Yale researchers say this year of uncertainty is making everyone paranoid

There are a whole lot of words, some explicit, that could be used to describe 2020 thus far. One descriptor that definitely fits, though, is “uncertain.” The COVID-19 pandemic has been marred by uncertainty at every turn. When will life get back to normal? When will a vaccine be available? Will COVID-19 ever really go away for good?

In these comfortable, modern times, we’ve all grown accustomed to a certain degree of certainty. This year, however, and all of the societal, economic, and medical upheaval it brought with it has served as a sobering reminder that nothing is for sure in this life.

Amid everything that’s been going on, there’s also been a big uptick in crazy conspiracies, panic buying, and paranoia in general. Now, researchers from Yale University have an explanation as to why. Their new study finds that in times of unexpected and sudden uncertainty, such as a once in a lifetime pandemic, people tend to fall into paranoia much more easily than during normal times.

“When our world changes unexpectedly, we want to blame that volatility on somebody, to make sense of it, and perhaps neutralize it,” says Yale’s Philip Corlett, associate professor of psychiatry and senior author of the study, in a university release. “Historically in times of upheaval, such as the great fire of ancient Rome in 64 C.E. or the 9/11 terrorist attacks, paranoia and conspiratorial thinking increased.” 

Extreme paranoia is associated with serious mental health conditions like schizophrenia, but everyone feels a bit paranoid from time to time. Characterized by a nagging feeling that other people are out to get you, the occasional bout of paranoia is quite common. For instance, a previous research project had found that 20% of the population had, at least once over the previous year, felt like other people were plotting against them. Another 8% of the participants in that project said that other people were even trying to physically harm them.

For decades, most scientists and academics have accepted the theory that paranoia stems from social threats and experiences being misinterpreted. But, the researchers behind this latest study hypothesized that paranoia is caused by feelings of uncertainty, even when there isn’t an obvious social threat involved.

“We think of the brain as a prediction machine; unexpected change, whether social or not, may constitute a type of threat — it limits the brain’s ability to make predictions,” explains lead author Erin Reed. “Paranoia may be a response to uncertainty in general, and social interactions can be particularly complex and difficult to predict.”

To get to the bottom of paranoia’s origins, researchers conducted a series of experiments involving a group of participants with varying levels of self-diagnosed paranoia. Some considered themselves very paranoid on a day-to-day basis, while others said they rarely felt paranoid.

Everyone was asked to play a card game, but researchers kept secretly changing the rules of the game while participants were playing. Those with little to no paranoia were very slow to pick up on the rules of the card game-changing and even slower to change their playing strategies accordingly. Highly paranoid participants, on the other hand, seemed to expect the game to be unpredictable or volatile right off the bat. These paranoid players changed up their strategies after every round, even if they had just won.

Next, the study’s authors changed the card game up even more, again without telling any of the players. Once it became apparent to everyone playing that the game was wildly unpredictable and erratic even the low-paranoia participants started showing clear signs of paranoia. 

“Our hope is that this work will facilitate a mechanistic explanation of paranoia, a first step in the development of new treatments that target those underlying mechanisms,” Corlett adds.

“The benefit of seeing paranoia through a non-social lens is that we can study these mechanisms in simpler systems, without needing to recapitulate the richness of human social interaction,” Reed concludes.

So, even in the absence of dirty looks or menacing whispers, uncertainty can push even the calmest among us into a highly paranoid state. While paranoia may be somewhat helpful during an unpredictable card game or situation, in the context of everyday life, it’s much more of a hindrance. 

As far as how these findings apply to 2020, there’s no denying we’re all living in uncertain times right now. Paranoia feels like it’s at an all-time high all over the country and the world. It’s okay, and somewhat unavoidable, to feel paranoid these days, but what’s important is recognizing that paranoia and making sure it doesn’t push us to make shortsighted decisions driven by fear.

The full study can be found here, published in eLife.