Surviving Human Nature

Some Topics

  • 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 self-talk.

    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 suspicion.

    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 events.

    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 dialogue.

    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 insane.

    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 regrettable way.

    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 own laws.

    A desirable assumption? Yes.

    Realistic? No.

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