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News: Paranoia rife among us, researchers say

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  • Robert Karl Stonjek
    Paranoia rife among us, researchers say March 31, 2008 Courtesy Wellcome Trust and World Science staff Paranoia afflicts as many as one in three people,
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      Paranoia rife among us, researchers say

      March 31, 2008
      Courtesy Wellcome Trust
      and
      World Science staff

      Paranoia afflicts as many as one in three people, researchers have concluded based on a study using virtual reality.

      Scientists have had trouble studying paranoia, or exaggerated fear of threats from other people, in controlled laboratory settings. Researchers have often settled instead for giving out questionnaires, which can be inaccurate.

      Computer people on a simulated underground train. The virtual reality simulation was used to measure levels of paranoid thoughts. (Credit: Dept. of Computer Sciences, University College London)


      The new investigation sought to solve the problem by putting volunteers through a virtual subway or underground ride to gauge paranoid tendencies.

      "Paranoid thoughts are often triggered by ambiguous events such as people looking in one's direction or hearing laughter in a room, but it is very difficult to recreate such social interactions," said Daniel Freeman of King's College London, who led the study. 

      "Virtual reality allows us to do just that, to look at how different people interpret exactly the same social situation." 

      Wearing headsets to be immersed in the virtual environment, 200 volunteers chosen to be broadly representative of the general population walked around a virtual London underground car in a four-minute trip between station stops.

      The carriage contained what the researchers said were neutral computer people, called avatars, that breathed, looked around, and sometimes met the gaze of the participants. One avatar read a newspaper, another would occasionally smile if looked at. A soundtrack of a train carriage was played.

      Freeman and colleagues found that the participants interpreted the same computer characters very differently. The most common reaction was to find the virtual reality characters friendly or neutral, but almost 40 percent of the participants experienced at least one paranoid thought, said Freeman. 

      Another scene from the virtual train. (Credit: Dept. of Computer Sciences, University College London)


      The investigators assessed participants before the "ride," and found that those who were anxious, worried, focused on the worst-case scenarios and had low self-esteem were most likely get paranoid. The results of the study are published March 31 in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

      Comments about the virtual reality characters by participants who experienced paranoid thoughts included:

      "There was a guy spooking me out - tried to get away from him. Didn't like his face. I'm sure he looked at me more than a couple of times though might be imagining it."

      "A girl kept moving her hand. Looked like she was a pickpocket and would pass it to the person standing opposite her."

      "Felt trapped between two men in the doorway. As a woman I'm a lot more suspicious of men. Didn't like the close proximity of the men. The guy opposite may have had sexual intent, manipulation or whatever."

      "There's something dodgy about one guy. Like he was about to do something - assault someone, plant a bomb, say something not nice to me, be aggressive."

      "In the past, only those with a severe mental illness were thought to experience paranoid thoughts, but now we know that this is simply not the case," said Freeman. "About one-third of the general population regularly experience persecutory thoughts. This shouldn't be surprising. At the heart of all social interactions is a vital judgment whether to trust or mistrust, but it is a judgment that is error-prone. We are more likely to make paranoid errors if we are anxious, ruminate and have had bad experiences from others."

      Freeman said paranoid thoughts are more likely to develop in settings such as on public transport, where people can feel trapped and watched, and can't hear what others are saying. People who feared terrorism underground tended to report more paranoid thoughts in the virtual train, possibly reflecting the after-effects of the London bombings on July 7, 2005, he added. But the researchers also found that people who regularly used the Underground experienced fewer paranoid thoughts in the virtual train.

      "Paranoid thinking is a topic of national discussion given increasing public attention to threats such as terrorism," said Freeman. "It sometimes seems as if the one thing that unites the diverse peoples of the world is our fear of one another. Worries about other people are so common that they seem to be an essential - if unwelcome - part of what it means to be human."

      Paranoia is increasingly being treated using a technique known as cognitive behavioural therapy. In the future, virtual reality may become a tool in clinical assessment and be incorporated into these treatments, Freeman said, allowing patients to test out their fears in virtual worlds.

      Source: World Science
      http://www.world-science.net/othernews/080331_paranoia

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      Robert Karl Stonjek

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