in self-awareness, which is the ability to understand one’s own thoughts, feelings, and experiences. It does this by integrating information about oneself with information about others.
  • Memory: The vmPFC is involved in memory, especially memory for emotional events. It does this by storing information about emotional events and by retrieving this information when needed.
The Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex (vMPFC) - home of the Belief System in the Brain

Scam Victims’ Sacred Beliefs

Sacred beliefs are the core beliefs of our being, they can be nationalistic, religious, humanistic, philosophical, moralistic, etc. In other words, they are what we believe – not what we know. This is also where we find all of those wonderful cognitive biases.

Sacred beliefs, from a psychological perspective, refer to deeply held convictions or principles that are regarded as sacred or inviolable. These beliefs often relate to religious, spiritual, or moral dimensions and are typically resistant to change or questioning. Sacred beliefs often provide individuals with a sense of meaning, purpose, and identity, shaping their worldview and guiding their behavior.

Psychologically, sacred beliefs can serve several functions:

  • Meaning and purpose: Sacred beliefs offer individuals a framework to understand the world and their place in it. They provide answers to existential questions and offer a sense of meaning, purpose, and coherence in life.
  • Identity and belonging: Sacred beliefs contribute to an individual’s sense of identity and affiliation with a particular group or community. They provide a shared set of values and beliefs that foster a sense of belonging and solidarity.
  • Emotional significance: Sacred beliefs often evoke strong emotions such as awe, reverence, and devotion. They can provide comfort, solace, and a sense of hope during difficult times, offering emotional support and coping mechanisms.
  • Moral guidance: Sacred beliefs often encompass ethical and moral principles, guiding individuals’ behavior and decision-making. They can provide a moral compass and a sense of right and wrong.

It’s important to note that sacred beliefs can vary greatly among individuals and cultures, encompassing religious, spiritual, ideological, or philosophical perspectives. These beliefs can be deeply personal and subjective, shaping individuals’ values, attitudes, and actions.

Brainwashing & Manipulation

Many believe in the notion of brainwashing, but most scientists discount brainwashing since the term depends on a degree of physical control. But what does seem very real is the use of emotional controls and manipulation to change our sacred beliefs.

Torture was long believed to be a way to change an individual’s secret beliefs, but by their very nature, sacred beliefs can motivate people to die for those beliefs.

On the other hand, emotional manipulation, as we have seen with terrorists held at Guantanamo, shows that even the hardest-held sacred beliefs can be manipulated and changed using emotional manipulation. This is largely what happens to scam victims to induce them to give away their life savings.

When the manipulation focuses on the emotional context of beliefs then things work differently because it does not seem to trigger the rule retrieval parts of our brain, it works directly on the motivations that underpin our sacred beliefs.

This is how, for example, a scam victim can be so convinced that the relationship is real, that they will be unfaithful to their spouse, betray their family, give away their wealth and even their home, and alienate friends and family.

One example of this is the Stockholm Syndrome.

Stockholm Syndrome

Stockholm syndrome is a psychological phenomenon in which hostages or kidnap victims develop a psychological bond with their captors or abductors. This bond may be characterized by a sense of trust or even affection.

Stockholm syndrome is an emotional coping mechanism of a captive or someone in an abusive situation. Because of their treatment, people develop positive feelings toward their captors or abusers over time. This condition applies to situations including child abuse, coach-athlete abuse, relationship abuse, and sex trafficking.

The term Stockholm syndrome was coined in 1973 after a bank robbery in Stockholm, Sweden. During the robbery, four employees of the bank were held hostage for six days. During the standoff, the hostages began to develop a bond with their captors. They expressed sympathy for their captors and even defended them after they were released.

One theory is that hostages develop a bond with their captors as a way of survival. By gaining the captors’ trust, hostages may believe that they are more likely to be spared.

Stockholm syndrome is not always present in hostage situations. It is more likely to occur in situations where the hostages are isolated from the outside world and have limited contact with their captors. It is also more likely to occur in situations where the captors are not physically violent.

Stockholm syndrome can have a significant impact on hostages. It can make it difficult for them to adjust to life after they are released. They may experience anxiety, depression, and difficulty trusting others. In some cases, they may even miss their captors.

Relationship Scams

Relationship scams are a bit different, but the same idea applies. Over the course of days and weeks the criminal develops emotional rapport, and little by little through Amygdala hijacking, induces the victim to change their sacred beliefs – about boundaries, money, and their friends and family. The end result is this profound change in the victim’s sacred beliefs.

One way that a relationship scam can undermine a victim’s sacred beliefs is by exploiting their vulnerability. Scammers often target people who are lonely, isolated or have recently experienced a loss. They may also target people who have strong religious or moral beliefs. By preying on these vulnerabilities, scammers can convince the victim that they are someone they can trust and that their requests for money or information are legitimate, even noble.

By systematically indoctrinating the victim through multiple methods of manipulation, the scammers (criminals) erode the belief system of their victim. Of course, the point of all of that is to steal the money from the victim – but it is done in such a way that the victims willingly give it to the criminals.

Victim Identity Crisis

When the scam or crime is over, it results in trauma, but the trauma may not just be from the discovery of the scam but also from a profound identity crisis that comes when a victim realizes that they violated what they held as their core sacred beliefs. After all, what is an identity crisis but a loss of faith in who we are – in other words in what we believe?

And this is where the really hard part comes in for victims! Beliefs do not come about because we will them into being. Beliefs come about (and this is the way we evolved) because we fundamentally want to belong to a group or tribe. By violating those sacred beliefs we undermine our existence in that group or tribe!

Sacred Beliefs & A Sense Of Belonging

The scammer became the victim’s tribe, and their family and friends were abandoned. Religion does exactly the same thing – that sense of belonging is at the root of religious conversion.

After the scam, victims lose their sense of belonging (belonging to the fake relationship) – but not completely, it clings, and it is so tempting to go back to it. This is why the average scam victim will be scammed more than 4 times (based upon SCARS Analytics) – these victims long for the return of belonging they had in the scam, so unconsciously they repeat the actions that led them to be scammed in the first place – this also plays a large role in criminal recidivism.

Victims long to be part of something again, and for this reason, they easily gravitate to amateur anti-scam groups that offer some form of community, even if it is based on anger and false narratives – it is still a community, and once they make it part of their new sacred beliefs, they will aggressively defend their group.

These same vulnerabilities exist in all of us, and it is why people can become religious or political zealots.

We have found that this belonging is important in our own SCARS scam victims’ support and recovery groups. But we employ one very important difference, that we work to maintain – elimination of a messiah.

Messiahs or Saviors

Once victims have not only lost control but have also violated their core beliefs, the trauma from this can cause a profound desperation to set in. It is often accompanied by anger and an almost religious conviction that they are going to stop these criminals – single-handedly if needed. This is referred to as a Savior or Messiah Syndrome or Complex.

A savior or messiah complex is a psychological condition (disorder) in which a person believes that they are destined or compelled to save or help others. This belief can be based on a sense of entitlement, a need for attention, or a genuine desire to help others, but when it comes from the trauma of a crime can be especially powerful.

People with a savior complex may feel compelled to help others, even if they are not asked or if they do not have the skills or resources to do so. They may also feel responsible for the well-being of others as a way of reestablishing control in their own life or overcoming an identity crisis, and they may become easily stressed or overwhelmed if they feel that they are not able to help. That stress can turn into anger and aggression against anyone that they see it a barrier.

Here are some of the signs and symptoms of a savior complex:

  • Feeling compelled to help others, even if they are not asked or if they do not have the skills or resources to do so.
  • Feeling responsible for the well-being of others.
  • Becoming easily stressed or overwhelmed if they feel that they are not able to help.
  • Having difficulty setting boundaries with others.
  • Neglecting their own needs in order to help others.
  • Engaging in unhealthy relationships with people who need your help.

Most of the anti-scam groups on social media have a leader that craves the attention and respect they get from their members because they (usually) are a victim too and desperately want to regain a sense of control (over themselves, but since this is difficult they substitute control over others) and a sense of belonging – they become a savior or a messiah to regain control and belonging.

The SCARS Approach

At SCARS we take a different approach and try to avoid recognition of a single individual as our member’s savior.

We work as much as possible behind the facade of our organization and rarely expose ourselves personally – at least as much as possible. This is a vitally important distinction that we strive for in our victims’ assistance methodology and ethics.

We are also very careful to monitor our own team members and volunteers for savior-like behavior, such as disregarding rules or our code of conduct, engaging in higher risk-taking, trying to be everyone’s friend and other behaviors that demonstrate the messiah complex.

Restoring Those Sacred Beliefs

Restoring a victim’s core beliefs and rebuilding one’s sense of self after being victimized by a scam or fraud can be a difficult process.

Here are some steps that crime victims can take toward restoration:

  1. Acknowledge the Impact: Recognize and acknowledge the psychological and emotional impact of the scam or fraud. Understand that it is normal to feel a sense of violation, betrayal, and loss of trust in oneself and others. Validating these emotions is an essential first step in the healing process.
  2. Seek Support: Reach out for support from trusted friends, family members, or support groups. Connecting with others who have experienced similar situations can provide validation, empathy, and guidance. Consider seeking professional help from therapists or counselors who specialize in trauma recovery to facilitate the healing journey. Join a SCARS Support Group by visiting
  3. Challenge Self-Blame: Victims often blame themselves for falling prey to scams or frauds. It is important to recognize that perpetrators are skilled manipulators who exploit vulnerabilities, and the responsibility lies with them, not the victims. Challenge self-blaming thoughts and work towards developing self-compassion and self-forgiveness. It was NOT your fault!
  4. Rebuild Trust: Rebuilding trust in oneself and others is a gradual process. Start by setting small, achievable goals that allow for positive experiences and interactions, such as participating in a support group with other victims. Surround yourself with supportive individuals who demonstrate reliability and trustworthiness, gradually expanding your social circle. Cut out of your life toxic or untrustworthy people!
  5. Engage in Self-Care: Prioritize self-care activities that promote physical, emotional, and mental well-being. Engaging in activities that bring joy, practicing mindfulness or meditation, maintaining a healthy lifestyle, and seeking enjoyable experiences can contribute to overall healing and restoration.
  6. Educate Yourself: Gain knowledge about scams, frauds, and manipulative tactics to better understand how the perpetrators operated – start reading on and here on This knowledge can help challenge any lingering self-doubt, empower you to make informed decisions, and prevent future victimization.
  7. Set Boundaries: Establish healthy boundaries in personal and financial relationships. Learn to recognize red flags and trust your intuition when something feels off but also recognize that your cognitive biases may cloud your intuition, so be careful. Communicate assertively and enforce boundaries to protect yourself from potential exploitation.
  8. Focus on Personal Growth: Engage in activities that foster personal growth and empowerment. Pursue hobbies, develop new skills, or explore educational opportunities that contribute to your sense of self-worth and competence. Reclaiming control over your life can be a transformative part of the healing process.
  9. Practice Resilience: Embrace resilience by focusing on your strengths and utilizing coping mechanisms to navigate challenges. Celebrate your progress, no matter how small, and remember that healing takes time. Be patient and kind to yourself throughout the journey.

Restoring core beliefs and regaining a sense of self after being victimized requires time, self-reflection, and support. By actively engaging in the healing process and embracing self-care, victims can gradually rebuild their lives, reclaim their core beliefs, and move forward with renewed strength and resilience.

Victim Recovery

Returning to the topic again, it is essential for all financial fraud victims to understand that there are psychological forces at work that can work against them and that must be brought to their awareness and their control. But remember, that these very self-same beliefs hide a victim’s lack of control behind biases and coping mechanisms.

This is part of the reason we so strongly recommend that all scam victims find a trauma counselor to explore past traumas that led to vulnerabilities, and present trauma that drives their traumatic responses/triggers on a daily basis, but also to better understand how their minds work and how to see beyond cognitive biases, coping mechanisms, and avoidance mechanisms.

Counseling is also important to help us rediscover our sacred beliefs and overcome the identity crisis that we caused by altering or abandoning them.

When we all understand how our minds really work, we are in a position to live better, happier, and more fulfilling lives. And have the knowledge we need for when future adverse events occur that can pull us back into trauma.

Also Read

To more fully understand this please also read A Temporoparietal Junction (RTPJ/LTPJ) Theory Of Relationship Scams

SCARS Resources:

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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