If you think they’re out to get you, you’re not alone. Paranoia, once assumed to afflict only schizophrenics, may be a lot more common than previously thought. Surveys of several thousand people in Britain, the US and elsewhere have found that rates of paranoia are slowly rising, although researchers’ estimates of how many of us have paranoid thoughts varies widely, from 5 to 50 per cent. In a small experiment in London, Daniel Freeman, a psychiatrist with the Institute of Psychiatry, Kings College, concluded that a quarter of people riding on the Underground probably have regular thoughts that qualify as paranoia. In the study, 200 randomly selected people (those with a history of mental problems were excluded) took a virtual reality train ride. They recorded their reactions to computerised passengers programmed to be neutral. More than 40 per cent had at least some paranoid thoughts. Some felt intimidated by the computer passengers, claiming they were aggressive, had made obscene gestures or tried to start a fight. Freeman said that in big cities, many ambiguous events can lead to paranoid thoughts. Because we constantly make snap judgments based on limited information, like which street to take or whether or not strangers are dangerous, the decision-making process is prone to error. AP
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