Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


8 Key Traits of Paranoid Thinkers

For starters: superstition, projection, and a tendency to blame.

Source: Pressmaster/Shutterstock

In everyday language, the term paranoia refers to someone who feels excessively suspicious without justification, or that others are plotting against him. They read far too much into everything people say and are quick to criticize, but they are not open to criticism themselves. The term “mountains out of molehills” aptly describes paranoid individuals.

Research indicates that many of us, perhaps 15 to 30 percent, will regularly experience suspicious thoughts. For example, about 42 percent of college students reported that at least once a week others were spreading negative comments about them. The overall emotional state of a person who is paranoid is a negative one—it can include depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem.

Paranoia is disorder of mind, not a flaw of character. Paranoid individuals tend to have false ideas about the world and people. Here are eight such biases that prevent them from being rational:

1. Confirmation bias

A suspicious person is a person who has something on his mind and searches intensely for confirmation of his anticipations. He will pay no attention to rational arguments except to find in them some aspect or feature that confirms his original view.

2. Attention bias

The instrument for an individual's confirmation bias is his attention. His attention is intense and exceedingly narrow in focus. For example, a person with low self-esteem is highly sensitive to other people ignoring them. They constantly search for signs that people might not like them.

3. Disorders of reasoning

Once a suspicious person accepts a belief based on some piece of evidence, he is reluctant to give it up. When confronted with new evidence, he is less likely to revise his original judgments about the possibility of alternative explanations.

4. Distorted reality

Paranoid people impose a biased view on the actual world. Their thought processes go from belief to evidence. A paranoid person generally listens and watches only for specific clues that interest him, which tie into suspicious beliefs. For instance, in a conversation with a coworker, he overlooks nuances and misses the true intent as he fails to read between the lines, instead focusing on what he wants to see.

5. Persecutory delusion

Paranoid people blame others and they explain life events by blaming others. For example, they explain negative events, such as losing a job, by attributing them to the malicious intentions of others rather than worrying about whether they are inadequate in some way. (The flip side of persecutory delusion is grandiosity, which serves to defend against anxieties and vulnerabilities. In an attempt to cope with low self-esteem and the fear that no one loves them, they convince themselves that everyone does.)

6. Paranoid projection

Projection is the substitution of an external threat or tension for an internal threat that one denies. For example, “I hate him” becomes “He hates me.” This mental operation is central to paranoid thought. For example, a paranoid person who has made a small mistake on the job will search for clues of disapproval or dislike in his boss’s behavior. When he finds that sign, the biased anticipation becomes a conviction of disapproval.

7. Overvalued ideas

An overvalued idea is a simple idea that resembles a delusion, and often guides specific behavior. An example is knocking on wood to protect yourself against misfortune. Many people endorse the "10-second rule" that says you can eat food that has fallen on the ground only if you pick it up immediately. One aspect of superstition is the idea of magical thinkingthat you have control over the world. Many hotels don’t have a 13th floor. But what could happen to a guest on the 13th floor that would not occur on the 14th floor?

8. Erroneous sense-making

The suspicious person can be absolutely right in his perception and at the same time absolutely wrong in his judgment. Making sense is a deep human motivation, but it is not the same as being correct. Michael Gazzaniga (2008) argues that the pressure to justify one’s actions reflects the operation of “an interpreter system” in the left-hemisphere (analytical) brain. The interpreter (the “I”) is driven to generate explanations and hypotheses regardless of circumstances. In other words, the brain only perceives what it wishes to. As Mark Twain remarked, “What gets us into trouble is not what we don't know, it's what we know for sure that just ain't so."

More from Shahram Heshmat Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today