Paranoia hinders learning and problem solving

Paranoia makes it harder for both people and animals to update their beliefs in response to changing circumstances.
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Paranoia. Image credit: Aaron Tait (CC BY 2.0)

Everyone has had fleeting concerns that others might be against them at some point in their lives. Sometimes these concerns can escalate into paranoia and become debilitating. Paranoia is a common symptom in serious mental illnesses like schizophrenia. It can cause extreme distress and is linked with an increased risk of violence towards oneself or others. Understanding what happens in the brains of people experiencing paranoia might lead to better ways to treat or manage it.

Some experts argue that paranoia is caused by errors in the way people assess social situations. An alternative idea is that paranoia stems from the way the brain forms and updates beliefs about the world. Now, Reed et al. show that both people with paranoia and rats exposed to a paranoia-inducing substance expect the world will change frequently, change their minds often, and have a harder time learning in response to changing circumstances.

In the experiments, human volunteers with and without psychiatric disorders played a game where the best choices change. Then, the participants completed a survey to assess their level of paranoia. People with higher levels of paranoia predicted more changes would occur and made less predictable choices. In a second set of experiments, rats were put in a cage with three holes where they sometimes received sugar rewards. Some of the rats received methamphetamine, a drug that causes paranoia in humans. Rats given the drug also expected the location of the sugar reward would change often. The drugged animals had harder time learning and adapting to changing circumstances.

The experiments suggest that brain processes found in both rats, which are less social than humans, and humans contribute to paranoia. This suggests paranoia may make it harder to update beliefs. This may help scientists understand what causes paranoia and develop therapies or drugs that can reduce paranoia. This information may also help scientists understand why during societal crises like wars or natural disasters humans are prone to believing conspiracies. This is particularly important now as the world grapples with climate change and a global pandemic. Reed et al. note paranoia may impede the coordination of collaborative solutions to these challenging situations.