Study: The uncertainty of a pandemic can make us feel paranoid

Philip Corlett

NEW HAVEN — The COVID-19 pandemic, as well as other uncertain times, could lead to paranoia among some people, according to a Yale University study.

In times of unexpected uncertainty, such as the sudden appearance of a global pandemic, people may be more prone to paranoia, Yale University researchers suggest in a new study published in the journal eLife.

“When our world changes unexpectedly, we want to blame that volatility on somebody, to make sense of it, and perhaps neutralize it,” Philip Corlett, associate professor of psychiatry in the Yale School of Medicine and senior author of the study, said in a press release. “Historically in times of upheaval, such as the great fire of ancient Rome in 64 C.E. or the 9/11 terrorist attacks, paranoia and conspiratorial thinking increased.”

Paranoia may be a symptom of serious mental illness, but a previous survey found that one in five people believed people were against them sometime in the previous year. Eight percent feared serious harm, according to the press release.

Corlett and lead author Erin Reed, a student at the Yale School of Medicine, tested the hypothesis that paranoia is rooted in a basic learning mechanism triggered by uncertainty, rather than the inability to assess social threats, which is the general theory of paranoia.

“We think of the brain as a prediction machine; unexpected change, whether social or not, may constitute a type of threat — it limits the brain’s ability to make predictions,” Reed said in the release. “Paranoia may be a response to uncertainty in general, and social interactions can be particularly complex and difficult to predict.”

In their experiments, the researchers asked subjects with different degrees of paranoia to play a card game in which the best choices for success were changed secretly, the release stated. People with little or no paranoia were slow to assume that the best choice had changed. However, those with paranoia expected the changes to occur even more than they had and changed their choices, even after a win.

The chances of winning the game were then secretly changed halfway through the game, which increased the paranoid behavior of the low-paranoia subjects.

In another experiment, Yale collaborators Jane Taylor and Stephanie Groman trained rats to complete a task in which chances of success changed. Some were given methamphetamine, which can induce paranoia in humans, which caused those rats to behave like paranoid humans, expecting high volatility and failing to learn from the task given, the release said.

“Our hope is that this work will facilitate a mechanistic explanation of paranoia, a first step in the development of new treatments that target those underlying mechanisms,” Corlett said.

“The benefit of seeing paranoia through a non-social lens is that we can study these mechanisms in simpler systems, without needing to recapitulate the richness of human social interaction,” Reed said.

Connecticut Media Group