Study: Paranoia is Self-Fulfilling

Worried that your colleagues are talking behind your back? The fact that you're worrying will make them talk.

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PROBLEM: Plenty of people have experienced the funny feeling that the people who are supposed to be on their side, be they classmates, teammates, or colleagues, may have turned against them. Does acting on these suspicions just end up making things worse?

METHODOLOGY: Researchers at the UBC Sauder School of Business used surveys, questionnaires, and experiments to determine subjects' MARTI, which stands for their "motivation to acquire relationship-threatening information," and measure its effects on one's interpersonal relationships. In one study, they presented subjects with ambiguous scenarios, such as hearing laughter coming from the lunchroom, to see if those with higher MARTI were more likely to interpret them as sinister. They also had participants describe strategies they might employ to find out whether their coworkers have said negative or positive things about them. Next, they tried to figure out whether people with higher MARTI and a tendency toward paranoid thought acted on their suspicions by, for example, "eavesdropping on a coworker's private phone conversation." Another study looked to see whether people exhibiting these previously established qualities and behaviors were more likely to be rejected socially. Finally, the researchers studied the way that anger factors into these interpersonal conflicts.

RESULTS: Basically, the researchers confirmed that people who are highly motivated to acquire relationship-threatening information exhibit paranoia and related behaviors. They also have a higher likelihood of being excluded and provoking anger among their group members. One interesting bit of data showed that paranoid,(high MARTI) people were 3.63 times more likely to be excluded from a group than people who wanted feedback and 16.5 times more likely to excluded than people who wanted to learn about group interactions.

CONCLUSION: It's a quick downward spiral from social uncertainty to paranoid thoughts and behaviors to ultimate social rejection. Ironically, those who are most predisposed to that initial uncertainty end up causing the problems they wanted to avoid.

The full study,"Do I want to know? How the motivation to acquire relationship-threatening information in groups contributes to paranoid thought, suspicion behavior, and social rejection" is published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes .

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Lindsay Abrams is an assistant editor at Salon and a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's Health Channel.

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