Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy

Research Article

Paranoid Explanations of Experience: A Novel Experimental Study

Catherine E. L. Greena1 c1, Daniel Freemana1, Elizabeth Kuipersa1, Paul Bebbingtona2, David Fowlera3, Graham Dunna4 and Philippa A. Garetya5

a1 Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, UK

a2 Royal Free and University College Medical School, University of London, UK

a3 School of Medicine, Health Policy and Practice, University of East Anglia, UK

a4 School of Epidemiology and Health Sciences, University of Manchester, UK

a5 Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, UK


Background: Paranoia is a common experience in the non-clinical population. We use a novel experimental methodology to investigate paranoid ideas in individuals without a history of mental illness. Aims: We aimed to determine whether this paradigm could elicit unfounded paranoid thoughts and whether these thoughts could be predicted by factors from a cognitive model. Method: Fifty-eight individuals took part and completed measures assessing trait paranoia, mood, self and other schema and attributional style. They were exposed to two experimental events: 1) an interruption to the testing session by a stooge, and 2) a recording of laughter played outside the testing room and subsequently asked about their explanations for these events. Results: 15.5% (n = 9) of the sample gave a paranoid explanation for at least one of the experimental events. The remainder reported generally neutral explanations. Individuals with a paranoid explanation reported significantly higher levels of trait paranoia. Factors predictive of a paranoid interpretation were interpersonal sensitivity and attributional style. Conclusions: The results show that spontaneous paranoid explanations can be elicited in non-clinical individuals, even for quite neutral events. In line with current theories, the findings suggest that emotional processes contribute to paranoid interpretations of events, although, as a novel study with a modest sample, it requires replication.

(Online publication September 17 2010)


c1 Reprint requests to Catherine Green, Department of Psychology, King's College London, P.O. Box 077, Institute of Psychiatry, Denmark Hill, London SE5 8AF, UK. E-mail: