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Unexpected Uncertainty Can Breed Paranoia

When people face a sudden situation brimming with uncertainty, such as the unexpected appearance of a pandemic, they may be at greater risk for paranoia, according to a new study from Yale University.

The findings are published in the journal eLife.

“When our world changes unexpectedly, we want to blame that volatility on somebody, to make sense of it, and perhaps neutralize it,” said Yale’s Dr. Philip Corlett, associate professor of psychiatry and senior author of the study.

“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.”

Paranoia is a key symptom of serious mental illness, characterized by the belief that other people have malicious intentions. But it also manifests in varying degrees in the general population.

For example, one previous survey revealed that 20% of the population believed people were against them at some time during the past year, while 8% believed that others were actively out to harm them.

The current theory is that paranoia stems from an inability to accurately assess social threats. But the research team hypothesized that paranoia is instead rooted in a more basic learning mechanism that is triggered by uncertainty, even when there is no distinct social threat.

“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,” said lead author Erin Reed at Yale University.

“Paranoia may be a response to uncertainty in general, and social interactions can be particularly complex and difficult to predict.”

In a series of experiments, the researchers asked participants with different degrees of paranoia to play a card game in which the best choices for success were changed secretly. People with little or no paranoia were slow to assume that the best choice had changed.

However, those with paranoia expected even more volatility in the game. They changed their choices arbitrarily — even after a win. The researchers then increased the levels of uncertainty by changing the chances of winning halfway through the game without telling the participants. This sudden change made even the low-paranoia participants behave like those with paranoia, learning less from the consequences of their choices.

In a similar experiment, Yale researchers Jane Taylor and Stephanie Groman trained rats, a relatively asocial species, to complete a similar task in which their chances of success kept changing.

Rats who were given methamphetamine — known to induce paranoia in humans — behaved just like paranoid humans. They, too, anticipated high volatility and relied more on their expectations than learning from the task.

Reed, Corlett and their team then used a mathematical model to look at the decisions made by rats and humans while performing these similar tasks. The results from the rats that received methamphetamine resembled those of humans with paranoia, researchers found.

“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,” Corlett said.

“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,” Reed said.

Source: Yale University

 

Unexpected Uncertainty Can Breed Paranoia

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2020). Unexpected Uncertainty Can Breed Paranoia. Psych Central. Retrieved on July 10, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/news/2020/06/10/unexpected-uncertainty-can-breed-paranoia/157231.html
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 10 Jun 2020 (Originally: 10 Jun 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 10 Jun 2020
Published on Psych Central.com. All rights reserved.