"Are they laughing at me?" "That guy is just a little bit too close." "I swear that weird person’s been eyeing me this whole trip." Such are the paranoid thoughts revealed in a new study by Dr. Daniel Freeman of the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London. 200 volunteers picked as a well rounded representation of the general public wore virtual reality helmets which took them on a 4 minute virtual subway ride complete with typical subway sounds. The car contained avatars of your typical neutral subway riders; one read a newspaper, some looked around and others would make eye contact or even momentarily smile in the test subjects direction. Dr. Freeman and his researchers found that almost 40 percent of the participants held at least one paranoid thought while being tested. They also found, by means of an extensive evaluation of each participant beforehand, that the people who had the most real life anxiety, low self esteem, or were prone to always thinking in worst-case scenarios, had the highest occurrence of paranoid thoughts on the virtual train.
Freeman notes, "In the past, only those with a severe mental illness were thought to experience paranoid thoughts, but now we know that this is simply not the case. About one-third of the general population regularly experience persecutory thoughts. This shouldn’t be surprising. At the heart of all social interactions is a vital judgment whether to trust or mistrust, but it is a judgment that is error-prone. We are more likely to make paranoid errors if we are anxious, ruminate and have had bad experiences from others in the past."
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