Experimental studies have indicated that social contact, even when it is neutral, triggers paranoid thinking in people who score high on clinical or subclinical paranoia. We investigated whether contextual variables are predictive of momentary increases in the intensity of paranoid thinking in a sample of participants ranging across a psychometric paranoia continuum.
The sample (n=154) consisted of 30 currently paranoid patients, 34 currently non-paranoid patients, 15 remitted psychotic patients, 38 high-schizotypy participants, and 37 control subjects. Based on their total score on Fenigstein's Paranoia Scale (PS), three groups with different degrees of paranoia were defined. The Experience Sampling Method (ESM), a structured diary technique, was used to assess momentary social context, perceived social threat and paranoia in daily life.
There were differences in the effect of social company on momentary levels of paranoia and perceived social threat across the range of trait paranoia. The low and medium paranoia groups reported higher levels of perceived social threat when they were with less-familiar compared to familiar individuals. The medium paranoia group reported more paranoia in less-familiar company. The high paranoia group reported no difference in the perception of social threat or momentary paranoia between familiar and unfamiliar contacts.
Paranoid thinking is context dependent in individuals with medium or at-risk levels of trait paranoia. Perceived social threat seems to be context dependent in the low paranoia group. However, at high levels of trait paranoia, momentary paranoia and momentary perceived social threat become autonomous and independent of social reality.
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