A Study in Humans

How Uncertainty Makes Us Think Like Rats on Meth

Written by E Rosalie

Believing others intend to harm you defines paranoia. Most people have occasional paranoid thoughts. Our minds are notorious for dysfunctional thinking—especially the kind we often fail to notice—but the recent surge in sincerely believed conspiracy theories has left many wondering what makes us more likely to believe paranoid conspiracies.

Why does it seem to happen more now?

Science may have a partial answer. A Yale study published on June 9, 2020, shows that unexpected uncertainty “breeds paranoia.” Uncertainty has a well-documented tendency to negatively affect the mind.  The report included a quote that I would be remiss not to include:

“The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point.”

Historian Richard Hofstadter

To understand the recent study, here’s what you should know. Everyone experiences paranoid thinking from time to time. That will not surprise many, but how common these thoughts are, might

A group of seven thousand people answered a survey that hoped to capture a snapshot of each person’s experience with paranoia in the previous year.

One-fifth of responders reported paranoid thoughts, and one in twelve people believed someone had deliberately acted to hurt them in the last twelve months.

 “Jumping to conclusions” is more common among those prone to paranoid thinking. Humans are “cognitive misers.”

We like to do the least amount of work possible and leaping to a simple judgment fits that bill.

Difficulty with tasks that require trust is more common in people who experience paranoid thinking., This led professionals to assume distrust caused paranoia, but studies found something else. 

Rather than distrust, self-interest underlies the struggle to work with others. People with paranoid thinking frequently assumed other people had nefarious intentions, even when they did not.

The self-interest finding struck me as plausible because it links six accepted drivers of paranoia:

Worried thinking: thinking that leads to unrealistic fears or concerns about threats unlikely to affect you.

Dysfunctional sleep patterns
irregular sleep patterns or insomnia

Misinterpretation of minor events
personalizing events, like

believing a pandemic is a punishment for something you did

Negative self-view 
low self-esteem

Reasoning biases
interpreting events in a way that supports our world view

Expectation of rejection or criticism
anticipating that others will reject and criticize use leaves us feeling vulnerable

The prevailing theory sees paranoia as an error of threat perception. Something unlikely to harm us registers as a threat. That then leads us to feel and act as if we were in real danger.

What Does the New Study Tell Us?

The study, which includes appearances from rats on meth, tested how people responded to unexpected uncertainty. Let’s rename unexpected uncertainty, “surprise bad luck.”

The results say that depression and anxiety may be fertile ground for paranoia. Recalling that insomnia and a negative self-view are common among those suffering from paranoia, it seems depression or anxiety work like manure fertilizer does in the garden. 

The pandemic and economic turmoil have many feeling depressed and anxious, meaning the ingredients for people to develop paranoia have come when people are meeting convincingly constructed conspiracies.

mouse, rodent, animal

When Do Meth Rats Come into the Story?

The rats’ brains respond as human brains on meth, not rationally. Under stress from surprise bad luck, our minds work in ways not dissimilar to the rats that were chronically consuming methamphetamine. Both humans and animals became hypervigilant, responding to a world they saw as full of more surprise bad luck.   

A crisis leaves humans in a place where it is difficult to take in additional information. The refusal to accept any new evidence is a hallmark of paranoia. Surprise bad luck, like the pandemic, job loss, or economic depression, can make our minds act like the minds of our friends, the rats on meth.

Public health research has found that people in crisis often believe the first thing they hear and hold on to existing beliefs. The problem comes if the first thing we heard is a conspiracy theory, and we have paranoid thoughts compromising our ability to consider additional evidence even more. In short, surprise bad luck may stress us out enough to think like rats on meth. 

“Historically, in times of upheaval, such as the great fire of ancient Rome in 64 C.E. or the 9/11 terrorist attacks, paranoia and conspiratorial thinking increased.”

Reed et al., 2020
colosseum, italy, romans
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