Conspiracy theories seem to be in abundance these days, whether they’re coming at us through books, podcasts, social media or friends and family members. In an age when misinformation spreads like wildfire, everyone seems to know someone who’s bought into unconventional ideas regarding the shape of the earth, the moon landing, vaccines, terrorist attacks, political or social protests and airplane contrails, just to name a few.
There’s likely always been a fringe group that’s been eager to challenge conventional knowledge. Even reasonable people who consider themselves skeptics may occasionally wonder if the narratives they hear from leaders in government, health care or the science community really stack up. While there’s nothing new about conspiracy theories, they’re now coming at us from so many mediums.
Not everyone who’s inclined to believe conspiracy theories has a mental illness. However, delusions and disordered thinking are classic signs of schizophrenia. Oftentimes, those living with this disease show a bias toward conspiracy theories and conspiratorial thinking.
Introduction to Paranoia and Conspiracy Thinking: Defining the Concepts and Their Intersection
There’s considerable overlap between paranoia and conspiracy thinking. Both beliefs are based on hidden or even sinister intentions from others. However, the scope of the beliefs differs between paranoia and conspiracy thinking.
What Is Paranoia?
Paranoia is the feeling of being watched, persecuted or put in danger in some way without any evidence. Someone who’s living with paranoia may always feel certain that other people are out to harm them. Typically, this condition involves symptoms such as:
- Extreme mistrust and suspicion
- Believing that others are talking about them
- Suspecting others of spying on them
- Social isolation
- Suspecting others of planning to hurt or steal from them
Those who live in a constant state of paranoia often have a difficult time developing close relationships. Because they often feel like everyone intends to harm, steal from or take advantage of them, they’re distrustful and unable to form strong social connections.
What Is Conspiracy Thinking?
Like paranoia, conspiracy thinking involves suspecting ill intentions despite a lack of evidence. However, while paranoia is typically specific to people, conspiracy thinking generally involves suspicion of powerful groups. The individual is concerned not just with their personal safety but also that of their culture or way of life. In many cases, conspiracy thinking involves alternative explanations for important events.
Paranoia in Schizophrenia: Examining How Paranoia is Linked to Schizophrenia
Schizophrenia is a serious mental health disorder that involves hallucinations, delusions, disorganized thoughts and words and oftentimes, paranoia. While not everyone with schizophrenia exhibits paranoia, it’s a classic trademark of paranoid schizophrenia, the most common subtype of this disease.
With paranoid schizophrenia, the individual experiences extreme, unjustified mistrust and suspicion of others. They may believe that people are planning to harm them, talking about them, plotting to steal from them, or spying on them. It’s considered a positive symptom of paranoid schizophrenia, meaning that it’s associated with the presence (instead of the lack) of symptoms. In this case, there’s an excessive amount of anxiety, suspicion and fear that’s not grounded in reality and likely wouldn’t exist if not for the disorder.
Additionally, many people living with schizophrenia experience visual and auditory hallucinations. In many cases, these hallucinations are distressful and can contribute to feelings of paranoia.
As a result of living with paranoia, many people with schizophrenia become socially withdrawn and isolated. This may result in them becoming estranged from friends and family and having difficulty maintaining a job, jeopardizing their economic stability.
Types of Conspiracy Thinking: Exploring the Spectrum of Conspiracy Theories
While conspiracies range from outlandish but relatively benign to dangerous, they all serve a purpose: to make sense of events or circumstances when the conventional explanation doesn’t seem satisfactory. There are several types of conspiracy theories, including event, systemic, and super-conspiracy.
Event Conspiracy Theories
Event conspiracy theories are centered on limited and well-defined events. For example, about 5% of people believe that the moon landing was faked, and nearly a quarter of Americans are willing to entertain the idea that 9/11 was orchestrated by the U.S. government.
Systemic Conspiracy Theories
Systemic conspiracy theories are based on the assumption that a single, secret organization is in control and working to bring about a certain outcome or mission. The idea is that this organization seeks to gain power and control by infiltrating and ultimately taking over existing structures and institutions. Over the generations, a lot of groups have been suspected of wielding this influence, including the Freemasons, the Catholic Church and Jews. Throughout history, these groups have been subject to surveillance, persecution and even executions as the result of misinformation and conspiracy theories.
Superconspiracy theories connect multiple events and systemic conspiracy theories to create an entire framework. For example, in 1991, a man named Milton William Cooper published a book called Beyond a Pale Horse in which he connected the AIDS epidemic, aliens, the Illuminati and John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Cognitive Mechanisms: Understanding How Paranoia and Conspiracy Thinking Might Develop
There are a variety of factors that can contribute to an increased likelihood of developing paranoia or conspiracy thinking. These may include anxiety, stress, social factors, and in some cases, an illness.
What Factors May Cause Paranoia?
Paranoia, or an individual’s suspicion that people are watching and acting against them, may develop for a variety of reasons:
- Lack of sleep. While one sleepless night is unlikely to cause someone to develop paranoia, those who regularly fall significantly short of their sleep needs may be unable to think clearly. As a result, they may be more likely to misunderstand social cues and begin to suspect people are working against them.
- Unmanaged stress. Increased stress causes many people to go into self-preservation mode, which may lead to paranoid thoughts. This may result in them becoming more suspicious of other people.
- Psychiatric disorders. Conditions such as paranoid personality disorder, bipolar personality disorder and schizophrenia can impact how an individual perceives the world around them. In these cases, there’s usually no amount of evidence that can convince the individual that no one’s plotting against them, spying on them or intending to exploit them.
- Drug use. Drugs such as stimulants, hallucinogens and marijuana have chemicals in them that may make people feel paranoid for a short period of time. Generally speaking, once the chemicals leave the system, the paranoia also resolves. Similarly, alcohol abuse can cause short-term as well as long-term paranoia.
- Memory-related disorders. Memory-related disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease can drastically change how the brain works, making the individual more suspicious of others.
What Factors May Cause Conspiracy Thinking?
There are numerous factors that may influence an individual’s likelihood of developing conspiracy thinking:
- Lack of information. The world can seem like a dangerous and chaotic place, and oftentimes, explanations may seem inadequate. This can bring about conspiracy theories and misinformation.
- Anxiety. According to one study, those who feel anxious and powerless are more likely to believe conspiracy theories.
- Social pressure. In some cases, the desire for a sense of belonging can make someone more inclined to buy into conspiracy theories.
Clinical and Research Insights: Presenting Studies and Insights on the Association Between Paranoia, Conspiracy Thinking, and Schizophrenia
There have been numerous studies exploring the connection between paranoia, conspiracy thinking and schizophrenia. In 2011, for example, one study observed a connection between conspiracy thinking, paranoia and schizotypy, an early phase of schizophrenia that involves how the brain perceives the world. Some common traits of schizotypy include magical thinking, unconventional beliefs and suspicion.
Another study observed similar risk factors between conspiracy thinking and paranoia. According to this study, individuals who display paranoia and/or conspiracy thinking are more likely to live below the poverty line and experience social isolation or victimization. Additionally, a 2016 study found that those living with schizophrenia have an increased likelihood of also having Cluster-A personality disorders. This includes paranoid personality disorder, schizotypal personality disorder and schizoid personality disorder, all of which are associated with paranoia.
While plenty of people without mental illnesses believe misinformation, there’s a strong link between schizophrenia and paranoia or conspiracy thinking. A mental health care professional can conduct a thorough assessment and develop a treatment plan for those living with mental health or personality disorders.