Psychological Medicine

Original Articles

Social world interactions: how company connects to paranoia

D. Collipa1, M. Oorschota1, V. Thewissena1a2, J. Van Osa1a3, R. Bentalla4 and I. Myin-Germeysa1 c1

a1 Department of Psychiatry and Neuropsychology, South Limburg Mental Health Research and Teaching Network, EURON, Maastricht University, Maastricht, The Netherlands

a2 Faculty of Psychology, Open University of the Netherlands, Heerlen, The Netherlands

a3 Division of Psychological Medicine, Institute of Psychiatry, London, UK

a4 School of Psychology, University of Bangor, Bangor, UK


Background Experimental studies have indicated that social contact, even when it is neutral, triggers paranoid thinking in people who score high on clinical or subclinical paranoia. We investigated whether contextual variables are predictive of momentary increases in the intensity of paranoid thinking in a sample of participants ranging across a psychometric paranoia continuum.

Method The sample (n=154) consisted of 30 currently paranoid patients, 34 currently non-paranoid patients, 15 remitted psychotic patients, 38 high-schizotypy participants, and 37 control subjects. Based on their total score on Fenigstein's Paranoia Scale (PS), three groups with different degrees of paranoia were defined. The Experience Sampling Method (ESM), a structured diary technique, was used to assess momentary social context, perceived social threat and paranoia in daily life.

Results There were differences in the effect of social company on momentary levels of paranoia and perceived social threat across the range of trait paranoia. The low and medium paranoia groups reported higher levels of perceived social threat when they were with less-familiar compared to familiar individuals. The medium paranoia group reported more paranoia in less-familiar company. The high paranoia group reported no difference in the perception of social threat or momentary paranoia between familiar and unfamiliar contacts.

Conclusions Paranoid thinking is context dependent in individuals with medium or at-risk levels of trait paranoia. Perceived social threat seems to be context dependent in the low paranoia group. However, at high levels of trait paranoia, momentary paranoia and momentary perceived social threat become autonomous and independent of social reality.

(Received August 28 2009)

(Revised June 14 2010)

(Accepted July 23 2010)

(Online publication August 24 2010)