The Suspiciousness Spectrum: Exploring Paranoia

From the mildly suspicious to the extremely paranoid, the feeling of paranoia exists on the scale of an ordinary human emotion.


When a paranoid person becomes delusional, their ideas are airtight, rigidly held, logically consistent, and unshakeable.

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The signs of paranoia are all around us. In Paranoid (Prometheus Books, 2015), author David J. LaPorte describes what paranoia is, why it manifests itself, and the many forms it can take. This excerpt, which contains information about paranoid disorders and the spectrum of suspiciousness, is from Chapter 2, “Inside the Mind of Paranoia.”

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I am assuming that the reader has a general sense of what paranoia is all about. But paranoia and paranoid disorders are multifaceted in nature.

It will be important to keep in mind that paranoia occupies the extreme end of a continuum. We can perhaps call the continuum in question suspiciousness. In that sense it reflects a normal and healthy human psychological experience, much like anger, love, happiness, and so on. At the low end of the continuum is naïveté, while paranoia sits at the other end. Each end is abnormal/pathological. In the middle are varying degrees of healthy trust or suspiciousness. So by definition paranoia and paranoid disorders are pathological states. They rep­resent an extreme of a normal, adaptive emotion.

The Suspiciousness Spectrum

The most salient symptom of paranoia is excessive, undue, or unreasonable sus­piciousness. Paranoid people are typically mistrustful of others and harbor a view that others have malicious or evil intentions. Or, put another way, they feel that others are persecuting them.

The level of suspiciousness can be as simple as thinking that others are talking behind their back, or as extreme as the truly delusional belief that someone is malevolently trying to harm them, often in bizarre ways, for example, by beaming x-rays into their head or stealing their thoughts. The “someone” can be their neighbor, family members, or organizations. The government, the FBI, the CIA, and other such groups are frequently blamed in this regard. Others are seen as trying to harm, humiliate, discredit, blackmail, or even kill them. They are being talked about, laughed at, vilified, disrespected, threatened, followed, stared at, harassed, oppressed, observed, wronged, plotted against, disparaged, and discussed by others, known and unknown.

Now, if you imagine that some organization such as the Mafia or CIA is after you, there is a high probability that sophisticated monitoring devices are involved. Needless to say, paranoid individuals tend to be preoccupied with such devices. In the nineteenth century hydraulic instruments, gasses, and animal magnetism were the focus of their concern. Today, microwaves, x-rays, micro­phones, cameras, computers, radio waves, and computer chips figure promi­nently in their delusions. I saw a patient with the withdrawal syndrome from alcohol, the so-called DT’s, who claimed she saw very thin wires connected to listening devices throughout her house. Placed there by her husband and his lover to spy on her, the wires were of a special quality such that they disinte­grated when a person’s body heat approached them. She spent what must have been a bizarre afternoon chasing these dissolving wires throughout the house.

Another paranoid individual believed that the neighbors were using their satellite dish to monitor his thoughts and eavesdrop on him electronically. His solution was to dig up the telephone and electric cables underneath their house and cut the lines with an ax.

How Do Paranoid Individuals Think?

Ultimately it is distorted thoughts that generate and reinforce the paranoid person’s suspiciousness. The reasoning behind their suspiciousness is highly spe­cious. They are capable of making tremendous inferential leaps based solely on insignificant or, at best, ambiguous details. Whoever coined the term “moun­tains out of molehills” must have had paranoid individuals in mind. Gray is not in the paranoid person’s cognitive palette—things are black or white. Yet no amount of evidence can displace their beliefs; in part because they largely ignore contradictory evidence or alternative explanations.

The force of logic is impotent when faced with evidence that someone who is paranoid is able to assemble. For nothing is “innocent,” happens by chance, or appears as it seems. A shrug, a wave of the hand, or a cough can all have meaning. As a result, inordinate attention is paid to small, petty details. Minor events or innocuous things in the environment can be twisted to fit the paranoid individual’s belief system.

Someone who fails to flush the toilet in a public restroom did so just to annoy and antagonize them. Being jostled or bumped in a crowd feels like they are being intentionally run into. The curtains drawn over at the neighbors’ house are an indication that someone is spying on them. A comment made by a coworker about how much road salt and grime has built up on their car is a jab at how lazy and unclean they are. You can’t underestimate how good paranoid people are at finding the hidden meaning in just about everything. And invariably, that hidden meaning is directed toward them and has a negative connota­tion. Even compliments, like “I love your new jacket,” can be interpreted as a subtle insult implying that their previous jacket was trash and they have no taste.

You can’t trust what you see, so you need to interpret and see behind the surface presentations of situations, so the paranoid person believes. This often results in what Dr. William Carpenter, director of the Maryland Psychiatric Research Center in Baltimore, and an expert in psychotic disorders, refers to as sudden clarification. Others have used different terms, but the notion is the same. The paranoid individual experiences an event they immediately recognize for “what it really is.” It is a signal of immediate danger or the last piece of a puzzle indicating who the tormentor is or where the attack will come from. It is an overheard comment, an unsuspecting wink from another, a song on the radio, a line in a book, or a million other possible things. To the paranoid individual the smallest word or gesture has meaning and makes crystal clear something they had only a sense of before. As we shall see later in regard to violence, this seem­ingly insignificant event is often the final straw that precipitates the violence.

Paranoid individuals are thin-skinned and hypersensitive, which causes them to interpret events as being directed or referenced toward them. They hear a song with sexual content and believe it is an attempt by the artist to comment on their personal behavior and publicly humiliate them via the air­waves. Nothing is mundane or ordinary. Everything is somehow related to and has meaning for them. When the paranoid person becomes delusional, their ideas are airtight, rigidly held, logically consistent, and unshakeable.

The paranoid person typically has limited or nonexistent insight into his condition and disordered way of thinking. At best he retains some insight that results in a kind of internal debate over the reality and validity of his percep­tions. Once convinced of his stance, however, there is no further vacillation, and all energies are turned toward the enemy. Yet the issues are far from resolved. The paranoid person will tend to dwell on them in a perseverative, spinning-your-wheels-in-the-mud manner. Such ruminative thinking does not result in any kind of new solution or perspective but rather in increased anger and reso­lution to take action. Such actions are justified by the special circumstances the paranoid person finds himself in—being put upon or attacked.

It is more than a bit ironic that paranoid individuals are distrustful of almost everything, yet accept as veridical any innuendo or interpretation that is nega­tively related to them.

How do Paranoid Individuals Get Along with Others?

In most normal interpersonal relationships a basic level of trust is necessary. Absent that trust, people remain somewhat guarded, at best. Obviously, para­noid individuals don’t trust others and so are not willing to open up and reveal anything about themselves. As far as they are concerned, anything you learn about them, you will use against them.

Rather than looking for ways to deepen a relationship, with a mutual sharing of information and feelings, they are guarded, too busy looking for signs of threats. Attempts to penetrate the palpable wall that surrounds paranoid individuals will be met with defensiveness and, not uncommonly, hostility. The motives and intentions of others is a primary concern in all situ­ations. Certain topics are more likely to elicit reactions than others, although these topics are rarely advertised. One prominent theme, however, is the fidelity of anyone they are in a relationship with. So-called pathological jeal­ousy is viewed as a paranoid characteristic, albeit a special one meriting an in-depth discussion later.

For the rest of us, dealing with a paranoid individual’s hypersensitivity is like walking on eggshells—an endeavor we soon tire of and simply avoid as much as possible. The rigidity of their thinking, impervious as it is to reason, makes them frustrating to us. Their edgy defensiveness renders them prickly and hard to develop tender feelings toward.

The world is perceived by the paranoid person as a dangerous place where a “dog-eat-dog” mentality prevails. As such you must be constantly on your guard and hypervigilant lest someone sneak behind your back and stab you there. Even if it is dog-eat-dog out there, for some reason their dog gets eaten more. They are the ones being persecuted. Evidence for that is all around—evidence that exists only in their mind.

Paranoid persons need to be mobilized at all times since they never know when the attack is going to come. It is like being on orange alert 24/7 with frequent red alerts thrown in. Empathy and concern for the welfare of others are emotions they have little time for, inasmuch as they would take valuable energies from home­land defense. They don’t expect you to cut them a break—quite the opposite; they expect you to harm them—so don’t expect one from them. Warm and fuzzy are not terms that come to mind when thinking about the paranoid individual.

Like the rest of us, but probably no more so than the rest of us, they occa­sionally are the butt of a joke, insult, or slight. And like the rest of us, they feel hurt when that happens. How they differ from the rest of us is that a slight/ insult/joke hurts more and they don’t forgive or forget it. They are capable of bearing grudges for years and acting on those cold-dish grudges even years later. Not uncommonly, they take the litigious route. In this regard, a not insignificant number of complaints filed with police emanate from paranoid individuals.

Needless to say, if you lived in the type of world in which the paranoid person does, as described above, you’d be a less-than-pleasant individual. Para­noid people tend to have an edgy defensiveness about them. Irritable, queru­lous, and quarrelsome, many have the lovely disposition of a wolverine with boils. This prevents most people from developing much sympathy toward them. In fact, quite the opposite tends to develop. You can often tell if you are dealing with someone who is paranoid if, after a few minutes of talking with them, you find yourself angry and annoyed at them. (Paranoid individuals are not unique in eliciting this reaction; people respond this way to sufferers of a variety of psychological disorders.) Yet it must be remembered that a common reaction to the feeling that someone is out to harm you, or that at any moment some ill fate awaits you, is fear/anxiety.

Keeping in mind that there are degrees to which someone experiences para­noia, their interpersonal relationships can range from nonexistent to guarded. Some can be aloof and quiet as they “take it all in” and avoid revealing informa­tion. Others are chronically argumentative and complaining.

Their cold, humorless manner is not something most of us seek in a companion. Tolerating someone with this disorder will entail suffering their frequent biting sarcasm, stubbornness, outbursts of hostility, and questions of fidelity and loyalty. Their behavior is often met not with patience but with reciprocal hos­tility. A vicious cycle is then created in which their initial fears about someone are confirmed by their obvious hostility toward them, to which they react with an equal or greater measure of hostility. This, in turn, increases the other person’s hostility, which, predictably, increases theirs, and the cycle escalates. The paranoid person lacks insight into her contribution to this process.

Putting aside for the moment the question “What possessed you to ever get involved in a romantic or marital relationship with such an individual in the first place?” don’t expect warm and tender feelings. Instead, expect your sexual faithfulness to be questioned. Your clothing will be inspected for the stray hairs of your lover. The smell of your paramour’s perfume or cologne will be sniffed out. Were it not painful and upsetting, it would be almost comical to see these bloodhound sleuths burying their noses in your clothing to find the scent.

However, this process is more likely to go on out of earshot, or noseshot, as the case might be, given their devious and secretive nature. One way of ensuring that you don’t betray them with your secret lover is to control you and the relationship. Your cell phone will be checked to see who you are calling. The credit cards and bank accounts are in their name. Your allowance will provide for the amount of gas you need to get to work and back, but not the side trips to your lover’s. Expect them to know how long it takes you to get to work/the store/the cleaners and back again. Any deviations from this allotted time will be “evidence” of your tryst. And again, a vicious cycle begins: if you are constantly being accused of being unfaithful and cannot counter the “proof” against you, then you have nothing to lose by actually having an affair as you have already been found guilty in their eyes anyway. Once revealed, the paranoid individual’s initial concerns over your trustworthiness, or lack thereof, are confirmed.

Given the above scenario, it is not surprising that these individuals often find themselves alone. Part of them is quite comfortable with this because having no trust in others forces them to become self-sufficient and self-reliant. Autonomous, they don’t need anyone, so when they are betrayed, they don’t risk having all their eggs in somebody else’s basket.

The Emotions of a Paranoid Person

Paranoid individuals suffer more slings and arrows than the rest of us. The con­stant threat of harm certainly generates a fair amount of chronic fear. Yet because of the paranoiac’s secretive nature, that emotion may not be prominent or even detectable. Instead, they express anger over being targeted for harm, humiliation, and so on. It must be remembered that their fears (and anger) are backed up by considerable “evidence” they have systematically gathered.

Because nothing is as it seems and there is hidden meaning everywhere, jokes do not live in the paranoid person’s world. Humor relies on double entendre, odd ways of looking at situations, incongruous combinations, and so forth. Not infrequently, someone is a butt of a joke. Paranoid individuals are far too rigid, read far too much into everything that is said, and are far too sensitive to be able to possess a sense of humor. Imagine walking down the aisle of an airplane while trying to locate your seat. In shuffling by seat 24F the occupant quips, “Is that a box-cutter in your pocket, or are you just happy to see me?” Well, few Americans would find the humor in that statement. Substituting the word “cell phone” or “iPod” for box-cutter might elicit at least a weak smile for a lame joke. The point is that the joke is a little too close to home, striking a raw nerve for most Ameri­cans. Well, paranoid individuals are nothing but raw nerves.

Based on everything said above, the overall emotional state of a person who is paranoid is a negative one. It is fueled not only by the ongoing (mis)interpretations of events, but also by the legacy of grudges they carry with them from past ills. If you lived in the world in which paranoid individuals do, you, too, would become cynical, given the state of the world.

Am I Paranoid?

It is not unreasonable to assume that some might be reading this book to see if some of their thoughts or behaviors might be considered paranoid. Additionally, some readers may have succumbed to a version of “medical student syndrome,” so named for young, healthy medical students who come to feel that they are suffering from the various illnesses they are studying. I should note that a similar phenomenon occurs for those studying psychological disorders. Over the years so many students taking my Abnormal Psychology class come to believe that they have some (or all) of the conditions we are studying in class that I eventu­ally put a warning of sorts in my syllabus alerting them to this effect.

So for those of you concerned about possibly being paranoid, answer the following questions, which are modeled after questions taken from standard interviews used to determine paranoia in patients being seen by a clinician.

• Do you often find hidden insults or threats in the things people say to you?
• Do you find yourself not telling other people a lot about yourself because you fear they will use that information against you?
• When in social situations do you worry that you are being rejected or criticized by others?
• Do you find it hard to open up to people, including people you are close to?
• Do you feel at times other people are deliberately trying to harm you or your interests?
• Do you often feel that you are being observed, watched, or stared at when you are around other people?
• Do you find yourself spending a fair amount of time wondering if you can trust friends or those you work with?
• Do you avoid getting to know other people unless you feel for certain they will like you?
• Do you sometimes feel that a group of individuals is plotting to cause you serious harm or injury?
• Do you often feel that you have to be on guard to prevent others from abusing, exploiting, or harming you?
• Do you often feel that others are against you?
• Do you sometimes feel that your thoughts are being controlled or inter­fered with by someone else or by some force?
• Do you often feel that people you see talking in public are talking about you?

Most people will probably answer yes to at least one or two of these questions. It is natural to experience some of these feelings at various times. But most paranoid persons will answer yes to most if not all questions and experience these thoughts and feelings frequently. There is no set number of affirmative answers that determines clinical paranoia, however, so if you are concerned then it would be advisable to consult a mental health professional or your primary care physician.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission fromParanoidby David J. Laporte and published by Prometheus Books, 2015.