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.