Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

How Secret Spying Programs Affect the Clinically Paranoid


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.

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

Share this Article:


You must sign in or register as a member to submit a comment.

Starting Thanksgiving

Enter code: HOLIDAY 2015
at checkout

Get 20% off now! >


Email this Article