Suggestibility & Scam Victims

Suggestibility & Scam Victims

The Psychology of Scams

A SCARS Insight

It Is Important For Scam Victims To Better Understand Their Own Suggestibility Since It Influenced Not Only The Scam But Their Life After The Scam

Let’s Begin With What Suggestibility Is?

Suggestibility is the quality of being inclined to accept and act on the suggestions of others.

One may fill in gaps in certain memories with false information given by another when recalling a scenario or moment. Suggestibility uses cues to distort recollection: when the subject has been persistently told something about a past event, his or her memory of the event conforms to the repeated message. That sounds very much like Gaslighting because Gaslighting relies heavily on a victim’s suggestibility in order to perform that form of manipulation.

It also can influence a person’s expectations so they believe that an outcome will happen regardless of the actual facts.

A person experiencing intense emotions (such as when they are deliberately Amygdala hijacked) tends to be more receptive to ideas and therefore more suggestible. Generally, suggestibility decreases as age increases. However, psychologists have found that individual levels of self-esteem and assertiveness (in other words – vulnerable) can make some people more suggestible than others; this finding led to the concept of a spectrum of suggestibility. But suggestibility is also influenced by other factors, such as cognitive biases.

Definition of Suggestibility

Attempts to isolate a global trait of “suggestibility” have not been particularly successful, due to testing procedures to distinguish differences between the following distinct types of “suggestibility”:

  • Being Suggestible To Verbal Persuasion – to be affected by communication or their own expectations such that responses are overtly enacted, or subjectively experienced without volition
  • Being Suggestible To One’s Own Fantasies – deliberately using one’s imagination to bring about effects (even if involuntary) in response to communication or expectation.
  • Being Overly Accepting – to accept what people say uncritically, and to believe or privately accept what is said
  • Being Conforming – to conform to expectations or the views of others, without the appropriate private acceptance or experience; that is, to exhibit behavioral compliance without private acceptance or belief.

Suggestibility Examples

Suggestibility can be seen in people’s everyday lives:

  • Someone witnesses an argument after school. When later asked about the “huge fight” that occurred, he/she recalls the memory, but unknowingly distorts it with exaggerated fabrications, because he/she now thinks of the event as a “huge fight” instead of a simple argument
  • Children are told by their parents they are good singers, so from then on they believe they are talented while their parents were in fact being falsely encouraging
  • A teacher could trick his students by saying, “Suggestibility is the distortion of memory through suggestion or misinformation, right?” It is likely that the majority of the class would agree with him because he is a teacher and what he said sounds correct. However, the term is really the misinformation effect.

However, suggestibility can also be seen in extremes, resulting in negative consequences (such as in romance/relationship scams):

  • A witness’ testimony is altered because the police or attorneys make suggestions during the interview, which causes their already uncertain observations to become distorted memories.
  • A young girl began suffering migraines which led to sleep deprivation and depression. Her therapist, who was a specialist in cases involving child abuse, repeatedly asked her whether her father had sexually abused her. This suggestion caused the young girl to fabricate memories of her father molesting her, which led to her being placed in foster care and her father being tried on charges of abuse.
  • A victim of sexual assault is asked to look at a ‘line-up” of suspects. The victim believes or has faith in the police and tends to believe that the person that assaulted her must be in the group of suspects, and chooses the most similar suspect believing he had to be there, thus making a false identification.

With scams …

In the case of scam victims, it both influences their susceptibility to being scammed and the levels of manipulation during the scam. But also what they believe after the scam.

  • Scam victims often are suggestible to the fairy tales sold by the online dating industry and develop belief in their entitlement to a happily ever after
  • They are suggestible to the internet mythology that it is a connected world and that people can make friends anywhere  in the world
  • They are suggestible to the attention that online criminals pour onto victims during the grooming phase to set them up for stronger manipulation
  • They are suggestible to gaslighting which is used as a control mechanism leading to the harvesting of the victim’s money
  • After the scam they are highly suggestible to other victims – since almost all victims are equally lost, this leads to belief in urban legends and misinformation spread by amateur instant experts. This is especially true in leading victims into dangerous and high-risk behaviors, such as scam baiting and other forms of vigilantism
  • Even proper and professional support relies on an amount of suggestibility in helping victims overcome their experience

Susceptibility vs. Suggestibility

Popular media and layman’s articles occasionally use the terms “suggestible” and “susceptible” interchangeably. But they are not.

Suggestibility refers to the extent to which a given individual responds to incoming suggestions from another. The two terms are not synonymous, however, susceptibility tends to have a more negative bias absent from “suggestibility”. But in our work with scam victims, we use susceptibility (without the negative bias) to explain the overall set of vulnerabilities that either made (past tense) or continue to make victims susceptible to being scammed (manipulated).

In scientific research and academic literature on hypnosis and hypnotherapy, the term “suggestibility” describes a neutral psychological and possibly physiological state or phenomena. This is distinct from the culturally biased common parlance of the term “suggestible”. The term “susceptible” implies weakness or some increased danger to which one is more likely to become a victim. It, therefore, has a negative effect on expectation and itself is a hypnotic suggestion that suggestions must be noticed and guarded against. Both terms are often bound with undeserved negative social connotations not inherent in the word meanings themselves. We try to separate out the negative aspects of both of these terms in our work and education of scam victims, but it is important to know that the general public may view them as such.

To be suggestible is not to be gullible. The term ‘gullible’ pertains to an empirical fact that can be shown accurate or inaccurate to any observer; the former term does not. To be open to suggestions has no bearing on the accuracy of any incoming suggestions, nor whether such an objective accuracy is possible, as is the case with manipulated beliefs. Gullible, after all, means to be easily duped or cheated. Scam victims do not meet this definition most of the time.

Some therapists may examine worries or objections to suggestibility before proceeding with therapy: this is because some believe there is a rational or learned deliberate will to hold a belief, even in the case of more convincing new ideas, when there is a compelling cognitive reason not to allow oneself to be persuaded.

As It Applies To Romance Scams

Suggestibility plays a role in the overall susceptibility of a person to being defrauded, as do other cognitive biases, distortions, beliefs, and past traumas causing vulnerabilities.

Friends and family encouraging a person to engage in online dating – “they did and it worked out great” – are suggestions that the victim will have the same result. So the victim goes into the experience with expectations created by the suggestions of others. This creates the initial state that often causes the victim to ignore early problems, though usually, their own confirmation bias ignores them. Thus the person’s suggestibility helps to set them up to fail.

Of course, during the scam itself, their suggestibility is exploited heavily by the criminals through their application of grooming, manipulation, and control. The criminals use this aspect of the victim to feed them storylines and control clues to hold them in the scam and propel them to the final desired result.

Most concerning is how suggestibility, particularly in the words of other victims influences incorrect and dangerous behaviors after the scam ends.

It would seem completely logical that:

  • Scam victims are not experts just because they are a victim
  • That an experience that clearly traumatized a victim should require professional psychological help
  • That a supportive environment that focuses on fact-based and trauma-informed care should be what they look for immediately
  • That they are both traumatized and in need of real knowledge to help them understand this experience and recover from it

But the sad fact is that most victims do not recognize or accept these facts.

Instead, they buy into the false suggestions from other victims:

  • Other victims know best because they are victims and only they can understand what the victim feels
  • Hating criminals is natural and good for the victim
  • If they cannot get their money back, then engaging in vengeance (in its various forms) is natural and needed
  • They do not need to report these crimes since no one does anything anyway
  • These criminals are stupid, lazy, ugly thugs – without considering that these lazy stupid thugs outthought them
  • That anyone that disagrees with their new views is both wrong and probably a scammer themselves

Where This Leaves The Victim

In the end, their own suggestibility works against the victim before, during, and after the crime. Instead of simply placing acceptance in their own fallibility and finding the fact-based trauma-informed support (such as SCARS) that they need, they seek help from those who are not really committed to helping them and lack the knowledge needed to do it.

For this reason alone, the majority of victims will not successfully recover from their experience in an acceptable amount of time, and many will never recover.

In order to counter this misinformation, it is necessary to hammer on the real facts associated with these crimes and hope that victims understand how they have led themselves astray. As the saying goes, it is never too late to get the help they need.

If you are a victim, please read our 3 Steps Guide for New Victims and then contact us on Facebook to join one of our support and recovery groups!


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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.






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