What Is… Paranoia

Characteristics of paranoia

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms. This week’s term is paranoia.

Kind of like anxiety and depression, the word paranoia often gets tossed around fairly loosely in common parlance, but in a psychological/psychiatric sense, it has far more significance. Google Dictionary defines paranoia as:

“A mental condition characterized by delusions of persecution, unwarranted jealousy, or exaggerated self-importance, typically elaborated into an organized system. It may be an aspect of chronic personality disorder, of drug abuse, or of a serious condition such as schizophrenia in which the person loses touch with reality.”

It also gives this sub-definition: “Suspicion and mistrust of people or their actions without evidence or justification.”

Wikipedia differentiates paranoia from phobias and other irrational fears, as paranoia contains an element of blaming other(s). Someone who’s paranoid may also be likely to attribute greater significance to coincidences.

Psychosis and paranoia

Paranoid patterns of thinking can occur outside of psychosis, but paranoia is perhaps most commonly recognized as being the basis of paranoid delusions. Delusions involve beliefs that are not based in reality but are firmly held onto despite all evidence to the contrary. Delusions are a type of psychotic symptom, and paranoid delusions may be accompanied by hallucinations related to the delusional themes.

Paranoid delusions occur in illnesses like schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder, but may also occur in other illnesses, including mood disorders. Drugs, particularly crystal methamphetamine, can also trigger paranoid delusions.

Paranoid personality disorder

Paranoia may also occur in the context of paranoid personality disorder. Someone with paranoid PD isn’t delusional, but they have a longstanding pattern of suspicion and mistrust.

Symptoms of paranoid personality disorder include:

  • Suspicion that they are being harmed by others, despite no evidence to support this
  • Preoccupation with doubts about the loyalty of people in their lives, including partner’s fidelity, without any basis for these doubts
  • Reluctance to share things with others due to excessive concerns that the information will be used to try to harm them
  • Interprets things others say/do as being meant to demean/threaten them or attack their reputation, and quick to react with anger or counterattack

Associated psychological biases

Social circumstances have a significant influence on the tendency to develop paranoia. Feelings of powerlessness, external control over one’s circumstances, and victimization can contribute to paranoia, and lower socioeconomic status can heighten these effects.

Certain cognitive biases often accompany paranoia. The sinister attribution error involves overestimating the untrustworthiness of others. Paranoid individuals tend to have a disproportionately self-referential perspective on social interaction, such that the actions of others are seen as being particularly directed at the self. They also tend to have an exaggerated perception of conspiracy, with an overestimation of the likelihood that others’ actions are coordinated against the paranoid individual.

Conspiracy theories

So, you’ve got paranoid delusions as a psychotic symptom, paranoid personality disorder, and what else? Well, that’s where we find Alex Jones of Info Wars. He’s a conspiracy theorist, and he’s pretty out there, to say the least. While he may have a psychiatric condition, it’s very possible that he’s just a run-of-the-mill non-psychiatric nutbar with non-clinical paranoia. Paranoia doesn’t always mean pathology.

Paranoia can show up in different ways, and keep in mind that the word itself may not capture those nuances. There’s a big difference between paranoia as in schizophrenia and paranoia as in Alex Jones. And personally, I’d much rather spend time with someone who’s psychotically paranoid than with someone who is conspiracy-theorist-style paranoid.


The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Ashley L. Peterson headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

16 thoughts on “What Is… Paranoia”

  1. Pretty interesting. After reading some of the categories, I felt I was a bit paranoid. But, I know I’m not. It was just a super bad week.
    I do believe that conspiracy theorist are definitely out there, and are certainly paranoid about too many things. I watched this docuseries on Netflix a while back about the 9/11 conspiracies. These people were out of the ever lovin’ minds.

    1. There’s a quote from somewhere that’s along the lines of: it’s not paranoia if they’re really out to get you. That seems to apply rather well to dealing with your family…

  2. I’ve known people like this and they were always men, convinced that they were being denied the status or respect or money or whatever they were entitled to because of whatever reasons. Not necessarily a conspiracy but always someone or some set of circumstances to blame other than themselves.

  3. Great post!

    Paranoia has to be the worst symptom of my illness, I spent a good 6 months terrified because I believed a certain organization was after me, it was the worst feeling ever, I was in a constant state of panic. Thankfully the medications I’m on now keep it under control

  4. I have been paranoid several times, and I have a lot of extreme thoughts but luckily I’m not diagnosed or have paranoia according to the psychological term. But this can be really scary and like you wrote in the beginning people are using this word in their everyday conversations.

  5. Very happy to see such a unique post about such a ‘taboo’ subject that people don’t like, or maybe just don’t know how, to talk about. Great post – super informative!

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