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Professor Freeman writes for the Guardian on the paranoia spectrum and how founded perception of threat can slip into misreading intentions and excessive mistrust.

Bats
“Suspicions amongst thoughts are like bats amongst birds – they ever fly by twilight." Francis Bacon, philosopher

Extract from The Guardian:

Paranoia is the erroneous idea that people are targeting you for harm. We don’t talk about it nearly enough, but every day each of us must decide whether or not to trust other people. There’s no way around these decisions: they’re an inevitable part of life. Real threats do exist, so not to consider risks would be naive. The difficulty is that we seldom know what another person is actually thinking, least of all when we are the topic. It is easy to misread the intentions of others. But when we are overly suspicious, too mistrustful, then we are advancing along the paranoia spectrum.

 

It is increasingly being accepted that paranoid thoughts are much more widespread than previously thought. - Professor Freeman

There are daily reminders that the modern world is dangerous: news bulletins, CCTV cameras, and public security announcements are just several of many constant reminders to be wary. But paranoia has always been with us. Francis Bacon, the Renaissance philosopher, captured the danger of tilting our worldview to the mistrustful: “Suspicions amongst thoughts are like bats amongst birds – they ever fly by twilight. Certainly they are to be repressed, or, at the least, well guarded. For they cloud the mind, they lose friends, and they check with business, whereby business cannot go on currently and constantly. They dispose kings to tyranny, husbands to jealousy, wise men to irresolution and melancholy.”

Excessive mistrust ends in the psychologically painful position of isolation; Graham Greene, in The Ministry of Fear, describes how, “it is impossible to go through life without trust: that is to be imprisoned in the worst cell of all, oneself.”

No one who is troubled by unfounded suspicions need feel ashamed or embarrassed: most of us, at some point in our lives, will experience them. (You can read vivid accounts here).

major UK mental health survey in 2007 found that almost one in five respondents felt that people were against them. Some 8% of those questioned reported feeling as though people were deliberately trying to harm them or their interests. And 2% suspected that a group of people was plotting to cause them serious harm or injury. Self-report surveys cannot distinguish between mistrustful misinterpretations and actual experiences of hostility (or the substantial hazy ground between).

So virtual reality was used to present members of the public with exactly the same computer simulations of social situations. The computer characters were programmed to behave neutrally, but, nonetheless, one in three people perceived hostility from the avatars. Those reporting paranoia about the avatars were also reporting such fears in daily life. The evidence is clear: many people have a few paranoid thoughts, and a few people have many paranoid thoughts.

Paranoia carries a confusing array of meanings. Hippocrates (born about the year 460BC) is credited with coining the word. He used the term – combining the Greek words for “beside” (para) and “mind” (nous) to create a word meaning “out of one’s mind” – to describe the delirious ramblings during a fever. In everyday conversation, paranoia is sometimes used to refer to any fear, including about a partner’s potential infidelity. Excessive jealousy is a form of mistrust but in psychiatry it is not labelled as paranoia. What is typically missing is the key element that the partner is deliberately trying to cause harm.

 

Read the full article in The Guardian.

Read about Professor Freeman's use of virtual reality to treat paranoia.

Read more about Professor Daniel Freeman.