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Paranoia

Psychology EncyclopediaDiseases, Disorders & Mental Conditions

A pervasive feeling of distrust of others.

Paranoia is an ever-present feeling of suspicion that others cannot be trusted. Such feelings are not based on fact or reality; insecurity and low self-esteem often exaggerate these emotions. Typically, paranoia is not seen in children, but in most cases it begins to develop in late adolescence and early adulthood. Most people experience feelings of paranoia, usually in response to a threatening situation or in connection with feelings of insecurity based on real circumstances. These feelings are related to the mild anxiety people experience at some points during their lives.

The fourth edition of Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV) includes diagnostic criteria for the more serious condition, paranoid personality disorder. According to the DSM-IV, individuals afflicted with this disorder assume, with little concrete evidence to support the assumption, that others plan to exploit, harm, or deceive him or her; and continually analyzes the motivations of friends, family, and others to confirm his or her doubts about their trustworthiness; expects friends and family to abandon him or her in times of trouble or stress; avoids revealing personal information because of fear that it will be used against him or her; interprets remarks and actions as having hidden, demeaning, and threatening connotations; and is unwilling to forgive an insult. The behaviorof an individual with paranoid personality disorder may compel others to react with anger or hostility. This tends to reinforce the individual's suspiciousness and feelings that friends and associates are "against" him or her.

In the 1990s, the term "everyday paranoia" (EP) came into usage among psychologists to describe the intense anxiety that was becoming prevalent in society. Everyday paranoia is sparked by fear of losing one's job, feelings of inadequacy when confronting a new interpersonal or romantic relationship, or insecurity in a marriage or other long-term relationship. Low self-esteem and feelings of insecurity contribute to a person's susceptibility to feelings of everyday paranoia. Stressful situations—economic insecurity, divorce, a move, a job change—can also reinforce a person's paranoia. Almost everyone experiences feelings of suspicion or insecurity—and in fact, paranoia can be a mechanism for coping with misfortune or personal problems. Rather than view the situation as "bad luck" or personal failure or incompetence, paranoia places the responsibility for the problem on some "enemy."

The term paranoia is used erroneously at times to define special life circumstances. Members of minority groups and new immigrants may exhibit guarded behavior due to unfamiliarity with their new environment and lack of knowledge of language and cultural norms. This display of suspicion of authority figures and lack of trust in outsiders is based on a real lack of understanding of the person's surroundings, and does not represent an abnormal reaction. In addition, the term "political paranoia" is used to describe attitudes shared by members of groups on the fringes of society who suspect that government agencies are conspiring to control the lives of citizens by imposing new values, or suspect that other dominant groups are persecuting them. The growth of paramilitary organizations in the United States in recent years appears to be indicative of such feelings of political paranoia among a small percentage of citizens.

Further Reading

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. 4th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 1994.

Goodwin, Jan. "Paranoia." Cosmopolitan (August 1994):184+.

Kelly, Michael. "The Road to Paranoia." The New Yorker (June 19, 1995): 60+.

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