21st century could be the age of paranoia

Paranoia is on the increase and could go unchecked unless we take urgent action, claims a leading scientist. Dr Daniel Freeman, a Wellcome Trust fellow, warns that changes in how we live and work could mean that we are entering an “age of paranoia.”

For a decade Dr Freeman, a Wellcome Trust Research Career Development Fellow, has been conducting pioneering research into paranoia at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, and recently developed the world’s first laboratory method of testing paranoia using virtual reality.

The research has demonstrated that levels of paranoia and mistrust are much higher in the general public than previously suspected. One in four people in the general public have regular paranoid thoughts.

Now, in a book entitled ?Paranoia: The 21st-century fear’, published this week by Oxford University Press, Dr Freeman and brother Jason argue that not only is paranoia incredibly common, it is also on the increase.

“These days, we daren’t let our children play outside. We’re suspicious of strangers. Security cameras are everywhere,” says Dr Freeman. “We seem to have entered an age of paranoia. And the indications are that things may only get worse.”

Dr Freeman believes that a combination of factors is fuelling this new era of suspiciousness, including the increasing number of people living in cities, the physical environment in which we live, growing wealth inequalities and the over-reporting in the media of crime and terrorism.

For the first time ever, 2008 has seen the urban population of the world outnumber the rural. In 1800, only five per cent of people lived in urban areas worldwide, but this figure is set to rise to 65 per cent by 2030. This does not bode well for our mental health: scientists have known for some time that rates of paranoia are twice as high in cities compared to those in rural areas.

“Social bonds are much looser in cities than in smaller, rural communities where ready-made, relatively stable support networks exist,” says Dr Freeman. “Social isolation, a frequent drawback to urban life, is closely associated with paranoid thoughts. In the UK nearly four times as many people live alone than 50 years ago. Increasing paranoia is certainly one more challenge posed by galloping urbanisation.”

Poverty, deprivation and wealth inequality are also linked to poor health and to increased levels of mental illness. Research conducted in the USA has shown that the people in the US with the widest income inequalities also displayed the lowest levels of trust and higher rates of mortality. Mistrust is associated with higher rates of death from cancer, heart disease and strokes.

Paranoia isn’t confined to Western nations, but it does appear that societies in which people are divided by huge differences in income and where the emphasis is on individual economic success run the risk of breeding conflict, unhappiness and distrust, argues Dr Freeman. An increasingly flexible employment market, with more reliance on short-term contracts, breeds uncertainty, stress and fuels competition in the workplace, encouraging us to see our colleagues as rivals and potential threats.

Dr Freeman also explores the potentially harmful consequences of media over-reporting of crime and terrorism, encapsulated in the newsroom clich? “if it bleeds, it leads”, which he believes instils in us exaggerated fears.

“Every age has its bogeymen, and ours includes terrorists, ‘hoodies’ and paedophiles, but the amount of coverage they receive in both tabloids and broadsheets greatly outweighs coverage of our real killers, such as heart disease, cancer, and road accidents.

“Over-reporting of dangers fosters a culture of paranoia. After all, it’s hard to stay cool when everyone else is panicking. The way we reason makes us particularly susceptible to the power of the media. The more something is repeated, and the more graphic and emotional it is, the greater the impression it makes upon us.”

Much needs to be done to help stem the rise in paranoia, at both a societal and individual level, concludes Dr Freeman.

“Dealing with paranoia at an individual level is relatively straightforward through techniques such as cognitive behavioural therapy,” he says. “But if we are really to get to the root of the problem, we need urgent action at a wider level. We need a range of policies to raise public awareness of paranoia, to train therapists and tackle the effects of potentially damaging social and economic trends.”

Source: Wellcome Trust, UK

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