Paranoia - Others are Conspiring and Want to Hurt You
The psychiatric literature describes paranoia as mental illness, but,
unfortunately, everyone is paranoid to some degree some of the time. What is
paranoia? This a cognitive bias, best described as the tendency to suspect
others of conspiring against you and wanting to hurt you. You could argue that
there is healthy kind of paranoia, useful whenever people are really out to get
you. A sick version of paranoia exaggerates this possibility. Sick paranoia
involves suspicion and projection of suspicions and fears unto others. The sick
paranoid suspects and blames others too often, too intensely and may attack
innocent others who are seen as hostile.
Where does suspicion fit in? We are all obligated to scan our environment in
search of signs of danger. Often, we detect subtle clues that there may be
danger lurking but we are not sure. Suspicion is the tendency to treat
uncertainty as threatening. Suspicion triggers anxiety and fuels gossip and
Underlying suspicion is subconscious evaluation of the danger potential of
your environment. Correct evaluation of danger potential is difficult and is not
always possible. You could argue the healthy aspect of aspect of paranoia is
that by being wary and looking for clues of danger, you are protecting yourself
from harm that might lurk behind every tree, in every alley, in every park, and
on every busy street. For as long as life has existed on earth, more vigilant
animals have survived longer than less vigilant animals.
However, vigilance need not turn into paranoia. Although many humans now
enjoy relative safe environments, information about crime, accidents and natural
disasters, raises the level of suspicion and fear. Some humans adapt better to
safer environments and become less vigilant and more trusting. This is a
“taming” process. Others remain wary and some are possessed by excessive
Wild animals can be tamed. The essence of taming a wild animal or human is
to replace wariness and suspicion with relaxation and trust. The result is that
in safer environments, tamed humans are less likely to anticipate danger and
perceive most events most days as impersonal, routine and safe.
One of the technical challenges in evaluating the meaning of events is to
connect events that are likely related to one’s own activities and interests and
to treat other events as more or less spontaneous and unrelated to oneself.
Normal vigilance and appropriate suspicion are successful in sorting events into
the relevant and non-relevant categories. Sick paranoia involves an exaggeration
of event relevance and poor judgment in assessing the meaningful connections
among events that are essentially unrelated.
The human tendency is to invent relationships that are non-existent, to be
superstitions and to believe in magical connections that relate unrelated
What if you become overly sensitive to mild or even innocuous signals that
you should ignore? You pass a nice man on your walk and he smiles. You could
think:”… that’s nice; he’s a friendly guy who probably likes the way I look.” Or
you could think: ”..that smile is suspicious – he must know something about me;
he must be part of the conspiracy that is tracking my movement; he was probably
reading my mind.” The latter style of thought is paranoid. The paranoid person
exaggerates his or her importance and exaggerates the ability of others to
sustain secret, well-focused conspiracies. We invent stories and talk with
others to probe the meaning of clues about danger that may be lurking in the
shadows. These stories blame others for any distress and misfortune.
Paranoid stories that focus on conspiracies and imminent danger might be
true; however, they are usually improbable. When paranoid thinking takes over a
person’s cognitive processes, even remote possibilities turn into probabilities.
The self-centered nature of the human mind tends to go this way and can move
into an absurd form of narcissism. You become so important that it is entirely
plausible that the CIA, FBI, your co-workers, your family, even creatures from
outer space have nothing better to do but to watch you and conspire against you.
Psychiatrists tend to think of paranoia as personal – one isolated person
with false beliefs, but paranoid thinking is characteristic of group activity.
If you tell a friend: “I think they are out to get me.” Your friend agrees and
says: “Yes, they are out to get me too.” You have moved from paranoia to
consensus. With three people agreeing, you have a local reality system.
Conspiracy theories are common and almost everyone in conversation with
friends will join in a conspiracy talk. This is distance paranoia. The mildest
form is to refer to an anonymous but powerful group called “They”. They are
distant or concealed and you know very little about them except they are up to
no good. A common subject for gossip is to speak about what “They” are doing.
They are spying on us. They are incompetent. They are to blame.
If you look closely at any human group, large or small, you find constant
disagreement and a tendency for all affiliations to fall apart. Agreements
within and among groups are notoriously difficult to achieve and hard to
maintain. Real conspiracies do exist, of course, and most human groups are busy
creating and attacking enemies, but there is a reassuring, irregular and
inconsistent incompetence in all this activity even among professional
conspirators. Coherent conspiracies are not long-lived and a single dominant
conspiracy is not usually part of the enduring fabric of any society.
If paranoid thinking progresses towards a disabling mental illness, “They”
take over NBC and sitcoms have cleverly disguised messages directed at you
alone. You have to decipher the code since the true message is hidden in the
In the good old days of science fiction, the plots were placed in a
fictional spacetime zone – there was no confusion about fact or fiction. The
paranoid drama of the 1990s and beyond was sicker, occurred in the suburbs and
presented itself as almost true if not truly true. I am concerned that too many
members of the audience were encouraged to develop their paranoid tendencies. If
you practice paranoid thinking, you can get good at it. Television programming
and movie scripts thrive in paranoid territory. Increasingly, scriptwriters hold
large audiences with conspiracy plots, aliens, and all the weird stuff that
plagues paranoid schizophrenics. The TV series, the X-files, was good example of
psychotic material and, while I liked the look and calm demeanor of the actors
that play FBI Agents, Mulder and Scully, the plots were demented and the success
of the series spoke to a troubling receptivity to paranoid ideation. The actors
put a more or less reasonable face on script content that was fundamentally
Paranoia flourishes in larger organizations where people compete for power,
money and prestige. Larger organizations generate more paranoia because each
human can only know and understand a small number of co-workers and all the
people who are out of close-range tend to blur into one large “conspiracy.”
Large organizations do best when they inspire company loyalty and provide an
abundance of common signals that reassure participants that they are safe and
part of a cooperative family.
In complex societies such as the USA with enclaves of political and economic
power and organizations that employ secrecy and engage in covert actions, a high
level of suspicion is common. Suspicion is appropriate if you are involved in
competitive and covert transactions. The history of covert CIA operations, for
example, is not reassuring that things are as they seem. Professional
conspirators, working in their “nation’s best interest” have a tendency to get
it wrong and often to do more harm than good. One version of USA paranoia is the
belief that the federal government and its military are conspiring to end the
rights and freedoms of average Americans and must be opposed by internal
revolution. There have been many versions of anti-government groups; some are
militant and others form legitimate lobbies The White House administration of
Bush and Cheney appeared to be successful in confirming the worst fears of the
most extreme paranoiacs as well as confirming the fears of better informed, more
rational critics of the government.
Paul Wolfowitz was Deputy Secretary of Defense for President, G.W. Bush from
2001 to 2005. His chief responsibility was starting the Iraq war. New York Times
columnist, Maureen Dowd described Wolfowitz as a “demented visionary” who helped
Vice President Cheney get rid of anything cooperative and multi -- multilateral
treaties, multilateral institutions, multilateral alliances, multiculturalism.
Dowd reported: “Multi, to them, meant wobbly, caviling, bureaucratic and
obstructionist. Why be multi when you could be uni? Wolfowitz mismanaged the
world most powerful army. Shattered the system of international diplomacy that
kept the peace for 50 years. Undermined the credibility of American intelligence
operations. Needlessly brought humankind to the brink of nuclear war and
destroyed Iraq.”After leaving his US government job, Wolfowitz became the
President of World Bank: 2005-2007. In this job, Dowd suggested that he:
“Paralyzed the international lending apparatus to the point where small
countries had to max out their Visa cards to pay for malaria medicine. He
learned the traditions of many cultures, including those of Turkey, where you
apparently are not supposed to take off your shoes at the mosque.
Although American law forbids government agencies from engaging in illegal
activity close to home, the evidence that leaks out or is declared by
whistle-blowers reveals that the CIA and other secret organizations, including
paramilitary groups sponsored by the CIA, routinely engaged in illegal and
immoral activities at home and abroad. These revelations support paranoia in a
The idealist hopes that a free democratic society can achieve 100% honest
and lawful activities even among its agencies that specialize in secrecy and
deception. The idealist assumption is that an honest, right-thinking citizen
should have confidence that his or her government is trustworthy and obeys its
A desirable assumption? Yes.