The Roots of Our Paranoia

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, Universityof Wisconsin - Green Bay
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When the White Plains Journal News published the names and addresses of registered gun owners in Rockland and Westchester Counties (the two counties immediately north of New York City straddling the Hudson), gun owners reacted with fury. And although they own guns, and in some cases sizable home arsenals, it's obvious these people are really afraid. Of what? Crime is at its lowest point in decades, and in any case, a handgun is a far more useful defense against crime than a rifle or semi-automatic assault weapon, and you can only shoot two at a time anyway. If you want any kind of accuracy, stick to one and use a two-handed grip. Unless you're a collector, the purpose of owning half a dozen guns is murky at best. Gun rights defenders speak of resisting tyranny, but weapons and tactics that worked in the French and Indian War won't work in the 21st Century. As one observer put it, when the newest model tank crashes through your front door, your high capacity magazine will be just as effective as a legal ten round magazine. When is the last time an armed citizenry in the U.S. successfully mobilized and repelled an invader or put down an abuse of government authority? (1) For all the romanticizing of Lexington and Concord, everything from Bunker Hill onward was mostly European set piece battles. The British pretty much went unmolested in New York City and Philadelphia. When Sherman marched to the sea and Sheridan ravaged the Shenandoah Valley, did they meet much citizen resistance? No, and for a very good reason: the Union army quickly made examples of anyone who tried it. The Union Army is about to burn your farm to prevent you raising crops for the Confederate war effort. You have a gun. They have ten guys with guns, who can call on hundreds more. Your move. For a variety of reasons, we didn't regard Iraqi and Afghan insurgents as criminals. American insurgents can be treated as criminals. The fact that we didn't do so after the Civil War is an illustration of the theological adage "don't confuse mercy with merit."

We romanticize the World War II Resistance movements, and they did some heroic things. The Polish underground got to a crashed V-2 before the Germans, hid it, and smuggled key parts to the British. Resistance movements sabotaged key facilities and smuggled downed pilots to safety. They supplied valuable intelligence. The one thing they did not do effectively was drive the occupiers out, because they were outmanned, outgunned, and faced with an enemy who shot hostages in reprisal. The exceptions illustrate the limitations of an armed citizenry. Partisan movements in the Soviet Union had links to the Soviet military. Partisans in Yugoslavia were also supplied from outside and finally expelled the Germans only after the Soviet Union and Bulgaria invaded Yugoslavia. Partisans liberated Albania at about the same time, in large part because the Germans began a strategic withdrawal. It's axiomatic in asymmetrical warfare that guerrilla movements need outside support to succeed.

Even when there is a breakdown of society, gun owners lay low. The 1992 Rodney King riots would have been a prime opportunity for gun advocates to show what an armed citizenry can do. There are lots of heavily armed gun lovers in Southern California as well as some would-be militias. Why didn't any of them set up armed barricades to stop the rioters, or better yet cleared the riot zone? Probably because they would have faced some criminal charges and lawsuits later on if they'd shot anyone. The most serious believers in guns for defense seem to picture a breakdown of social order deep and long enough that they will not face legal repercussions for their actions (they seem not to realize they will face repercussions from people with more guns, armed friends and better organization). So where do we find situations like that? Somalia, the Congo, Afghanistan, the so-called "failed states." Actually they're not so much failed states as never-were states.

So, I've asked, repeatedly, why people believe the world is full of sinister plots. Here, for example, are two posts I put on Salon on January 21 and 22, 2013:

Monday, Jan 21, 2013 03:43 PM CST

Here's a question I keep asking conspiracy believers with very little result so far. Tell me what you have seen or experienced first-hand that convinces you conspiracies like this exist. Not what somebody told you, not what you read, not things that "don't fit," but actual, personal observation. And for those of you who just completed Psych 1, I'm also not interested in your theories about circumcision or lack of parental warmth. My personal experience is that I pay taxes and I get roads, police and fire protection, military protection, clean water, airports and national parks. Some of you have personal experience that convinces you there are false flag operations and FEMA death camps. So tell us what it is.

Tuesday, Jan 22, 2013 03:21 PM CST

Well, 24 hours and nothing. Par for this course. Let me clarify. No, you weren't there when Sandy Hook or 9/11 or JFK's assassination were plotted. And you didn't build anything for FEMA that looks like a death camp. But there must be SOMEthing in your life that persuades you that the world works this way. What was it? I could see if you had a bad tour in 'Nam and saw rampant faking of battle reports, or got railroaded for a crime you didn't commit. I can definitely see why blacks might be paranoid about whites. But most conspiracy believers are comfortable, middle class whites living in comfort and safety. So just why do you think the world is full of evil plots?

When I copied those, there had still not been any reply. And I've done this quite a few times, and there is never a coherent answer. I've had a fair amount of Bible prophecy babble, but only one attempt at a real response. A guy wrote to tell me he was convinced the Jews controlled the economy because he once had a Jewish acquaintance who told him the Jews controlled the economy, and who was a crooked businessman, as well. Well, I have an acquaintance who once told me a friend of his was approached by the Illuminati about joining, but I don't believe it. Worldwide conspiracies really ought to pre-screen people better than that before trying to recruit them. So why would this guy choose to believe his Jewish acquaintance? Why wouldn't he believe that all businessmen are crooked, something equally well supported by his data?

Most recently, when Scientific American published an on-line article about the roots of paranoia, I posed the question again - and specifically selected the option to be notified when someone replied. So far, there have been zero responses. From the evidence so far,nobodywho believes in conspiracies has any first-hand basis for doing so.

There are some people who've been screwed over and who have earned a right to be suspicious. But why would safe, comfortable, privileged and affluent white middle-class people think the world is out to get them? The government may be plotting to take their guns, but it hasn't happened in 236 years of American history, nor is it happening to them or anyone they know, and are we really to believe there are no police officers who would leak a warning if it were to happen? They have absolutely no first-hand experience to base their beliefs on, but they read books, listen to people, and see things on line and choose to believe them. Or they watch videos of 9/11 and choose to believe things don't quite fit. Or they read the Bible and choose to believe there's a demonic conspiracy coming.Why?

This cannot be an enjoyable existence. C.S. Lewis' demon Screwtape observed: "Cowardice, alone of all the vices, is purely painful - horrible to anticipate, horrible to feel, horrible to remember..." (Ch. XXIX)


According to DSM-IV*, characteristics of theparanoid personality disorderinclude:

  1. Excessive sensitivity to setbacks and rebuffs;
  2. Tendency to bear grudges persistently, i.e. refusal to forgive insults and injuries or slights;
  3. Suspiciousness and a pervasive tendency to distort experience by misconstruing the neutral or friendly actions of others as hostile or contemptuous;
  4. A combative and tenacious sense of personal rights out of keeping with the actual situation;
  5. Recurrent suspicions, without justification, regarding sexual fidelity of spouse or sexual partner;
  6. Tendency to experience excessive self-importance, manifest in a persistent self-referential attitude;
  7. Preoccupation with unsubstantiated conspiratorial explanations of events both immediate to the patient and in the world at large.

Given the behavior of groups like the Taliban, we can say that some cultures as a whole suffer from this disorder, with an extreme fixation on criterion 5. But why do so many Americans? Most have never experienced a moment of real fear, danger, or discomfort in their whole lives. They are safe, prosperous and well fed, but they live in a mental universe where child molesters lurk behind every bush, the medical profession deliberately conceals miraculous drugs from them, the government flies planes into buildings, FEMA builds secret concentration camps all over the place, corporate farms sneak poisons into their food, aircraft dump mind-controlling chemtrails into the air and secret radar installations control the weather.

Well, of course, there's always....

Bad Parenting

Numerous writers on personality disorders ascribe paranoia to failure to develop a trusting relationship with parents. Certainly we can picture how arbitrary punishment, repeated broken promises and repeated violations of rights can do that.

A parent with obsessive-compulsive or narcissistic behavior might communicate that behavior to children by example. A child with a mother who washes her hands every ten minutes might develop an exaggerated fear of uncleanliness. But parents might also actually encourage the behaviors, either in the belief that they are among the few whoreallyunderstand the way the world works, or as a means of legitimizing their own thinking. A narcissist might encourage a child to think of himself first. A good example is Hal's father in Shallow Hal, who urges Hal from his deathbed to pursueonlybeautiful women. Someone with anti-social behavior might train a child to be an accomplice. Paranoia is especially likely to be passed along because paranoids love conspiracies and recruit other members of their family into the plot. Kids, of course, lovehaving some justification for dismissing what they learn in school or are told by authority.

Nevertheless, bad parenting is often a convenient rationalization for avoiding the unpleasant truth that some people just plain decide to do bad things because they get enjoyment from it or because it offers some advantage. And no matter how faithful a parent is, many promises cannotbe kept. Santa cannot bring that expensive new toy because Dad is out of work. That long-awaited trip to the beach can't be taken because of the weather or the car breaks down. Mom can't come to your ballet performance because she's sick. Your puppy dies. Your bike gets stolen. You get a baby sister instead of a brother. So the world offers plenty of reasons for some people to become paranoid. This is likely to become a self-fulfilling prophecy because paranoia alienates others and reinforces the loneliness of the sufferer, may possibly seem threatening to others and so invite defensive responses, and excessive caution may actually cause rather than prevent mishaps. There is roughly a forty-fold greater likelihood that a gun in the home will be used on a family member rather than an intruder.

Delusional Narcissism

Dr. Keith Ablow published a piece at called "We are raising a generation of deluded narcissists" (January 8, 2013) pointing to social media turning adolescents into faux celebrities. While true, those delusions pale next to someone dismantling a business and then claiming to be a "job creator," laying off workers when the economy slows down and then claiming to "face the risks of the marketplace," doing a routine job for years and expecting steadily inflated salary and job titles, expecting a right to union protection for slacking off or screwing up on the job, or occupying a house for decades and then feeling cheated if the value doesn't soar.

So the delusional narcissists among us conclude they deserve free medical care, free food, free Internet, free housing, free cable TV, the right to do business without regulation, and the right to consumer goods without having to live near the factories that make them. They either deserve it from the government if they're liberal, or they deserve it without having to pay taxes if they're conservative. Even if they admit they should pay for it, they deserve it at a negligible price that doesn't require any sacrifice on their part. The price they pay for necessities should never cut into their ability to buy luxuries. Two hundred years ago, your retirement plan was simple: you got up, went to work, came home, went to bed, got up, went to work.... And then one day you didn't get up and go to work because you were dead. Retirement was a blessing because it meant people could survive without working when they were no longer capable of it. Today's delusional narcissists consider they have a right to sell their home at a huge profit and buy another in a desirable location, or buy an RV and travel. And of course, all that money is theirs to spend without having to save for necessities like health care. When the recession of 2008 kicked in, the media were full of heart-wrenching tales of people who had to give up their dreams of retiring at 55 and keep on working to afford that retirement home on the beach (which will, of course, be covered by public disaster funds when a storm surge washes it away). Those people who can actually retire on generous terms are fortunate. But the delusional narcissist is never "fortunate." He's only getting what he deserves. "Gratitude" is only a word in the dictionary between "grasping" and "greed."

Needless to say, when the delusional narcissist can't have what he considers rightfully his, someone is to blame for it. Medical care is expensive because the doctors and the drug companies are only in it for the profits, not because a heart transplant, something that wasn't even possible 50 years ago, is a staggeringly complex procedure. Something gets lost in the mail, so the fault is those overpaid parasites in the Post Office, who only handle hundreds of millions of pieces of mail a day and charge 46 cents to send it from Key West to Nome, or Puerto Rico to Guam. If the price of gas goes up, it's because the government is interfering with industry or the oil companies are withholding production. The ultimate bite-the-hand-that-feeds-you irony is that people will complain that gas is so expensive, then go to a church that doesn't believe in the science it takes to find oil in the first place. If your electric bill goes up, it's because the government is taxing the private sector or because the oil and utility companies are price gouging. It can't possibly be that oil refineries and power plants are enormous, gigantically expensive operations or that it costs money to get oil and coal out of the ground and ship it hundreds or thousands of miles, or that the people who want the energy don't want to live anywhere near the sites that produce it. Have you priced a box of cereal recently? Outrageous! Of course, somebody has to grow the grain, harvest it, someone else has to ship it, someone else processes it, someone else ships it again to the store, where people put it on shelves and wait patiently at the cash register for you to drop by, at your convenience, not theirs, to buy it. Oh, by the way, the profit margin of a supermarket is about 1%.

Some commentators recently have drawn criticism for noting that mass shooters are almost exclusively white males, but the connection is understandable. If you can't make it as a member of the privileged gender of the privileged ethnic group, you are a loser indeed. You can either resign yourself to it, take a hard look at yourself and figure out what needs changing, or decide that other people are to blame and lash back.

Look around you. You do not deserve anything you see. It is completely a historical accident that you were born in modern times instead of as a Neolithic farmer or medieval peasant, or a gulag prisoner in Stalinist Russia. It is solely a statistical fluke that you were born in a developed country instead of Bangladesh or the Congo. All the prosperity you enjoy is...

Undeserved Prosperity

Ever go someplace where you were totally out of your league? A gathering where everyone else was way richer, more educated, or more accomplished? Shared experiences, attitudes and behaviors that you had no clue about? Not very comfortable. You don't deserve to be there at all; you're only there because you stumbled in by accident, or sneaked in, or someone way above your station invited you. But you know you don't deserve to be there. As C.S. Lewis described it: "One is conscious of having blundered into a society that one is unfit for" (2). And every moment you're stalked by the specter of somebody spotting you for a phony and calling you out on it.

Now, what if "there" is Earth? You eat food you didn't grow and in many cases have no idea where it came from or what it looks like in nature. You rely on elaborate machines to get you places, but have no idea how they work. If your car stops, you have no idea what went wrong or what to do to fix it. In many cases, there is nothing you personally can do. To travel long distances you get into a big flying tube that leaves you completely at the mercy of other people. Your illnesses are treated by people who speak a language you don't understand and who give you little nondescript pills containing who knows what? Everything in your house connects to outlets in the wall that supply electricity created by processes you don't understand. You are reading this on a device that might as well be populated by fairies for all you know. And when something pops up saying you have a virus or the FBI has caught you downloading illegal material, you don't have a clue what to do.

When I was a child, there were lots of people around who were adults before they saw their first automobile or airplane, who grew up in homes without electricity, running water or indoor plumbing. They're all dead now. As time goes on our ability to get in touch with simpler times fades. By the standards of my high school classmates I wasn't too car-savvy, but I know a heck of a lot more than the average high school kid today knows about cars. Partly that's a Darwinian product of having things go wrong in places where there's no choice except to fix the problem somehow. But to people who live in a world full of stuff they can't control except in the most rudimentary way, what's to stop all those people who do know from suddenly turning on them? Suddenly cutting off the power and water, jacking up the price of food ten or twenty times, or closing the hospitals to them?

Jonathan Edwards' infamous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God , pictures the sinner as a loathsome insect, held out of the fire only by the undeserved mercy of God. Most Americans are like that, kept alive and prosperous only through the exertions of people more productive, inventive and generous than they are. The productive view them not so much as loathsome insects, as puppies who will eventually go to the pound if they pee on the rug too often. Forget Wall Street "going Galt." The really terrifying prospect is that the inventive and creative people will stop creating, or will realize the power they have over everyone else and start demanding to be paid what they are really worth. When you didn't earn a single one of the luxuries you "own" and would be powerless to get them back if they were lost, you're bound to feel insecure.

Hey! I work for a living! Really? So did medieval peasants, and their lifetime productivity could not have gotten them one second of electric light or a bite of chocolate. However hard you work, what you pay for goods and services is only a token of their real worth.

They Don't Trust God (Even if They Don't Believe in Him)

You'd think people who are saved and assured of going to Heaven would be blissfully free from an irrational fear of death. A rational fear of death is looking both ways before crossing the street, wearing seat belts, getting vaccinated, not smoking, and avoiding bad streets after dark. An irrational fear of death is worrying that cell phones will give you a brain tumor, not wearing a seat belt because you're afraid of being trapped in the car, thinking every food additive will kill you, buying a gun because some minorities drove down your street, and thinking the government is plotting to round people up and commit genocide.

Although Christians pretend to trust in God, the God many of them picture is capricious, vicious, and arbitrary. Jonathan Edwards' sermon, mentioned above, is a good illustration. In one of the most infamous passages, he says:

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince; and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment. It is to be ascribed to nothing else, that you did not go to hell the last night; that you was suffered to awake again in this world, after you closed your eyes to sleep. And there is no other reason to be given, why you have not dropped into hell since you arose in the morning, but that God's hand has held you up. There is no other reason to be given why you have not gone to hell, since you have sat here in the house of God, provoking his pure eyes by your sinful wicked manner of attending his solemn worship. Yea, there is nothing else that is to be given as a reason why you do not this very moment drop down into hell.

Does that describe a deity anyone could trust , much less love or respect? Why would anyone believe that such a deity would spare them regardless of what they did? One could easily picture such a deity casting its most loyal trusting followers into hell just to gloat over their shock, pain and surprise. Surely it is no accident that the people most prone to paranoid conspiracy beliefs often hold paranoid religious beliefs as well. If you believe that the universe is run as malevolently as Edwards describes, of course you'll believe that every event around you is orchestrated by malevolent people and groups for malevolent ends.

The supreme irony is that Muslim extremists will cheerfully commit suicide attacks, secure in the absolute certainty of eternal bliss, whereas Christians in America, who supposedly are saved and certain of entry into heaven, cower in fear at the slightest risk. Ken Murray, a retired physician and medical school professor, wrote in "How Doctors Die" (Saturday Evening Post, March/april 2013) that doctors spend far less on terminal care than most patients. They know what the prognosis is for their illnesses and have no illusions that radical therapy will buy them many more years of vibrant health. Murray refers to much terminal care as "futile care;" intensive care makes sense for a 20-year old injured in an accident or a 40 year old who had an unexpected heart attack. It doesn't make sense for a 70 year old.

Atheists, if anything, are even weirder. If there's no God and no afterlife, then there's absolutely no reason to fear death. You do whatever you can to postpone it (although you can have an amusing philosophical debate over whether it matters. If you completely cease to exist, consciousness and all, when you die, there won't be any you to remember it, and no Cosmic Consciousness to keep score. The second your brain dies, it will make no difference to you that you ever even lived.). In any case, you do not have to fear making the wrong choice in what to believe or what you do, because you are annihilated when you die. So although many non-believers claim to be liberated, they sure don't act it when it comes to irrational fears. They're just as likely to fear fluoridation and believe 9/11 was an inside job as the most rabid religious believers.

A Feeling of Security

Those not inclined to a conspiratorial mind-set might naively think people would be relieved to discover that the world is not a web of evil plots. But start debunking conspiracies, and believers put up fierce resistance. Some of it may be reluctance to face embarrassment at being taken in ("That bikini model I met on line really did want to marry me." "I wouldn't invest so much time reading about the moon landing hoax if it wasn't a real conspiracy.") but it seems to go far deeper than that. Most Christians do not believe in conspiracies and most churches don't preach conspiratorial beliefs. Within a mile of any conspiracy believer are probably half a dozen sane churches that preach a healthy, forgiving version of Christianity, yet many conspiracy believers choose to attend churches that encourage conspiratorial thinking. In fact, quite a few boast that they used to attend a "mainstream" church and left because its message was so "watered down."

Discuss conspiracies with a few true believers and it becomes very evident that they are fiercely determined to hold on to their beliefs. They fight tooth and nail to avoid having their conspiracy beliefs undermined. I have visited the Kennedy assassination site in Dallas. From Oswald's sniper nest, it might be an exaggeration to say Oswald could have thrown a brick and hit Kennedy, or used a flintlock musket, but only barely. So when a friend started in on the JFK conspiracy, I shared my experience. He replied that Oswald couldn't have made that shot because of the crappy scope he used. Even a crappy scope can stay zeroed long enough to make a few shots, and Oswald could have Scotch-taped a toilet paper roll to his rifle for a scope at that fish-in-a-barrel range, but it was obvious that this guy wanted to believe there was a conspiracy, and was determined to go on believing it.

To non-believers in conspiracies, the world is a complex place. Hurricanes, tornadoes and earthquakes happen randomly. Good people suffer misfortune. Bad people get good fortune. Nobody in New York had a clue when the sun rose on September 11, 2001 what would happen in the next few hours. The only way to keep safe is keep your wits about you and a sense of perspective, and even then, you can just be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Many people suffer tragedy, but most do not. There are risks everywhere, but most of them are small and most can be minimized with common sense. Religious believers can put their faith in God. Non-believers can put their faith in rationality.

On the other hand, conspiracy beliefs can bring order to chaos. JFK's assassination and 9-11 weren't just random events that happened principally because they were so outrageous that nobody thought to guard against them. Clearing every window on the parade route in Dallas would have prevented JFK from being shot, and armed sky marshals on every flight would have prevented the 9-11 hijacks. At least as they happened. There's no guarantee Oswald or the 9-11 hijackers might not have come up with a different plan. So unless you imagine every possible bad scenario and put something in place to prevent it, you'll never prevent every mishap. That makes the world a scary place. No, JFK and 9-11 were part of some grand evil scheme. A belief in conspiracies doesn't enable believers to predict events. Generally speaking, their predictions are of impending apocalyptic events like economic collapse, race war or government mass arrests, and those never actually seem to happen. But when there is a catastrophe of some kind, it can be fit into a comprehensible framework.

Like blaming the victim (real victims, not the pseudo-victims our society cranks out on an assembly-line basis), belief in conspiracies creates the illusion of control. A world where any woman can be minding her own business and be raped for no reason is scary, but if she did something to provoke it, then it might have been possible to prevent it. As a fringe benefit, blaming the [real] victim allows the blamer to simultaneously indict whatever behavior she disapproves of, say revealing clothes or a liberated lifestyle. Events like 9-11 are really scary if a bunch of conspirators with minimal logistics can hit on a scheme to cause major carnage, but if it's part of a scheme backed by the Illuminati or the Trilateral Commission or the Bilderberg Group or the Vatican or the Masons or the Stonecutters, then maybe we can prevent future terrorist acts. As an added fringe benefit, breaking up the conspiracy also allows the conspiracy believers to attack whatever social and political movements they happen to disapprove of, since these are inevitably part of the conspiracy to undermine society.

The irony is that conspiracy believers miss the really dangerous conspiracies all around them. People who believe the oil companies are plotting to raise oil prices are blissfully unconcerned about thecreationistswho deny the very geology that makes it possible even to find oil in the first place. People who think Social Security is all a government control plot don't seem to think there are any risks in letting private firms handle their money. People who claim Big Pharma is charging outrageous prices for medicines never seem to ask why homeopathic remedies, which are essentially distilled water (probably tap water at that) are so expensive, or who stands to gain by having nutritional supplements unregulated by the FDA. Listen to a talk radio show discussing the plot du jour, then listen to their commercials for fringy medical and nutritional products or off the wall tax avoidance schemes, then ask yourself who really is profiting.


*DSM-V rolls up all the personality disorders into a single heading, and does the same with autism, so there's no longer an Asperger's Syndrome, for example. Apparently many psychologists had difficulty deciding what to do when patients had symptoms that crossed boundaries. I'm a physical scientist and even I have no problem seeing that these phenomena are gradational, and that people might show symptoms across category boundaries. The changes really don't do much to improve my impression of the intellectual depth of the mental health profession.

(1) There was the "Battle of Athens" in Tennessee in 1946, where armed citizens besieged a polling place and eventually recovered the ballots from a crooked sheriff. They got away with it only because the state did not call in the National Guard and took no actions later against the rebels. I had someone point out that the National Guard might well have sided with the citizens if called out. There's this little thing called "mutiny" that the military takes very seriously.

(2) C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, Chapter 3.

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