Virtual paranoia

The Royal College of Psychiatrists podcast has a fascinating interview with psychologist Daniel Freeman who discusses his recent study that used virtual reality to study paranoid thinking.

Freeman has pioneered the use of VR in studying paranoia to try and understand how individual psychological differences contribute to suspiciousness and fear.

Of course, it’s possible to use real life environments to see how exposure relates to paranoid thinking. In fact, the same research group has studied how patients with paranoid delusions react to urban environments.

Those familiar with South East London might be interested to know that stressful urban stimulus in this experiment was a walk down Camberwell High Street (as a resident of Camberwell it is disconcerting, although not entirely surprising, to find out I’m living in an experimental condition used to induce paranoid reactions).

For a scientific point of view, one difficulty with using real-life environments to study paranoia is that they are constantly changing and reactive.

This latter point is important because people who are very paranoid might, for instance, behave in a manner that other people find strange and that attracts attention, or in a way that sparks hostility in others.

One way of getting round this is to expose all participants to a virtual reality environment programmed to be identical, so any differences in paranoid thinking between individuals are almost certainly related to how they interpret the situation and not how the environment reacts to them.

In this latest VR study, the environment was programmed to be neutral (a simulation of the London Underground carriage) but about a third of participants from the general population reported paranoid thoughts.

Some of the paranoid thoughts reported in the paper are really quite striking: “There was an aggressive person ‚Äì his intention was to intimidate me and make me feel uneasy” and “One guy looked pissed off and maybe one guy flicked the finger at me”.

I’ve actually been in the simulation, having taken part in a pilot study for a related project, and although it’s a bit clunky (as you can see from the picture) it’s remarkable how its difficult not to have human reactions to the ‘people’ on the train.

Interestingly, the study found that anxiety, worry and the tendency to have anomalous perceptual experiences were associated with paranoid thoughts, as was ‘cognitive inflexibility’ – the tendency to be unable to see alternative explanations for ideas or beliefs.

In the audio interview, Freeman discusses this latest study in more detail and how it relates to what we know about the psychology of paranoia.

UPDATE: Thanks to PsyBlog for alerting me to the fact that a streamed video from the Wellcome Trust has an interview with Dan Freeman and footage from the experiment itself.

Link to RCPsych to podcast on VR and paranoia study.
Link to abstract of study.

3 Comments

  1. Mark(p.s.)
    Posted May 19, 2008 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    I’ld love to try this thing out and see how I’ld feel and respond.

  2. Matthew Platte
    Posted May 19, 2008 at 7:43 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for the explanation. I’d been wondering what “Second Life” was about, and now it all makes sense.

  3. Mike
    Posted May 20, 2008 at 3:46 am | Permalink

    I think paranoia exists on a sliding scale where a moderate amount may be beneficial for the individual. For instance, if your were not paranoid about protecting your home you would never get an alarm system or lock your doors. That would set you up for being robbed.
    On another note, I recently found this weird but interesting blog.

    http://9-11themotherofallblackoperations.blogspot.com/

    Talk about a case study of paranoia.


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