This podcast focuses on paranoia, particularly its delusional form – why it exists, why it seems to be becoming a more common affliction, the dangers it poses, and what we can do about it.
Paranoia is thinking and feeling like you are being threatened in some way, but delusional paranoia is when there is sufficient evidence that a reasonable third party would conclude there’s no threat. Delusional paranoia is akin to an addiction and unfortunately can have very dangerous, even deadly, consequences.
There are plenty of examples throughout both world history and U.S. history of the dangers of such delusional paranoia, both sponsored by the state and by separate groups and organizations. Paranoia has been a tool used by autocrats throughout history – everything from Hitler to Putin. There have also been plenty of examples in the U.S., including the Salem Witch Trials, paranoia about minority groups, the McCarthy hearings, QAnon, as well as other exaggerated issues such as immigrant “caravans” or antifa. In addition, cults are a specific, non-governmental, example of how paranoia can be encouraged and used to get people to stay loyal to a group and belief system even when it isn’t in their self-interest.
The most recent significant example of this delusional paranoia is the alleged “fraud” in the 2020 election – unfortunately this delusion has had serious effects, including the insurrection of January 6, 2021 as well as ongoing threats to our democracy.
If paranoia can run amok and cause such damage, why in the world does it exist? Why didn’t it get bred out of the species long ago? Because paranoia is a survival trait in many circumstances. But paranoia is the opposite of trust, which is a necessary condition for a community to function. As our communities get larger, we are forced to interact with larger and larger numbers of people whom we do not know and, indeed, will probably never know in any significant fashion. That means there’s the potential for our “paranoia button” to get triggered frequently.
We appear to be seeing more and more paranoia, and particularly delusional paranoia. Similar to what was discussed in the Brain Frog episode, these delusions are being promoted by a combination of Fox News (which has figured out that paranoia sells!), social media, and the unprecedented embrace of paranoia by the modern Republican Party.
Delusional paranoia, at the individual level, is generally more harmful to the individual than it is to the community (with the exception of people like mass murderers). But a shared delusional paranoia, one which involves a non-trivial fraction of the community, can be very dangerous as it self-reinforcing. And the strong human desire to avoid cognitive dissonance – rejecting truth because the previously accepted false narrative has already been internalized and accepted – also plays an important role. This is why this delusional paranoia has the unfortunate potential to actually end the American experiment.
The podcast also discusses the limited set of actions we can take to help mitigate the occurrences of delusional paranoia or at least its effects on the larger community.
KEY TERMS USED
The Paranoid Style in American Politics – Richard Hofstadter (1964)