What makes one person paranoid and another person anxious? The differential prediction of social anxiety and persecutory ideation in an experimental situation

Psychol Med. 2008 Aug;38(8):1121-32. doi: 10.1017/S0033291708003589. Epub 2008 Jun 4.


Background: In recent years a close association between anxiety and persecutory ideation has been established, contrary to the traditional division of neurosis and psychosis. Nonetheless, the two experiences are distinct. The aim of this study was to identify factors that distinguish the occurrence of social anxiety and paranoid thoughts in an experimental situation.

Method: Two hundred non-clinical individuals broadly representative of the UK general population were assessed on a range of psychological factors, experienced a neutral virtual reality social environment, and then completed state measures of paranoia and social anxiety. Clustered bivariate logistic regressions were carried out, testing interactions between potential predictors and the type of reaction in virtual reality.

Results: The strongest finding was that the presence of perceptual anomalies increased the risk of paranoid reactions but decreased the risk of social anxiety. Anxiety, depression, worry and interpersonal sensitivity all had similar associations with paranoia and social anxiety.

Conclusions: The study shows that social anxiety and persecutory ideation share many of the same predictive factors. Non-clinical paranoia may be a type of anxious fear. However, perceptual anomalies are a distinct predictor of paranoia. In the context of an individual feeling anxious, the occurrence of odd internal feelings in social situations may lead to delusional ideas through a sense of 'things not seeming right'. The study illustrates the approach of focusing on experiences such as paranoid thinking rather than diagnoses such as schizophrenia.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anxiety Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Anxiety Disorders / etiology*
  • Anxiety Disorders / psychology
  • Cognition
  • Decision Making
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Life Change Events
  • Loneliness
  • Male
  • Paranoid Personality Disorder / diagnosis*
  • Paranoid Personality Disorder / etiology*
  • Paranoid Personality Disorder / psychology
  • Phobic Disorders / diagnosis*
  • Phobic Disorders / etiology*
  • Phobic Disorders / psychology
  • Predictive Value of Tests
  • Prospective Studies
  • Risk Factors
  • Social Environment*
  • Social Support
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • User-Computer Interface