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Conflict and cooperation in paranoia: a large-scale behavioural experiment

  • N. J. Raihani (a1) and V. Bell (a2) (a3)

Paranoia involves thoughts and beliefs about the harmful intent of others but the social consequences have been much less studied. We investigated whether paranoia predicts maladaptive social behaviour in terms of cooperative and punitive behaviour using experimental game theory paradigms, and examined whether reduced cooperation is best explained in terms of distrust as previous studies have claimed.


We recruited a large population sample (N = 2132) online. All participants completed the Green et al. Paranoid Thoughts Scale and (i) a Dictator Game and (ii) an Ultimatum Game, the former with an option for costly punishment. Following distrust-based accounts, we predicted highly paranoid people would make higher offers when the outcome depended on receiving a positive response from their partner (Ultimatum Game) but no difference when the partner's response was irrelevant (Dictator Game). We also predicted paranoia would increase punitive responses. Predictions were pre-registered in advance of data collection. Data and materials are open access.


Highly paranoid participants actually made lower offers than non-paranoid participants both in the Dictator Game and in the Ultimatum Game. Paranoia positively predicted punitive responses.


These findings suggest that distrust is not the best explanation for reduced cooperation in paranoia and alternative explanations, such as increased self-interest, may apply. However, the tendency to attribute harmful intent to partners was important in motivating punitive responses. These results highlight differing motivations underlying adverse social behaviour in paranoia and suggest that accounts based solely on the presenting features of paranoia may need to be rethought.

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This is an Open Access article, distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution licence (, which permits unrestricted re-use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.
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Author for correspondence: V. Bell, E-mail:
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