Study shows social and political differences can lead to increased paranoia. Pexels

With suitable reasons, we all can have our share of suspiciousness. It’s a part of human nature, but in some cases, the generalized mistrust of others is much more frequent and intense than normal. This is paranoia or the irrational and persistent feeling that people want to harm us in some way, even when we don’t know their exact intent.

The behavior is very common and several scientists around the globe are conducting studies to determine the factors responsible for it. The work still continues, but a group researchers at University College London has found the political beliefs and social status of an individual dramatically affect how paranoid he is.

The researchers came to this conclusion after calling in some 2000 random individuals for an online behavioral experiment.

First, the participants were asked to fill out a questionnaire that revealed how paranoid they were in real life and what thoughts they had about their own social status and political affiliation in terms of liberal-conservative.

Once the basic psychological profiles were created with that data, each individual was paired with a participant who either had a lower, higher, or similar social status or opposite political beliefs. Each of the pairs – with opposing and similar traits – also received a certain sum of money from the researchers conducting the study.

Then, for each pair, the team asked one of the two members to decide whether they want to split that money in half or keep all of it to themselves. As the participant made his choice, the other member of the team was directed to tell what he thought of that decision, like whether it was due to the participant’s self-interest or more of a means to deny them the prize money.

After following the same process by reversing the roles of the participants, the researchers analyzed the results of the experiment and found people who had partnered with higher social status or opposing political views thought they made that decision as a means to deny them the prize money, which, as the researchers described, is a sign of paranoia.

"Being alert to social danger is key to our survival, but our results suggest social difference alone encourages us to think that the other person wants to harm us," study author Nichola Raihani said in a statement.

While social differences didn’t appear to have an impact on the case of self-interest, the team did note that over perception of harmful intentions occurred at the same rate in the participants, even if they already reported a higher level of paranoia.

"Intense paranoia is also a symptom of mental ill-health, and is more common among people who perceive themselves to have low social rank,” Raihani concluded. “We believe our findings could shed light on why paranoia is more common in those who are struggling on the social ladder and excluded by society".

The study titled, "Experimentally induced social threat increases paranoid thinking," was published Aug. 1 in Royal Society Open Science.