Cognitive Distortions
The Psychology Of Scams

A SCARS Insight

What Is A Cognitive Distortion?

A cognitive distortion is an exaggerated or irrational thought pattern involved in the onset and perpetuation of psychopathological states, especially those more influenced by psychosocial factors, such as depression and anxiety, or in this case a psychological manipulation for the purposes of crime.

Psychiatrist Aaron T. Beck laid the groundwork for the study of these distortions in 1976, when he first proposed the theory behind cognitive distortions in the 1980s, and his student David D. Burns continued research on the topic. David Burns was responsible for popularizing it with common names and examples for the distortions. Burns, in The Feeling Good Handbook[2] (1989), described personal and professional anecdotes related to cognitive distortions and their elimination.

Cognitive distortions are thoughts that cause individuals to perceive reality inaccurately. According to the cognitive model of Beck, a negative outlook on reality sometimes called negative schemas (or schemata), is a factor in symptoms of emotional dysfunction and poorer subjective well-being. Specifically, negative thinking patterns cause negative emotions. During difficult circumstances, these distorted thoughts can contribute to an overall negative outlook on the world and a depressive or anxious mental state.

Challenging and changing cognitive distortions is a key element of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).


Most Common Cognitive Distortions That Affect Romance Scam Victims

Here are examples of some common cognitive distortions seen in depressed and anxious individuals. People may be taught how to identify and alter these distortions as part of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.

PLEASE NOTE: The following is not a diagnosis, and is only intended for educational purposes. Remember to always seek competent mental health professionals for any form of therapy. Counseling and therapy can only be provided by licensed professionals.

  1. Filtering: We take the negative details and magnify them while filtering out all positive aspects of a situation. For instance, a person may pick out a single, unpleasant detail and dwell on it exclusively so that their vision of reality becomes darkened or distorted.
  2. Polarized Thinking (or “Black and White” Thinking): In polarized thinking, things are either “black-or-white.” We have to be perfect or we’re a failure — there is no middle ground. You place people or situations in “either/or” categories, with no shades of gray or allowing for the complexity of most people and situations. If your performance falls short of perfect, you see yourself as a total failure. An example of this in scam victims is their black & white belief in justice, refusing to understand the nuanced complexity of criminal justice internationally, with treaties and extradition issues.
  3. Overgeneralization: In this cognitive distortion, we come to a general conclusion based on a single incident or a single piece of evidence. If something bad happens only once, we expect it to happen over and over again. A person may see a single, unpleasant event as part of a never-ending pattern of defeat. An example of this is scam victims is the comments “that no one does anything.”
  4. Jumping to Conclusions: Without individuals saying so, we know what they are feeling and why they act the way they do. In particular, we are able to determine how people are feeling toward us. For example, a person may conclude that someone is reacting negatively toward them but doesn’t actually bother to find out if they are correct. Another example is a person may anticipate that things will turn out badly, and will feel convinced that their prediction is already an established fact. An example of this in scam victims is the tendency to take a small piece of information and exaggerate it into an urban legend – such as believing that Soldiers (or Adult Stars) are selling their photos or are in partnership with scammers.
  5. Catastrophizing: We expect disaster to strike, no matter what. This is also referred to as “magnifying or minimizing.” We hear about a problem and use “what if” questions (e.g., “What if tragedy strikes?” “What if it happens to me?”). For example, a person might exaggerate the importance of insignificant events (such as their mistake, or someone else’s achievement). Or they may inappropriately shrink the magnitude of significant events until they appear tiny (for example, a person’s own desirable qualities or someone else’s imperfections). With practice, you can learn to answer each of these cognitive distortions. This is more common during the early recovery stages for scam victims in our experience.
  6. Personalization: Personalization is a distortion where a person believes that everything others do or say is some kind of direct, personal reaction to the person. We also compare ourselves to others trying to determine who is smarter, better looking, etc. A person engaging in personalization may also see themselves as the cause of some unhealthy external event that they were not responsible for. For example, “We were late to the dinner party and caused the hostess to overcook the meal. If I had only pushed my husband to leave on time, this wouldn’t have happened.” We tend to see this is very negative reactions to offers of support being viewed as personal attacks by victims.
  7. Control Fallacies: If we feel externally controlled, we see ourselves as helpless victims of fate. For example, “I can’t help it if the quality of the work is poor, my boss demanded I work overtime on it.” The fallacy of internal control has us assuming responsibility for the pain and happiness of everyone around us. For example, “Why aren’t you happy? Is it because of something I did?”
  8. Fallacy of Fairness: We feel resentful because we think we know what is fair, but other people won’t agree with us. As our parents tell us when we’re growing up and something doesn’t go our way, “Life isn’t always fair.” People who go through life applying a measuring ruler against every situation judging its “fairness” will often feel bad and negative because of it. Because life isn’t “fair” — things will not always work out in your favor, even when you think they should. This is a common victim expression that it just is not fair that they were scammed, someone must come and save them – they demand it, and when it does not happen then everyone must be a criminal or in league with them too.
  9. Blaming: We hold other people responsible for our pain, or take the other track and blame ourselves for every problem. For example, “Stop making me feel bad about myself!” Nobody can “make” us feel any particular way — only we have control over our own emotions and emotional reactions. These victims frequently turn into what we call “haters” that attack other victims and support providers.
  10. Shoulds: We have a list of ironclad rules about how others and we should behave. People who break the rules make us angry, and we feel guilty when we violate these rules. A person may often believe they are trying to motivate themselves with shoulds and shouldn’t, as if they have to be punished before they can do anything. For example, “I really should exercise. I shouldn’t be so lazy.” Musts and oughts are also offenders. The emotional consequence is guilt. When a person directs “should” statements toward others, they often feel anger, frustration, and resentment.
  11. Emotional Reasoning: We believe that what we feel must be true automatically. If we feel stupid and boring, then we must be stupid and boring. You assume that your unhealthy emotions reflect the way things really are — “I feel it, therefore it must be true.” This manifests in the forms of “vigilantism” that we frequently see in a large percentage of victims following a romance scam.
  12. Fallacy of Change: We expect that other people will change to suit us if we just pressure or cajole them enough. We need to change people because our hopes for happiness seem to depend entirely on them. This can especially create barriers during the support and recovery process.
  13. Global Labeling: We generalize one or two qualities into a negative global judgment. These are extreme forms of generalizing, and are also referred to as “labeling” and “mislabeling.” Instead of describing an error in the context of a specific situation, a person will attach an unhealthy label to themselves. For example, they may say, “I’m stupid” in a situation where they failed at a specific task. When someone else’s behavior rubs a person the wrong way, they may attach an unhealthy label to him, such as “He’s a real jerk.” Mislabeling involves describing an event with language that is highly colored and emotionally loaded. For example, instead of saying someone drops her children off at daycare every day, a person who is mislabeling might say that “she abandons her children to strangers.”
  14. Always Being Right: We are continually on trial to prove that our opinions and actions are correct. Being wrong is unthinkable and we will go to any length to demonstrate our rightness. For example, “I don’t care how badly arguing with me makes you feel, I’m going to win this argument no matter what because I’m right.” Being right often is more important than the feelings of others around a person who engages in this cognitive distortion, even loved ones.
  15. Heaven’s Reward Fallacy: We expect our sacrifice and self-denial to pay off as if someone is keeping score. We feel bitter when the reward doesn’t come.

Cognitive Restructuring

Cognitive restructuring (CR) is a popular form of therapy used to identify and reject maladaptive cognitive distortions and is typically used for individuals diagnosed with depression. It may also be valuable for victims of romance scams – seek appropriate medical professionals to determine if this might apply. In CR, the therapist and individual first examine a stressful event or situation reported by the individual.

For example, a scam victim believes they are to blame for being the victim of a criminal. Together with a competent licensed therapist, the individual might then create a more realistic cognition, e.g., “It was out of my control.” However, even though there are some things the individual can do to influence these decisions, whether or not they happen is largely out of their control. Thus, they are not responsible if they are scammed.

CR therapies are designed to eliminate “automatic thoughts” that include individuals’ dysfunctional or negative views. According to Beck, doing so reduces feelings of worthlessness, anxiety, and anhedonia that are symptomatic of several forms of mental illness. CR is the main component of Beck’s and Burns’s cognitive behavioral therapy.

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