Paranoia: Its evolutionary origin and why it is becoming more common
Psychologists are forging a new understanding of paranoia, which is helping to explain why more of us are prone to the condition in today’s uncertain world
6 February 2023
, updated 8 February 2023
JAMES TILLEY MATTHEWS feared the Air Loom Gang. In 1797, he claimed that this mysterious group of villains could control his thoughts using a kite and manipulate “the magnetic fluid” to force him to smile. The gang was a figment of his imagination, but Matthews’s insistence that he was being persecuted saw him admitted to a psychiatric hospital in London. Today, many researchers suspect he had schizophrenia. In the 200 years since, the broad assumption has been that paranoia of the kind Matthews experienced is a symptom of a severe mental health condition. But attitudes are now changing.
Research over the past 20 years has revealed that paranoia isn’t restricted to a subset of the people who have been diagnosed with schizophrenia or similar conditions. Some researchers argue there is, in fact, a paranoia spectrum, and perhaps 1 in 6 of us may fall somewhere along it. Even more remarkably, the number of people prone to paranoid thoughts rose as covid-19 spread across the world.
Such discoveries have prompted psychologists to take a fresh look at paranoia, including its overlap with conspiracy theories such as QAnon. The research has led to the intriguing idea that mild paranoia, far from being undesirable, may be an evolved condition that worked to the advantage of our hominin ancestors – and still benefits us today. The work has also brought us closer to working out why we might end up on the paranoia spectrum and, if we do, identified some simple …