Psychological Medicine

The power and omnipotence of voices: subordination and entrapment by voices and significant others

a1 Early Intervention Service, Northern Birmingham Mental Health Trust and School of Psychology, University of Birmingham


Background. Cognitive therapy for psychotic symptoms often embraces self-evaluative beliefs (e.g. self-worth) but whether and how such beliefs are related to delusions remains uncertain. In previous research we demonstrated that distress arising from voices was linked to beliefs about voices and not voice content alone. In this study we examine whether the relationship with the voice is a paradigm of social relationships in general, using a new framework of social cognition, ‘ranking’ theory.

Method. In a sample of 59 voice hearers, measures of power and social rank difference between voice and voice hearer are taken in addition to parallel measures of power and rank in wider social relationships.

Results. As predicted, subordination to voices was closely linked to subordination and marginalization in other social relationships. This was not the result of a mood-linked appraisal. Distress arising from voices was linked not to voice characteristics but social and interpersonal cognition.

Conclusion. This study suggests that the power imbalance between the individual and his persecutor(s) may have origins in an appraisal by the individual of his social rank and sense of group identification and belonging. The results also raise the possibility that the appraisal of voice frequency and volume are the result of the appraisal of voices' rank and power. Theoretical and novel treatment implications are discussed.

c1 Address for correspondence: Professor Max Birchwood, Early Intervention Service, Harry Watton House, 97 Church Lane, Aston, Birmingham B6 5UG.