Helping Scam Victims Understand Cognitive Dissonance

Understanding Why Scams Can Have Such a Profound Impact on Scam Victims

Scam Victim Recovery Psychology

•  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

Cognitive dissonance in scam victims emerges when they confront evidence contradicting their beliefs about the scam.

The realization of being deceived triggers emotional distress, further impairing cognitive function. Chronic stress from coping with the scam’s aftermath also contributes to physiological changes in the brain, affecting areas responsible for higher-order thinking. This psychological conflict exacerbates brain impairment or “brain fog,” leading to confusion and difficulty in processing information.

Recognizing these challenges is crucial for supporting scam victims in their recovery journey, as addressing cognitive dissonance and brain impairment requires specialized intervention. By providing appropriate support and guidance, individuals can better navigate the complex emotions and cognitive difficulties associated with being a scam victim, ultimately aiding in their healing process.

SCARS Scam Victim Support & Recovery Program

Unraveling the Cognitive Dissonance of Scam Victims: The Profound Impact of Trauma and Grief

In the digital age, where connectivity is ubiquitous, the prevalence of scams targeting unsuspecting individuals has surged, leaving a trail of emotional devastation in its wake. When victims discover they have been deceived, a profound sense of cognitive dissonance often ensues, compounded by the trauma and grief of realizing their trust has been violated. This article delves into the intricate web of emotions and cognitive processes that scam victims grapple with, shedding light on the challenges they face in reconciling their beliefs and experiences.

Cognitive dissonance, a term coined by psychologist Leon Festinger, refers to the discomfort experienced when individuals hold conflicting beliefs or attitudes. In the context of scam victims, this dissonance arises from the stark contrast between their perception of reality and the harsh truth of being duped. Despite the evidence pointing to deception, victims may struggle to accept the reality of their situation, clinging to the belief that they couldn’t have been so easily deceived.

Trauma and grief further exacerbate this cognitive dissonance, amplifying feelings of disbelief, shame, and self-blame. Victims may grapple with intrusive thoughts, replaying the events leading up to the scam in a futile attempt to make sense of what happened. The loss of financial security, trust in others, and sense of identity can plunge individuals into a state of emotional turmoil, where rationality is clouded by overwhelming emotions.

In the aftermath of discovering a scam, victims may exhibit signs of cognitive impairment, such as memory lapses, difficulty concentrating, and impaired decision-making. This cognitive fog, fueled by stress and emotional distress, can further exacerbate feelings of helplessness and vulnerability. As victims navigate the complexities of their emotions, they may find themselves trapped in a cycle of rumination and self-doubt, unable to break free from the grip of cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive Dissonance – Why Does it Happen?

In the case of scam victims, cognitive dissonance arises from the clash between their existing beliefs or perceptions and the contradictory information presented by the scam and its aftermath. This conflict triggers a state of psychological discomfort, prompting individuals to rationalize or reinterpret their experiences to alleviate the dissonance. Several factors contribute to the development of cognitive dissonance in scam victims:

  • Trust and Betrayal: Scam victims often begin their interactions with a sense of trust in the scammer or the legitimacy of the situation or relationship. When this trust is betrayed by the revelation of the scam, it creates a profound sense of cognitive dissonance as victims struggle to reconcile their initial perceptions with the reality of deception.
  • Self-Image and Identity: Scam victims usually have a positive self-image or identity tied to their perceived competence, intelligence, or judgment. The realization that they have been deceived challenges this self-concept, leading to cognitive dissonance as victims attempt to maintain a consistent sense of self-worth.
  • Emotional Investment: Victims of scams have invested significant emotional energy, time, or resources into the fraudulent relationship or scheme. When confronted with evidence of deception, they experience cognitive dissonance as they grapple with the loss of their emotional investment and the betrayal of their trust.
  • Social Influence and Pressure: Scam victims may face social pressure to conform to societal expectations or norms, such as the desire to appear knowledgeable, competent, or financially successful. The revelation of the scam triggers cognitive dissonance as victims confront the disparity between their public image and the reality of victimization.
  • Confirmation Bias: Scam victims usually exhibit confirmation bias, selectively attending to information that confirms their preconceived beliefs or expectations while disregarding contradictory evidence. This cognitive bias exacerbates cognitive dissonance by reinforcing victims’ existing beliefs and hindering their ability to acknowledge the truth of the scam.

Cognitive dissonance in scam victims arises from the clash between their prior beliefs, perceptions, and expectations, and the contradictory information presented by the scam. This internal conflict triggers psychological discomfort, prompting victims to engage in cognitive and emotional strategies to alleviate the dissonance and maintain a consistent sense of self and reality.

Cognitive Dissonance – Development or Emergence in Scam Victims

Cognitive dissonance develops in scam victims as a result of conflicting beliefs, attitudes, or perceptions about their experience. It emerges when individuals are confronted with evidence that contradicts their preconceived notions or expectations. In the context of scam victimization, cognitive dissonance often arises when victims face the harsh reality of being deceived, despite their initial trust in the perpetrator or the legitimacy of the situation.

The impact of cognitive dissonance on coping and managing trauma in scam victims can be profound.

Initially, it can trigger feelings of confusion, disbelief, and denial as victims struggle to reconcile the discrepancy between their beliefs and the truth. This internal conflict can exacerbate emotional distress, making it difficult for victims to process their experience and come to terms with their newfound reality.

Cognitive dissonance can also impede the coping process by hindering victims’ ability to accept the vulnerability that led to their actions or decisions that led to their victimization. Instead of acknowledging their vulnerability, victims may engage in defensive mechanisms, such as blaming external factors or rationalizing their behavior, to alleviate feelings of guilt or shame, or worse to anger, rage, and even hate.

Moreover, cognitive dissonance can prolong the grieving process for scam victims, as they grapple with conflicting emotions and struggle to make sense of their experience. It can interfere with their ability to integrate the trauma into their existing belief systems and identity, hindering their efforts to heal and move forward.

In some cases, cognitive dissonance may manifest as a form of psychological self-protection, where victims minimize the severity of the scam or downplay its impact on their lives to preserve their sense of self-worth or integrity. However, this coping mechanism can perpetuate feelings of denial and self-deception, preventing victims from fully acknowledging the extent of their trauma and seeking appropriate support or intervention.

Overall, cognitive dissonance poses significant challenges for scam victims in coping with and managing trauma. Recognizing and addressing this internal conflict is essential for facilitating the healing process (recovery) and empowering victims to reclaim their agency, resilience, and self-worth in the aftermath of victimization. Through education, therapy, and supportive interventions, victims can navigate cognitive dissonance more effectively, ultimately finding strength and healing in their journey toward recovery.

Cognitive Dissonance & Scam Fog

Cognitive dissonance and brain impairment or brain fog experienced by scam victims are related phenomena that can exacerbate each other in the aftermath of a scam being exposed or discovered. Cognitive dissonance refers to the psychological discomfort that arises when individuals hold contradictory beliefs, attitudes, or behaviors. In the case of scam victims, cognitive dissonance usually occurs when they are confronted with evidence that contradicts their previous beliefs about the legitimacy of the scam or the intentions of the scammer.

This internal conflict can contribute to feelings of confusion, disorientation, and mental fog, commonly referred to as brain impairment or scam fog.

Scam victims struggle to process information, make decisions, or maintain focus due to the overwhelming cognitive dissonance they experience, as well as the traumatic effects on their brains. Additionally, the emotional distress associated with realizing that they have been deceived can further impair cognitive functioning, leading to difficulties with memory, attention, and problem-solving.

Furthermore, the stress of coping with the aftermath of the scam can activate the body’s stress response system, leading to physiological changes in the brain that impair cognitive function. Chronic stress has been linked to alterations in brain structure and function, particularly in areas of the brain responsible for higher-order cognitive processes such as the prefrontal cortex.

Cognitive dissonance and brain impairment are interconnected processes that can exacerbate each other in scam victims, leading to profound cognitive and emotional challenges in the aftermath of a scam being exposed or discovered. Recognizing these challenges and seeking appropriate support and intervention is crucial for helping scam victims navigate the complex process of recovery and healing.

Cognitive Dissonance – Denial

Cognitive dissonance can manifest differently depending on how individuals cope with their victimization. In some cases, victims may experience cognitive dissonance more acutely if they are in denial about their situation, as their beliefs and actions are incongruent with the reality of the scam. This denial may involve minimizing the severity of the scam, rationalizing the perpetrator’s behavior, or refusing to accept evidence of the deception. As a result, these individuals may experience heightened internal conflict as they struggle to reconcile their conflicting beliefs and experiences.

On the other hand, victims who allow themselves to feed their anger may also experience cognitive dissonance, albeit in a different way. In this scenario, individuals may become deeply entrenched in their anger and resentment towards the perpetrator, which can lead to a distortion of their perceptions and beliefs. Despite evidence to the contrary, they may continue to justify their anger and hostility as a means of coping with their victimization. As a result, they may experience cognitive dissonance as they attempt to maintain consistency between their negative beliefs about the scammers and their desire for justice or revenge.

Cognitive dissonance can be pronounced in both denial and anger-based coping mechanisms, as individuals struggle to resolve the discrepancies between their beliefs, emotions, and actions in the aftermath of a scam. However, the specific nature and intensity of cognitive dissonance may vary depending on the individual’s coping strategies, personality traits, and the context of the scam.

Cognitive Dissonance – Duration in Scam Victims

The duration of cognitive dissonance in scam victims can vary widely depending on individual factors such as the severity or length of the scam, the level of emotional investment or attachment, personal resilience, and access to support systems.

In some cases, cognitive dissonance may dissipate relatively quickly as victims come to terms with the reality of the scam and adjust their beliefs accordingly. However, for others, cognitive dissonance may persist for an extended period, particularly if they struggle to accept the truth of their victimization or experience ongoing emotional distress. It is important to note that cognitive dissonance does not remain for the whole period that a scam survivor is recovering, it is typically in the first stage(s) of their recovery, but it can return when victims have unprocessed grief and have avoided their trauma.

Research suggests that cognitive dissonance tends to be more prolonged in cases where victims have deeply entrenched beliefs or emotional attachments related to the scam, such as romantic involvement with the perpetrator or significant financial losses. Additionally, factors such as social isolation, stigma, and self-blame can exacerbate cognitive dissonance and prolong the recovery process.

While cognitive dissonance may initially be intense following the discovery of the scam, it typically diminishes over time as victims engage in cognitive reappraisal, engage in learning about the crimes and their own mental states, seek social support, and gradually integrate their experiences into their sense of self and reality. However, for some individuals, residual cognitive dissonance may persist as they continue to grapple with the emotional and psychological consequences of their victimization.

Cognitive Dissonance – Recovery

Recovery from scam victimization requires a multi-faceted approach that addresses both the emotional and cognitive aspects of trauma.

Therapeutic interventions, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) and mindfulness-based techniques, can help victims challenge irrational beliefs, manage distressing emotions, and cultivate resilience in the face of adversity. Psychoeducation about the tactics used by scammers and the psychology of deception, and about the way victims’ minds function can empower victims to recognize their emotional functions and protect themselves from future exploitation.

Supportive networks play the most important role in the healing journey of scam victims, providing validation, empathy, and practical assistance.

By fostering a safe space for victims to share their experiences without fear of judgment, friends, family, and mental health professionals can facilitate the process of cognitive restructuring and emotional healing. Encouraging victims to engage in self-care practices, such as journaling, exercise, and relaxation techniques, can also promote cognitive clarity and emotional well-being.

It is imperative to recognize the profound impact of victimization on individuals’ cognitive and emotional well-being.

By acknowledging the complexities of cognitive dissonance and impairment in the aftermath of scam victimization, we all can work towards creating a more compassionate and supportive environment for those affected. Through education, advocacy, and empathy, not denial or anger or hate, we can empower scam victims to reclaim their agency, rebuild their lives, and emerge stronger from adversity.

Wisdom is tolerance of cognitive dissonance!

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.







This content and other material contained on the website, apps, newsletter, and products (“Content”), is general in nature and for informational purposes only and does not constitute medical, legal, or financial advice; the Content is not intended to be a substitute for licensed or regulated professional advice. Always consult your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider, lawyer, financial, or tax professional with any questions you may have regarding the educational information contained herein. SCARS makes no guarantees about the efficacy of information described on or in SCARS’ Content. The information contained is subject to change and is not intended to cover all possible situations or effects. SCARS does not recommend or endorse any specific professional or care provider, product, service, or other information that may be mentioned in SCARS’ websites, apps, and Content unless explicitly identified as such.

The disclaimers herein are provided on this page for ease of reference. These disclaimers supplement and are a part of SCARS’ website’s Terms of Use

Legal Notices: 

All original content is Copyright © 1991 – 2023 Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams Inc. (Registered D.B.A SCARS) All Rights Reserved Worldwide & Webwide. Third-party copyrights acknowledge.

U.S. State of Florida Registration Nonprofit (Not for Profit) #N20000011978 [SCARS DBA Registered #G20000137918] – Learn more at

SCARS, SCARS|INTERNATIONAL, SCARS, SCARS|SUPPORT, SCARS, RSN, Romance Scams Now, SCARS|INTERNATION, SCARS|WORLDWIDE, SCARS|GLOBAL, SCARS, Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams, Society of Citizens Against Romance Scams, SCARS|ANYSCAM, Project Anyscam, Anyscam, SCARS|GOFCH, GOFCH, SCARS|CHINA, SCARS|CDN, SCARS|UK, SCARS|LATINOAMERICA, SCARS|MEMBER, SCARS|VOLUNTEER, SCARS Cybercriminal Data Network, Cobalt Alert, Scam Victims Support Group, SCARS ANGELS, SCARS RANGERS, SCARS MARSHALLS, SCARS PARTNERS, are all trademarks of Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams Inc., All Rights Reserved Worldwide

Contact the legal department for the Society of Citizens Against Relationship Scams Incorporated by email at