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Paranoid protester in New York City

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Popping into your mind
'They' have invented something which doesn't exist — a real imagined disease and I know that they are trying to catch me out so that I can be locked inside an institution. But they won't catch me out because they do not know who I am today. And if I am not the same person as I was yesterday then they can't make it stick. They need a body, not just a mind to prefer charges, so my advice to all paranoiacs is to keep on the move. If you are a different person every day, no administration can keep up with you. If we all adopted this approach to life, society would be delightfully unmanageable but exquisitely euphoric, for it would release in all of us the imprisoned souls of our secret lives.
—Ralph Steadman[1]:104
Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't after you
—Capt. John Yossarian, 1970 film version of "Catch-22", screenplay by Buck Henry

Paranoia is a thought process characterized by excessive fear or anxiety, characteristically to the point where it would be considered irrational or delusional. Paranoid thinking typically includes persecutory beliefs concerning an obsession with a perceived threat.

Origin of the word "paranoia"[edit]

The word 'paranoia' originates from the Greek "παράνοια" meaning madness: παρα ("para") = beside, beyond; νόος ("noos") = mind.

Clinical indicators[edit]

Historically, this word was used to describe any delusional state of mind. In recent times, the term is used clinically to describe delusions wherein the affected person believes they are being persecuted. Specifically, it is defined as involving two central elements:

  • The affected thinks that harm is occurring, or is going to occur, to them.
  • The affected thinks that the perceived persecutor has the intention to cause harm.

Paranoid Personality Disorder is defined in the American Psychiatric Association's DSM-5, primarily based upon a person having "a pervasive distrust and suspiciousness of others such that their motives are interpreted as malevolent."[2]:649

The World Health Organization's ICD-10[3] defines paranoid personality disorder as:[4]

Personality disorder characterized by excessive sensitivity to setbacks, unforgiveness of insults; suspiciousness and a tendency to distort experience by misconstruing the neutral or friendly actions of others as hostile or contemptuous; recurrent suspicions, without justification, regarding the sexual fidelity of the spouse or sexual partner; and a combative and tenacious sense of personal rights. There may be excessive self-importance, and there is often excessive self-reference.

Paranoia is often a symptom of a psychotic illness (mainly schizophrenia), although attenuated features may be present in other non-psychotic diagnoses, such as paranoid personality disorder. Paranoia can also be a side effect of medication or recreational drugs.

In politics[edit]

Nazi German propaganda: "Das jüdische Komplott ("The Jewish Conspiracy").

In 1963, Richard Hofstadter gave a lecture titled "The Paranoid Style in American Politics", which was subsequently expanded and published in Harper's Magazine in 1964,[5] and reprinted in a collection of essays in 1965.[6] Hofstadter defines the political paranoiac as someone with a sub-clinical form of paranoia who nonetheless shares the traits of being:[6]:4

overheated, oversuspicious, overaggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic in expression, the clinical paranoid sees the hostile and conspiratorial world in which he feels himself to be living as directed specifically against him; whereas the spokesman of the paranoid style finds it directed against a nation, a culture, a way of life whose fate affects not himself alone but millions of others.

Hofstadter claimed that the paranoid style was only associated with minority movements within the United States, probably because as a historian of American history, he was naturally looking backwards.[6]:7 He did not foresee the paranoia of the Richard Nixon (who won the 1972 Presidential Election with 61% of the popular vote) and Donald Trump (who lost the popular vote in 2016 but won the Electoral College vote) presidencies. On the other hand, Hofstadter stated that paranoia is a common ingredient in fascism, referring specifically to Nazism in Germany (through the international Jewish conspiracy),[6]:7 and Nazism was popular among Germans. The subsequent Holocaust was the culmination of Hitler's paranoia, the worst act of genocide in history, only rivaled by the Holodomor.

Hofstadter argued that the paranoid style is primarily expressed through all-embracing conspiracy theories, such as the "Jesuits or Freemasons, international capitalists, international Jews, or Communists".[6]:6

Significant paranoid American political movements that Hofstadter identified were McCarthyism and the John Birch Society.[6]

Hofstadter also noted a curious behavior ("a fundamental paradox") of paranoid political groups: imitation of perceived or real characteristics of their enemies.[6]:32-34 For example:

Joseph Stalin[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Joseph Stalin

Stalin's purge trials are briefly mentioned by Hofstadter,[6]:6 but the full extent of the "Great Purge" was not fully known until much later when the Soviet archives were opened to outside researchers starting in 1991. Best estimates for the number of people purged range from 950,000 to 1.2 million deaths; this did not include people sent to Gulags who survived.[7] Regardless, it's arguably the one of largest known act of political paranoia in history, along with Stalin's intentional starvation of Ukrainians in the Holodomor.

Richard Nixon[edit]

Abraham Lincoln is watching him...
See the main article on this topic: Richard Nixon

Nixon's paranoia is not mentioned by Hofstadter, probably because its full extent was not known until the Watergate scandal when Nixon's White House tape recordings began to be made public. There were indications of his paranoia before then, though, with his association with McCarthyism, and with his sore-loserism following his 1962 election loss Pat Brown in the California governor's race when he attacked the press as biased, "You don't have Nixon to kick around any more".[8]

During Nixon's presidency, he kept an 'enemies list' of people whom he did not like or whom he thought were out to get him. The list started with 20 people, but was gradually expanded to include dozens of people and organizations. The list was maintained by White House chief counsel Charles Colson.[9] Given what a rotter Nixon was,[10] many of the people on the list actually were honored to be on it.[11] The Nixon administration was also known as being extremely secretive,[10] which would go hand-in-hand with paranoia.

Nixon held a lot of conspiracy theories about people whom he thought were out to get him.[12] The one that pops up most frequently in the transcripts is his belief that Jews were out to get him,[12][13][14][15] this despite having Jews in the White House staff, most prominently Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

Nixon's paranoia primarily focused on Jews, intellectuals, and the Ivy League graduates, with the common paranoid element that they are "arrogant and put themselves above the law".[16] Nixon imitated his views of them by his own arrogance ("…but when the President does it, that means it is not illegal…"[17]) and by his ordering crimes be committed in the Watergate scandal.[16]

Sample paranoid ideation by Nixon:

The press is the enemy. The press is the enemy. The establishment is the enemy. The professors are the enemy. Professors are the enemy. Write that on the blackboard a hundred times and never forget it.[10][18]:703

Sample anti-semitism by Nixon:

Now, Life is totally dominated by the Jews. Newsweek is totally, is owned by Jews, and dominated by them, their editorials. The New York Times, The Washington Post, are totally Jewish.[18]:359

Donald Trump[edit]

See the main article on this topic: Donald Trump

Trump promoted a wide range of conspiracy theories (e.g., Obama citizenship denial, Vince Foster, Jeffrey Epstein, hydroxychloroquine).[19] A unified conspiracy theory (QAnon) was also developed to promote Trump.

The crescendo of Trump's paranoia was the 2021 U.S. Capitol riot that was fueled by QAnon, and by his self-created "Stop the Steal" conspiracy theory that claimed that he actually won the 2020 U.S. presidential election.[20][21] Trump's paranoiac manifestations of sore-loserism were far worse than those of Nixon in that by fomenting insurrection, Trump threatened the very existence of democracy in the United States.


Don't look behind you.

"Pronoia" was coined by Fred H. Goldner of Queens College describing a phenomenon opposite to paranoia.[22] Long before the term was coined, J.D. Salinger referred to the concept in his 1955 novella Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters.[23] In it, the character Seymour Glass writes in his diary, “Oh, God, if I'm anything by a clinical name, I'm a kind of paranoiac in reverse. I suspect people of plotting to make me happy." Science fiction author Philip K. Dick referred to pronoia as an antidote to paranoia in his private work, Exegesis, in which it is mentioned in relation to his perceived protection by an entity he called V.A.L.I.S. (Vast Active Living Intelligence System); an ancient alien satellite that he believed was the biblical god.[24]:568,931


"Narapoia" is a short story by Alan Nelson that originally appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, April 1951. In it, the protagonist says to his psychiatrist, "… while I’m walking along the street, suddenly I have this feeling there is somebody just ahead of me. Somebody I’m after. Someone I’m following." He also has non-hallucinations in which a bizarre bird creature he dreams about is real and sitting on top of his radio when he wakes up. Finally, all this sends his psychiatrist round the bend, which suggests that the protagonist was really a Scientologist in deep cover.[25]

Informal definitions[edit]

"Paranoia is the delusion that your enemies are organized." — William S. Burroughs
"Paranoia is awareness." — Charles Manson

See also[edit]

Icon fun.svg For those of you in the mood, RationalWiki has a fun article about Paranoia.


  1. Paranoids by Ralph Steadman (1986) Harrap. ISBN 0245544712.
  2. DSM-5 (2013) American Psychiatric Association. ISBN 9780890425541.
  3. Paranoid personality disorder — International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems 10th Revision (ICD-10)
  4. F60.0 Paranoid personality disorder ICD-10 Version:2019.
  5. The Paranoid Style in American Politics by Richard Hofstadter (November 1964) Harper's Magazine.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 6.3 6.4 6.5 6.6 6.7 6.8 6.9 "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" (1965) In: The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays by Richard Hofstadter. Alfred A. Knopf. Pages 3-40.
  7. Soviet Repression Statistics: Some Comments by Michael Ellman (2002) Europe-Asia Studies 54(7):151–1172. doi:0.1080/0966813022000017177.
  8. Last (and first) things by Mark Liberman (July 15, 2009) Language Log.
  9. See the Wikipedia article on Master list of Nixon's political opponents.
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Recordings reveal Richard Nixon's paranoia: Recordings show Nixon urged staff to use all means to discredit his political opponents, both large and small by Dan Glaister (3 Dec 2008 14.13 EST) The Guardian.
  11. Journalist recalls the honor of being on Nixon’s Enemies List by Jordy Yager (01/06/09 04:52 PM EST) The Hill.
  12. 12.0 12.1 A Rough Guide to Richard Nixon's Conspiracy Theories by Ken Hughes (c. 2018) Miller Center, University of Virginia.
  13. New Tapes Reveal Depth of Nixon's Anti-Semitism by George Lardner Jr. & Michael Dobbs (October 6, 1999) The Washington Post.
  14. Nixon:"The Jews Are Born Spies" (Jul 05, 1971) 'Miller Center, University of Virginia.
  15. See the Wikipedia article on Nixon Jew count.
  16. 16.0 16.1 How Paranoid Was Nixon? by Kenneth J. Hughes, Jr. (2007) History News Network, The George Washington University.
  17. Nixon says, "…but when the President does it, that means it is not illegal…" 1977 David Frost interview of Nixon (Mar 5, 2017) YouTube.
  18. 18.0 18.1 The Nixon Tapes: 1971-1972, edited by Douglas Brinkley & Luke Nichter (2014) Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN 0544274156.
  19. Trump’s Long History With Conspiracy Theories by Angelo Fichera & Saranac Hale Spencer (October 20, 2020)
  20. Trump and the politics of paranoia by Benjamin Rhode (7th January 2021) International Institute for Strategic Studies.
  21. The ‘Shared Psychosis’ of Donald Trump and His Loyalists: Forensic psychiatrist Bandy X. Lee explains the outgoing president’s pathological appeal and how to wean people from it by Tanya Lewis on (January 11, 2021) Scientific American.
  22. "Pronoia" by Fred H. Goldner (1982) Social Problems 30(1):82–91. doi:10.2307/800186.
  23. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters by J.D. Salinger (1955) Little, Brown.
  24. The Exegesis Of Philip K. Dick, edited by Pamela Jackson & Jonathan Lethem (2011) Mariner Books. ISBN 0547549253.
  25. Narapoia by Alan Nelson (April 1951) The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction 2(2):114-118.
  26. LaRouche's Major Writings Executive Intelligence Review (archived from May 24, 1998).
  27. The Night They Came to Kill Me by Lyndon H. LaRouche, Jr. (2004) The Schiller Institute (archived from November 21, 2018).