Almost all of us have encountered people who tend to distrust others, who attribute bad intentions to comments or actions of others and in general, suspect that behind the setbacks they suffer there are “black hands” conspired to make them fail.

To be protagonists and victims of persecutions, injustices or misfortunes concocted by others… This type of belief forms what is known as paranoid ideation , quite widespread among human beings. This is not to be underestimated, as it is a defence mechanism that can even be adaptive in certain situations. However, it becomes a problem when this style of thinking passes to more severe manifestations, with a distortion of reality sufficient to cause great psychological distress or disorder (going from paranoid ideation to delusional ideation).

What is paranoid ideation?

It is important not to confuse paranoid ideation with paranoid personality disorder; not only because of the different intensity of the symptoms, but also because it is not the only pathological picture where these mental ruminations appear: can be found in schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder (BPD), or schizotypal disorder . It is also common for substance use to promote the emergence of paranoid ideation.

Some of the main factors that influence the development of paranoid attitudes would be high social anxiety and insecure attachment style (Martin, 2001), parental figures of distant and avoidant attachment, or with excessive external criticism (Carvalho, 2018), a social mentality based on threat (Macbeth, 2008), among others, and its incidence is more pronounced in older population (Chaudhary and Rabheru, 2009). All these cases are relatively frequent, so it is easy for us to deal in our daily lives with relatives, friends, acquaintances or co-workers (one of the most common places to develop it, by the way) with different degrees of paranoid ideation.

What to do?

Whether we are facing a profile prone to suspicion or people with conspiracy beliefs (there is a relationship between paranoia and belief in conspiracy theories (Darwin, 2011)), it is not easy to approach someone with paranoid ideas, since obviously will tend to distrust us .

The temptation to argue or deny the belief, or to enter into an exchange of defensive behaviors and end up both angry is very high, so it is especially important to know how to act in a relationship with someone with paranoid traits.

1. Do not invalidate the person’s perception

As absurd as their beliefs may seem to us, they are always built on some perceived real fact that is central to them. When we openly reject someone’s inner experience, we generate hostility (“but man, Paco, how can you be afraid of that little spider”, or any other disqualification of emotions or feelings that comes to mind), and therefore the other will get defensive .

One must be very aware that it is not simply a matter of “going along with them”, but of better understanding what cognitive process and what real situation has led them to such inordinate conclusions in order to be able to have a productive conversation on an emotional and social level.

2. Find other explanations together

If we have followed the first point, we will be able to present alternative explanations or arguments that are more realistic and plausible to someone with paranoid ideas.

Here we will have to overcome the tendency they present to jump to conclusions (JTC or Jumping to conclusions) before gathering sufficient information or evidence.

Freeman found that people with paranoid ideas are more than twice as likely to rush to judgment as others (Freeman, 2008). This is not to say that they are not capable of redeciding or modifying their conclusions in the face of more evidence, but that it is more complicated for them to do so.

Anyway, the subclinical paranoid ideation is not an intellectual impediment , they can reason as well as anyone; they just prefer conspiratorial explanations.

3. Do not enter competitions to be right

This point, which applies to the communicative exchange with anyone, is more important in these specific cases. It is tempting to argue with someone who claims to be followed by the police, but we are not going to achieve much by confronting him with our arguments against him : at heart it is a competition of wills and we will find that we have no evidence other than our own belief that what is ours is true.

From that position it is very difficult to convince someone who is also capable of making very “solid” explanations. It is essential to abandon the fight for reason , which can only generate more distrust.

4. Avoiding patronizing

A paranoid delusion does not imply any kind of cognitive disability ; the person can be as intelligent or more intelligent than us, even if he believes that aliens built the pyramids and live incognito among humans. In fact, one can be convinced of this and lead a normal, adapted and happy life. Dismissing it or showing condescension as if it had some brain injury will only deepen the estrangement and mutual misunderstanding.

5. Validate the emotions underlying beliefs

The paranoid ideation is based on a central limiting belief: that others are a potential threat , and you can’t even trust those closest to you. Hence, the favorite emotion of people with this problem is fear, which they actively defend themselves against, so outside observers see agitation, anger and confrontation, and it is easy to overlook the emotional background of the issue or confuse it with anger.

On the other side of the coin, individuals with paranoid ideas usually do not realize that this defense generates rejection in others… who by moving away from them confirm their suspicions. Understand that it is fear that activates their responses, and not that they dislike us, so that they can act with assertiveness, understanding and compassion. Like everyone else, they need the contact and warmth of other human beings, despite the fear that this contact produces in them.

Bibliographic references:

  • Carvalho C., Motta C., Pinto-Gouveia J. and Peixoto E. (2018). Psychosocial roots of paranoid ideation: The role of childhood experiences, social comparison, submission, and shame. Clinical Psychol Psychother. 2018;1-12. Ed: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
  • Chaudhary M. and Rabheru K. (2009). Paranoid symptoms in elderly patients. RET, Journal of Drug Addiction. No. 56 – 2009
  • Darwin H., Neave N. and Homes J. (2011). Belief in conspiracy theories. The role of paranormal belief, paranoid ideation and schizotypy. Personality and Individual Differences 50 (2011) 1289-1293. Ed: Elsevier Ltd.
  • Freeman D., Pugh K. and Garety P. (2008). Jumping to conclusions and paranoid ideation in the general population. Schizophrenia Research 102 (2008) 254-260. Ed: Elsevier B.V.
  • MacBeth A., Schwannauer M. and Gumley A. (2008). Psychology and Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice (2008), 81, 79-93. Ed: The British Psychological Society.
  • Martin J. A. and Penn D. L. (2001). Brief report Social cognition and subclinical paranoid ideation. British Journal of Clinical Psychology (2001), 40, 261-265. Ed: The British Psychological Society.