In Tara Parker-Pope's Wellness blog for the New York Times, in Feeling Paranoid? You're not Alone, she talks about a study in the British Journal of Psychiatry where people were placed in a "virtual" simulation of the London tube and asked to comment on their surroundings and they looked at how many people had "paranoid" thoughts. A lot did.
Parker-Pope writes: The findings are important because paranoia is generally thought to be a symptom of severe mental illness. But this virtual reality study shows that paranoid thoughts are common in the general population.
I know this will surprise you, but I had some thoughts on this and commented. So my blog post today is lifted from my comment on the Wellness blog. (I've checked, in blog-o-land, this is not cheating).
I responded with:
While symptoms often exist on a spectrum where the distinction between normal human emotions and symptoms of mental illness is an arbitrary one, the issue you raised is not as fluid as you make it sound.
The experiences of those in the virtual experiment, or the feelings of real subway riders, are not “paranoia” in the sense of a symptom of severe mental illness. In the absence of any unreasonable taint–which you did not describe– your experimental subjects are exhibiting “Suspiciousness.” In a setting of strangers, in a place such as a subway noted for crime, this is far from paranoia, and a degree of hyper-awareness to the surroundings is an adaptive response and not paranoia.
Paranoia is a term used loosely— it may refer to actual paranoid delusions (a symptom of a major mental illness), or it may refer to vague suspiciousness, or people often use it as a defensive counter-response when they don’t like something they are being accused of: “Are you having an affair?” >>> “You’re paranoid!”
Paranoid delusions are fixed false beliefs that hold despite evidence that they are not true. They often take on a bizarre and unreasonable quality — for example, the FBI is monitoring me through fiberoptic cameras in my walls….(if this is true, it’s not a paranoid delusion!). “Ideas of Reference” are a type of paranoid delusion in which an individual believe he is either getting specific messages from the media (Johnny Carson told me to do it) or from unknown others– so the sense that unknown people are talking about you, when they’d have no reason to do so. So, if you’re walking around in a clown suit and believe strangers are laughing at you, well, that’s not a paranoid idea of reference: they may well be laughing at you.
Paranoid delusions are indeed symptoms of mental illness. Suspiciousness is a different phenomena and is often warranted.