Paranoia may be a natural response to unpredictability

A new study from Yale University has found that uncertainty and unpredictability can trigger paranoia.

To be paranoid is to believe that other people are operating with malicious intentions. The old joke goes: “Just because I’m paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get me.” In some cases, these concerns may be valid, but when they are not, paranoia could be a symptom of a mental health condition.

However, a new study from Yale University in New Haven, CT, suggests that paranoia may also be a response to confusing circumstances.

According to the researchers, an environment of unexpected uncertainty can promote paranoia in people who do not otherwise exhibit the trait.

Doctors consider paranoia as an inability to comprehend social cues and, in particular, threats. However, the new study takes a more mechanistic view of the conditions that can trigger it.

“We think of the brain as a prediction machine; unexpected change, whether social or not, may constitute a type of threat — it limits the brain’s ability to make predictions. Paranoia may be a response to uncertainty in general, and social interactions can be particularly complex and difficult to predict.”

— Lead study author Erin Reed

The study authors hypothesize that paranoia is linked to a basic learning mechanism that becomes active in response to unpredictability, even when a social threat is not present.

They have now published their results in the journal eLife.

Making sense of the nonsensical

Humans like stories. We are serial creatures, and logical narratives are comforting to us. This impulse lies behind our willingness to construct even the most implausible explanations for events and experiences that themselves make little sense. Without such stories, we may feel out of control.

Senior study author Philip Corlett says: “When our world changes unexpectedly, we want to blame that volatility on somebody, to make sense of it, and perhaps neutralize it. Historically, in times of upheaval, such as the great fire of ancient Rome in 64 C.E. or the 9/11 terrorist attacks, paranoia and conspiratorial thinking increased.”

Beyond the identification of paranoia as a symptom of several mental health conditions, the study cites earlier research that finds a broad incidence of paranoia in the general population.

One survey revealed that 20% of its respondents felt that others were against them at some point during the last year, while 8% believed that others were deliberately out to cause them harm.

Experiment 1: Illogical card games

To test their hypothesis, the researchers invited people who exhibit varying degrees of paranoia to play some card games.

To induce uncertainty between rounds of gameplay, the researchers secretly manipulated the game to change the chances that previously winning strategies would continue to be successful. As a result, player choices that would work in one round of play might no longer work in the next.

The high paranoia players quickly came to expect unpredictable outcomes. Their choices became more random and less conventionally strategic, matching the gameplay volatility they anticipated.

The researchers found that even when these participants won a game, all bets were off regarding their strategy during the next round.

Players with the lowest levels of paranoia were the slowest to realize that something was changing.

To make the conditions even more uncertain, the researchers began manipulating the game during gameplay. In response, even players with low levels of paranoia began playing more randomly, abandoning any sense of refining their strategies based on previous outcomes.

Experiment 2: Paranoid rats

In a second related experiment, the scientists trained rats to engage in tasks for which they were manipulating the chances of successful outcomes.

They administered methamphetamine, which can cause paranoia in humans, to some of the rats. These rats served as high paranoia participants in the experiment.

A statistical analysis of the rats’ behavior revealed that they were acting like the paranoid human participants from the previous experiment: Their choices became more random and appeared to be based more on their expectations of unpredictability than any logical method.

The value of the study

“Our hope is that this work will facilitate a mechanistic explanation of paranoia, a first step in the development of new treatments that target those underlying mechanisms,” says Corlett.

The study authors assert that people can view paranoia as a phenomenon with a more straightforward origin than researchers had previously assumed, and thus, perhaps, susceptible to less complex methods of treatment.

“The benefit of seeing paranoia through a non-social lens is that we can study these mechanisms in simpler systems, without needing to recapitulate the richness of human social interaction,” concludes Reed.

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