Nov 13 2008

The Rise of Paranoia

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Comments: 18

We are a paranoid species. It is simply part of the human program, fixed in our hardwiring, it’s in our nature (choose your metaphor). Of course that depends upon how you define paranoia. Like most human traits, it occurs along a spectrum. Almost everyone is at least a little paranoid, and some people are consumed by overwhelming paranoia.

Paranoia is the belief that others are out to get you, that there are people or forces conspiring against your interests. It is easy to see how having a modicum of such concerns would be adaptive. Sometimes there are people (our competitors or enemies) who are conspiring against us. Keeping an eye out for such threats is healthy, it enables us to foresee  potential problems in the future and work to prevent them.  Someone unable to consider the possibility that others are working against them are considered naive. They are likely to screwed over by peers and colleagues and taken advantage of at every turn.

Excessive paranoia is counterproductive as well. Paranoid individuals may find it difficult to trust anyone or any institution. They have trouble working with others or fitting in. They waste incredible time and energy obsessing over illusory conspiracies against them. They are also likely to engage in conspiracy thinking on a broader scale, accepting, for example, conspiracy theories about 9/11, JFK, and secret government programs.

Like many personality traits, the naive to paranoid spectrum has a broad range of “healthy” and adaptive in the middle, with the extremes being progressively maladaptive – even getting to the point where it is reasonable to use the term “disorder.”

The inherent individual tendency towards paranoia is also modified by culture and situation. We learn by our experiences, so after having an experience where others actually were working against you, you are likely to be on your guard – to “become paranoid.” A soldier in Iraq may see a young man with a bulky jacket and worry they are concealing an explosive and plan to blow themselves and the soldier to pieces. This is a reasonable fear given the situation. The same thoughts would be considered paranoid by a person living in a quiet town.

In addition to the normal spectrum of human variation, there are specific brain disorders that have paranoia as a feature, most notably schizophrenia. Here it seems that there are other brain functions to consider – specifically reality testing and pattern recognition. Humans have a natural tendency to seek out patterns in the world around us. This includes patterns in events that might indicate a coordinated conspiracy. We filter apparent patterns through our reality testing hardware – does this pattern make sense, does it comport with my internal model of reality? Schizophrenics have impaired reality testing, so every pattern they think they see is extremely compelling to them.

The especially paranoid version of schizophrenia combines hyperactive pattern recognition, specifically for patterns of conspiracy, with other thought disorders, like bizarre ideation (literally bizarre ideas) and ideas of reference (thinking that everything is personal – people and events are referring specifically to them). Further the bizarre and paranoid patterns that they perceive are not inhibited by reality checking. This leads to paranoid thoughts, such as the belief that Tom Brokaw is speaking directly to them from the TV, giving them secret messages and warnings. Or that the CIA is monitoring their thoughts through the fillings in their teeth. Compelling evidence is emerging that schizophrenia is not just one end of human variation, but represents a specific brain disorder (or set of disorders).

Schizophrenia and other specific mental illnesses aside, some researchers believe that the general level of paranoia in society is increasing. British psychologist Daniel Freeman, who is a paranoia expert, for example, found that 25% of Londoners report regular paranoid thoughts. Dennis Combs, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Tyler, found that about 10 years ago 5% of the college students that he studied had paranoid thoughts, while 15% of students today do.

The problem with this data, however, is that with any trait that varies along a spectrum, there is often no objective place to draw a line. How one operationally defines paranoia, therefore,  can drastically change the results. For this reason estimates of paranoid ideation vary from 5-50%. This variation is greater than the measured increase by specific researchers or studies. This does not mean there is not a signal in this noise – an individual researcher using the same techniques can perceive a change over time. But even mild definition creep may create the illusion of an increase.

Perhaps people are just more free to express their paranoid thoughts. There is a bit of a taboo against being too paranoid, and people are sometimes embarassed to express paranoid thoughts – especially if they are on the edge of our own reality testing. Some studies show that stress increases paranoia, so perhaps there is a real increase due to the increasing stresses of modern society. This would therefore not represent a change in basic human nature, just an increase in the situational trigger of paranoia in suscptible individuals.

Anxiety also positively correlates with paranoia.  We can therefore speculate that our current “war on terror” and constant monitoring of the threat level is increasing the general level of anxiety in the public, leading to an increase in paranoid thoughts in general. Or maybe it’s the financial collapse.

Then again, there’s always something. Today it’s the war on terror, last generation it was the cold war and the threat of nuclear anihilation.

This recent data on increasing levels of paranoia is interesting, but there are so many variables to consider I don’t think we are yet at a point where we can make any firm conclusions.  It will be an intersting line of research to follow, however.

18 responses so far

18 thoughts on “The Rise of Paranoia”

  1. Fizzizist says:

    Paranoia is a very interesting subject because I think that the human brain is incredible, and this is just another piece of the brain if you look at the brain as one big puzzle (choose your analogy).

    I myself am on the more paranoid side of things but it is not uncontrollable. I just go by my rule, do not trust anyone ever. Now obviously you must give people a little bit of trust but do I ever fully trust anyone? possibly those few people that I really really care about.

  2. superdave says:

    I would be willing to bet that there is a cyclical element to societal paranoia as people become more adjusted to older things that had scared them in the past and nothing new to scare them has popped up. Is there any evidence you know of that backs this hypothesis up?

  3. pap says:

    Right, it seems reasonable that some level of paranoid thinking would increase the fitness of some individuals. But clearly this could quite easily lead to decreased fitness should this thinking become excessive. Perhaps it’s true that some phenotypic patterns did not arise due to typical selective patterns but appears as baggage in the genomes of some fit individuals who were selected for based on other traits.

    I am not a psychologist, but if what I have learned is true about the age of onset of schizophrenia, for example, the individual could mate and have offspring before being greatly affected by thinking patterns that would fall outside of social acceptance. Having a paranoid parent might hold a cavekid back (neologism free of charge), but at least both its parents had no real hindrance in pairing up.

    Obviously I am being speculative, and only bring up issues of plausibility.

  4. sonic says:

    From the article newspaper article–
    “Paranoia is defined as the exaggerated or unfounded fear that others are trying to hurt you.”

    From this blog–
    “Paranoia is the belief that others are out to get you, that there are people or forces conspiring against your interests.”

    So the article is saying that ‘exaggerated or unfounded fear’ is on the increase. This is very different than saying ‘the belief others are out to get you’ is on the increase.

    Fear of a terrorist attack would not fit the first definition (as it is not unfounded), it would fit the second.

    The definition from the article has nothing to do with enhanced survival.

  5. pap says:


    That’s a good point but “exagerated” implies that such behavior is on one end of a spectrum. So a lesser extent of such thinking could lead to higher rates of survival. The tendencies for placement within the spectrum could be genetic and therefore subject to selection.

  6. sonic – it’s a bit of semantics. Paranoia as a disorder is by definition excessive. But just the fear that there are forces conspiring against is not necessarily unfounded and therefore not a disorder. I used the term paranoia to refer to the entire spectrum, not just the disorder end of the spectrum as the article did.

  7. freddie says:

    What about the extreme of the other end of the paranoia spectrum?

    Are there clinical disorders for those that are extremely naive?

    In some ways I feel like a lack of pattern recognition can lead to a “hunky dory” way of living that can leave important information unappreciated. This seems like it could be dangerous on a different level, but only if the person was in a position of responsibility.

    I’ve met naive people, but I’ve never thought about if there are those that are extremely naive to the point of needing mental care.

  8. weing says:

    Do you mean like Polyanna in the story? It’s a catch-22. Those people wouldn’t complain that nobody was out to get them.

  9. pec says:

    Modern life isn’t really getting more stressful, since life has always been stressful for most. However, we do spend increasing amounts of time around people we don’t know very well, and decreasing amounts of time around long-term friends and relatives.

    It only makes sense to trust people you have known a long time, who have proven themselves under varying conditions. The American tradition is to move around and change jobs and we have always tended to live among strangers, but that tendency has increased.

    We have no good reason to trust people we communicate with on the internet, for example, or someone we have worked with for a couple of years. Even our next-door neighbor might be almost a stranger.

    Being part of a trusted social context is the only thing that dulls our natural paranoia. And our trusted social contexts are smaller and less durable than ever.

    So given that situation, increasing paranoia is normal and expected.

    In more traditional, restrictive, societies, other members of the tribe or extended family can be counted on to do their utmost to protect anyone experiencing a temporary setback. In our free, individualistic, society, on the other hand, the government has to take on that function.

    So it’s a trade-off and you just can’t have it all. Americans think they can make a new friend in 5 minutes, but that is not the kind of friend you can depend on.

  10. freddie says:

    Yeah, I suppose there’s no adaptive advantage to being overly naive to possible threats. If there was a threat against that person they’d get ambushed and that’d be the end of it.

  11. Fifi says:

    Trust/paranoia seems to be a spectrum with disabilities at both extremes (which seems to be the case for many things, from gender to personality traits). One of the effects of Down’s Syndrome is being overly trusting, along with being ultra social, lacking in inhibitions and oblivious to social boundaries. Trust, just as much as fear, is an evolutionary trait that provides benefits (such as cooperation, an extension of individual abilities through the use of collective abilities and so on).

  12. Fifi says:

    Being overly paranoid is just as dysfunctional as being overly trusting – both lead to making unrealistic judgments. Being paranoid (being unrealistically afraid as opposed to being vigilant or aware) is also destructive to group cohesion. There’s no evolutionary advantage to being either naive or paranoid, there are evolutionary advantages to both trust and fear.

  13. daedalus2u says:

    Freddie, Angleman syndrome has some characteristics of a lack of the appreciation of the appropriate level of concern about danger.

    When my mother was in the later stages of Alzheimer’s, she had lost the ability to be sufficiently wary and was an easy mark for telemarketing scams. That is not an uncommon occurrence and unfortunately there is no shortage of people looking to take advantage of such people.

    The mortgage crisis has led to scams where people promise to help in preventing a foreclosure, but the method requires that the house be assigned to the scammer. They then take out a mortgage an extract all the equity from the house and pocket the money.

  14. sonic says:

    Steven- I know.
    But if we go with your definition then the claim made in the article has a different meaning. (Importantly so)
    Just trying to keep the record straight.

  15. empiricalgod2 says:

    Great read.
    My first comment btw.

  16. pec says:

    And yes I do feel paranoid when my comments go into moderation land and sit there for days! Not that I care enough about this blog to actually get paranoid, but it is kind of silly.

  17. James Fox says:

    I’ve always considered the whole “life is getting more stressful” assertion as somewhat of an urban myth. What is this belief based on and can we compare it to the level of stress folk had in years gone by, given they are either greatly removed from the events of years ago (recollection bias) or no longer alive. It would seem to me there was more stress during the depression and WWII and certainly lots more stress before modern medicine and hygiene practices. Hard to imagine the stress folk had during the Civil War or even before electricity or government funded social supports. Perhaps all we have is more self induced stress based on unrealistic media supported expectations or just longer more productive lives combined with additional unstructured free time causing a build up existential angst. 😉

  18. pec says:

    “additional unstructured free time ”

    You really must be kidding. Most Americans have hectic lives and are working long hours, with less free time than ever.

    Life has never been easy, except for small rich minorities here and there, and it is not easy now. Driving to work each day is more dangerous and stressful than almost anything our ancestors did.

    Yes, people used to get sick and die, or starve when crops didn’t grow. But people still get sick and die, for other reasons. The health problems now are horrendous, largely because of all the modern conveniences that make physical exercise unnecessary.

    Our ancestors worked hard, physically, and lived in close communities. In some ways and in some places they were probably miserable, but in others they may have been very happy. We don’t know, and it depends on many factors.

    It’s easy to say life is great now thanks to science and technology, but it really is not that simple. I love science and technology and I’m glad I live now, but I do not think we are headed for paradise. And I think we have lost an awful lot in becoming modern.

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