In times of unexpected uncertainty, people may be more prone to paranoia. For instance, during the current global pandemic, many people have been thrown into unanticipated volatility, and this can compel some to seek out who, or what, to blame for that volatility in order to make sense of it. Research shows a link between how we process volatility and how we adopt paranoid thinking.
Usually we think of paranoia as a key symptom of mental illness that comes from an inaccurate calculation of social threats. But some researchers now think that paranoia is rooted in learning mechanisms that are triggered by uncertainty. They think of the brain as a kind of prediction machine: unexpected uncertainty represents a threat that limits the brain’s ability to make predictions. This, in turn, can lead to increased paranoia.
To test this hypothesis, researchers asked subjects in a lab to play a card game. Those with little or no paranoia were slow to assume that the game had been rigged against them. Those with paranoia expected that the rules of the game were fixed, even when they had won a game.
In this experiment, researchers changed the chances of winning halfway through the game, which caused all of the subjects to behave more erratically. Those who self-reported as being paranoid began to play in a more haphazard way, and they were less likely to learn from the consequences of their previous choices in the game.
These studies highlight that in a world of escalating uncertainty—with climate change and viral pandemics—our paranoid impulses can make us resistant to change. It seems that sometimes we must confront our own limits in making sense of uncertainty.