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How Secret Spying Programs Affect the Clinically Paranoid

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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So, the government is spying on you.

They’re lingering on your landlines, ogling your Googling, and eavesdropping on your emails. You’re no terrorist, but who knows? Some innocuous correspondence may have tripped the government’s imperfect terrorist-finding algorithm—after all, you’ve been awfully active on Homeland discussion boards lately. Might your unceasing adoration of Mandy Patinkin be mistaken for a violent agenda?

Recent news about the expansive reach of the NSA is enough to make anyone a little paranoid. For those with paranoia in the clinical sense, however, the overwhelming suspicion that “someone is watching” is old news. Individuals with paranoid schizophrenia often report feeling like someone is spying on or following them. Such “persecutory delusions,” which occur in about 50 percent of people with schizophrenia, can be extremely troubling to the sufferer, who often feels threatened by imagined antagonists.

Though paranoid delusions are not easily stereotyped, they tend to share a number features that can help us distinguish them from the nonclinical sort of paranoia. “The more a belief is implausible, unfounded, strongly held, not shared by others, distressing and preoccupying then the more likely it is to be considered a delusion,” wrote psychologist Daniel Freeman in the journal Clinical Psychology Review.

Credit: Flickr/Cale Bruckner

However, in the last few weeks, beliefs that were once “implausible” have taken a turn for the plausible. We really are living in a surveillance state.  So what happens to the clinically paranoid when the headlines suddenly justify their delusions? Do they now feel calmly validated in a bittersweet “I told ya so” sort of way? Or, does the actualization of hitherto unconfirmed theories exacerbate their paranoia, triggering psychosis? That all depends on an individual’s delusional narrative.

“There are many different flavors of delusion,” says Dr. David Kimhy, Director of the Experimental Psychopathology Lab in the Department of Psychiatry at Columbia University. He explains that, though revelations about the NSA could increase general anxiety in the individual with schizophrenia, the scandal should only significantly affect those whose delusions mirror the news.

“If you think the American government is spying on you, that’s one thing,” says Kimhy. “If you think it’s Russian intelligence, that wouldn’t have the same impact.” Still, he clarifies that in cases of individuals whose delusional narratives involve something resembling the NSA’s PRISM program, certainly, real-life manifestations of imagined threats could interact with symptoms of psychosis.

“Another piece of information added to other information, real or imagined, naturally would add some stress,” says Kimhy. However, he speculates that current events could alternatively offer a therapeutic benefit in such cases.

“The thought that the government is following everyone, in a paradoxical way, may take away from the delusion,” says Kimhy. Individuals with persecutory delusions usually feel that they are unique targets; thus, the broad net of surveillance that is so troubling to the NSA’s critics might reduce feeling of persecution in an individual who previously believed the government was only after him. Indeed, the therapist might use this broadness as a context in which to discuss the patient’s delusions. “You could ask, ‘What’s so unique to you? What special powers do you have? And by the way, why don’t we talk about those special powers,’” says Kimhy.

This therapeutic strategy applies to the individual with a very a particular paranoid delusion. Yet in this moment perhaps more of us could use a reminder of our lack of special powers. The life of the average citizen is simply too trite, too safe, too superbly boring to ever attract a glance from authorities. Certainly, you reserve the right to be ideologically ruffled by recent events, but there’s no reason to believe the authorities would ever give you the time of day (no offense). Barring psychiatric illness, you should be able to use this logic to feel comforted that, no, the government is not out to get you.

Unless you’re Edward Snowden, in which case, yes, the government is definitely out to get you.





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  1. 1. tuned 2:49 pm 07/1/2013

    “Unfounded” would be the key word and tricky phrase up there I reckon.
    Anyone sneaking around stalking someone would likely makes themselves as hard to detect as possible. C’est vrai?
    “Candid Camera” created a whole new generation of paranoia awhile back.

    Link to this
  2. 2. bbrhuft 8:15 pm 07/1/2013

    Paranoid Schizophrenics are not specifically paranoid of a computer based spying apparatus, because the cognitive processes that gives rise to Paranoid Schizophrenia involves a malfunctioning social brain, it’s hyper-arousal misidentifies threats from other people and social groups.

    The social brain assesses the minds of others – their intentions, actions, wishes, plans, emotions, opinions etc. This is why paranoid delusions are typically concern with the intentions of an imagined malevolent mind(s).

    However, NSA computers are mindless and intentionless electronic automata, Paranoid Schizophrenics cannot easily encompass NSA monitoring into their socially orientated conspiracies, if they do, it will only be used to confirm pre-existing paranoid obsessions that characteristically involve people.

    Crespi, B., and Badcock, C., 2008, Psychosis and Autism as Diametrical Disorders of the Social Brain: Behavioral and Brain Sciences, v. 31, no. 03, p. 241–261.

    Link to this
  3. 3. collettedesmaris 8:50 pm 07/1/2013

    When labels of “paranoia” or “delusional” are slapped onto someone because they express a feeling of “being watched”, these folks are labeled as such by a medical professional. Most people do not question a doctor’s diagnosis, and then the collective consensus by everyone around the schizophrenic is that they are imagining that they are “being watched”.

    But who’s to say that an individual can’t be gifted with extraordinary perception or intuition – and because of this gift, they are the rare ones who pick up on the surveillance. I have known two schizophrenics, and I’ll tell you what – they were both exceptionally intelligent. It is conceivable that they had other brain abilities that were exceptional as well – we know so little about the brain, that it would be arrogant and insensible to say this is not possible. We now all know that our own government (not terrorists) have indeed been “watching us” – and for quite some time. So, it follows that every schizophrenic was spot-on in expressing the feeling of “being watched” – because they
    were right. As well, a delusion is no longer a delusion when it turns out to be a fact, right? I say this whole arena needs looking into, and not at the further expense of anyone who’s been labeled “schizophrenic.”

    Yes, Edward Snowden has sifted out the hidden thoughts & actions of men, and held them up in public to the world. He has brought things and men to light, which might otherwise have lain forever undiscovered. He is a fine and noble gentleman who laid his life on the line to tip off his fellow Americans. We should rally around him and support him; he did not betray The People – he is indeed
    a modern-day descendant of our Founding Fathers who stood up to the government back in 1776.

    The author is very wrong in her conclusion of this article, however. Her line of reasoning is far off
    the track, and the casual acceptance she demonstrates about what she called the “secret spying programs” is unacceptable and un-American, and reveals her lack of knowledge about our Constitution. She reminds us that we are very much absent of any “special powers”, and that all of our lives are ‘too trite, safe,’ and ‘superbly boring’ to attract authorities. She further asserts:
    “Certainly, you reserve the right to be ideologically ruffled by recent events, but there’s no reason to
    believe the authorities would ever give you the time of day (no offense).”

    Isn’t that nice? We’ve just been told that we are trite and superbly boring – so much so, (we shouldn’t be offended), but that it should make us feel safe in knowing that we won’t be given the time of day by any authorities. (Yeah – they are so uninterested in us that they’ve gone to the trouble & expense of recording our every move for years now.) But the author has given us permission to feel “ideologically ruffled” with that knowledge! She makes no mention that our Constitutional rights have been violated! Specifically, Amendment IV.
    Alex Abdo, Staff Attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union’s National Security Project said, “The
    National Security Agency has been operating in the shadows for far too long. Extreme secrecy has
    facilitated extreme policy – all at the expense of all Americans’ Constitutional right to be left alone by
    their government absent specific cause or suspicion.”

    So, what we have here, is not only did this author NOT raise the point that maybe schizophrenics were not wrong by feeling that they were being watched – because it’s been proven that they were! And that we have the right – not her permisson – the right – to know that our Constitutional rights were clearly violated. And finally, her closing statement that tells Snowden the government is “out to get him” – but she fails to mention the real reason why – that being, the Power That Be have a lot to hide. Yes, folks, the greatest enemy of the American People isn’t Snowden, and isn’t the terrorists – but our greatest threat is right here on American soil – it’s our own government.

    It’s easy to understand how the distorted and downright wrong information that most of the mass media is paid to put forth, misinforms the general public and has been successful at keeping us in the dark. But the house of cards is beginning to fall, and they won’t be able to pull it off much longer. If this author had handed in this article in my journalism class, I’d give her an “F”.

    Link to this
  4. 4. Geopelia 6:56 pm 07/2/2013

    Some people posting in newsgroups seem to think either government agencies or space aliens are watching them.
    So I wonder why they make their thoughts public where the whole world can see them.

    Link to this
  5. 5. Mr. Mxyzptlk III 10:07 pm 07/2/2013

    The folks who believe that the United States is a democracy with a foreign policy dedicated to spreading freedom, peace, goodness, unicorns, and apple pie around the world are the truly deluded ones. Strap on the rose-colored glasses and change your name to Pollyanna!

    Link to this
  6. 6. jgrosay 1:02 pm 07/3/2013

    ‘Maybe I’m paranoid, but they’re after me’. According to Sigmund Freud, paranoid delusions serve the desire of actually suffering persecution, even more, the desire of being the passive subject of a sodomy act. This must be false, as gay men that are actually sodomized, do have paranoid delusions too, and not only those that are heavy pot smokers or hooked on other ‘highs’; paranoia may be a satisfaction of a narcissistic desire: ‘I’m a big person, because many are against me’. Many warn about the story of a man thinking a Crocodile was always under his bed, ready to eat him. After somebody missed him, and asked about his situation, he got the response: ‘A Crocodile eated him’. Enjoy yourselves!

    Link to this
  7. 7. goblegook 4:01 pm 07/3/2013

    In my circle it is well known that all governments are obsessed with the surveillance state. The American government in my view is clinically paranoid.

    Link to this
  8. 8. plenum 8:29 am 07/5/2013

    Governments survive with irrational preoccupations of their own safety…and I can live with that. However, when their own people suffer, that’s when the philosophies of institutional paranoia, and a broad culture of fear and oppression behind the programs, and even entire departments, has gone too far. We may not be suffering yet, but everything is set to go down the long road into fascism.

    Link to this
  9. 9. Son of Liberty 12:31 pm 07/5/2013

    “Barring psychiatric illness, you should be able to use this logic to feel comforted that, no, the government is not out to get you.”

    Did the NSA pay you to write that? I don’t find your accusation of my boringness comforting.

    Link to this
  10. 10. Son of Liberty 12:43 pm 07/5/2013

    Author Nassim Nicholas Taleb points out that human beings are more likely to see order in randomness than vice versa. As a result, a blameless individual could have his life turned upside down by a bureaucrat who goes the extra mile to ensure that no terrorist act occurs on his watch. Think of the turmoil created for those falsely accused of the bombing at the Atlanta Olympic Games and of sending anthrax letters after the Sept. 11 attacks.

    The odds of such an error for any particular individual may be slight, but they are big enough if you put yourself into the picture.

    Link to this
  11. 11. bucketofsquid 3:58 pm 07/5/2013

    Considering that we are a nation founded by traitors and terrorists, I find the conclusion that a police state should be comforting to be badly misinformed.

    Link to this
  12. 12. WizeHowl 7:21 am 07/6/2013

    About thirty years ago I had the feeling I was been watched whenever I went outside my house, my wife at the time thought I was been “paranoid”, until the day I disappeared. As I walked down the road from my house three burly men grabbed me and threw me in the back of a car and drove off, they refused to tell me who they were or where they were taking me. Fortunately it was seen by a mate and reported to the police and my wife, it turned out I was taken by the Federal Police over here, who believed my organisation, Father’s Of Australia was responsible for the bombing of the Family Law Courts Melbourne killing a Judge, just weeks before.
    They had already spoken to our President and me about the matter and we made it clear we were more than willing to help them catch the bomber.

    As the Secretary they tried to force me to hand over all my records and the names of all our members, but I had been to bloody smart for them, I never kept any records at home and what records I did keep where encrypted with my own code, which couldn’t be broken anyway.

    So after I had a good fight with 1 female and four male cops I was “rescued” by a number of State police who where mates of mine, that rampaged the Federal Police building. (did you know it hurts females as much as males to be kicked in the crutch)

    Turns out the Victorian State police had caught the bastard that set the bomb the day before anyway, they had just sat on the information until they made sure he acted alone. And he had nothing to do with our organisation, or we would have dobbed him in.

    So you see, feeling as if you are been watched may not be because your paranoid after all, it just may be because your government really is after you after all!

    Believe ME!

    Link to this
  13. 13. Dennis Nilsson, Sweden 7:25 pm 07/8/2013

    When discussing “spying” and “the clinically paranoid” the book “Political Ponerology” is worthwhile to read.
    It is a study of the founders and supporters of oppressive political regimes.

    http://ponerology.com

    “Knowledge of its nature – and its insidious effect on both individuals and groups – is the only antidote.”

    Link to this

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