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Are You Paranoid or Just Hypervigilant?

Uploaded 11/9/2023, approx. 13 minute read

Professor Vaknin, I suspect that my wife is an alien recruited by the CIA and the NSA to spy on my movements and report back to Joe and Hunter Biden. Am I being paranoid?

Not at all! You are not being paranoid. Your suspicions are totally reasonable and rational and grounded in reality and probably factual.

If anyone married you, she must be an alien.

You know the idiotic sentence? The fact that you are paranoid doesn't mean they are not after you. It means you should take medication and possibly hospitalize yourself in a dark facility, a black site of the CIA or the NSA combined with the alien force about to take over Earth.


Ok, Shoshanim, apropos aliens, my name is Sam Vaknin and I am the author of Malignant Self-Love: Narcissism Revisited. I am also the wine-guzzling former visiting professor of psychology in Southern Federal University Russia and a long-term member of the faculty of the Commonwealth Institute for Advanced and Professional Studies, Cambridge United Kingdom, Toronto, Canada, Lagos, Nigeria and with an outpost coming on Mars, the planet nearest you.


Ok, today we are going to discuss the difference between hyper-vigilance, paranoid ideation and conspiracism, the tendency to believe or to spawn conspiracy theories.

There are quite a few other videos on this channel which deal with each of these issues separately and I am going to issue a compilation of these videos.

But let this video serve as a kind of introduction.

There is a massive difference, an abyss between paranoid ideation, hyper-vigilance and conspiracism.

They are not the same, they appear to be the same to some people but they are not the same.

Hyper-vigilance is a common post-trauma response. When you have had many adverse life experiences you are likely to react with hyper-vigilance. It is a type of post-traumatic response. It is a state of abnormally heightened alertness, particularly to potentially dangerous or threatening stimuli. It is like constantly scanning everything and everyone for some catastrophe that is looming or doomed to happen. One could say that hyper-vigilance is the behavioral manifestation of catastrophizing.

Hyper-vigilance, as I said, is very common and typical to post-traumatic responses. It is common in typical, for example, narcissism. Apological narcissism is a post-trauma response.

Similarly, it is common in borderline personality disorder, paranoid personality disorder and so on.

Apropos of paranoid personality disorder, paranoid ideation. Of course, there is a huge difference between paranoia. Paranoia is actually probably a neurobiological disease and goes hand in hand with schizophrenia. It used to be called schizophrenia paranoia. We no longer use this. The correct term is psychotic disorder, but it used to be called paranoia schizophrenia. There is a paranoid personality, including a paranoid personality disorder and there is a much more common paranoid ideation. These are thought processes, ideas that involve persistent suspiciousness and beliefs, convictions of being persecuted, harassed or treated unfairly and indiscriminately by others.

Paranoid ideation often yields passive aggressive behavior, but paranoid ideation is a very fancy way of saying suspiciousness.

Now, paranoid ideation is a fantasy defense. It is totally invented, conjured from thin air. It's a piece of fiction. It's a narrative.

Paranoid ideation, to qualify as paranoid ideation, the ideas must be counterfactual. They must defy the facts or reality.

So, paranoid ideation involves impaired reality testing. It also involves confabulation.

So, the paranoid ideation is creating or offering narratives that are in contradiction to established facts or facts that any reasonable person can agree on.

On the one hand, and on the other hand, provide a story, an organizing principle, some narrative that makes sense of the world, imbues it with meaning.

Paranoia, the paranoid ideation, is a hundred percent imagination. It doesn't rely on a single fact. If it does rely on a fact and extrapolates from the fact, that would be conspiracy theory. That would be conspiracism.

Paranoid ideation is totally divorced from reality. And in this very limited and restricted sense, it's a bit psychotic.

Now, conspiracism is the tendency to find patterns, simply to find patterns in facts and then interpret these facts to fit the pattern. This is also known as pareidolia.

The interpretation of the facts is very often wrong and even reasonable, ridiculous. But it is always possible, as distinct from paranoid ideation, which often presents with utterly implausible and even impossible scenarios, conspiracism and the fruits of conspiracism, known as conspiracy theories, they sound plausible and even possible and even likely.

Conspiracism is a psychological tendency to develop conspiracy theories and it involves, therefore, creativity and imagination.

Now, reality testing in conspiracism is very interesting because in some respects, the reality testing is impaired. The conspiracy theorist does not perceive reality properly as the vast majority of other people do.

He sees patterns with their mum. He sees hidden causes, ulterior motives or cult agendas. He confabulates on the basis of these appearances of facts.

So, on the one hand, there's impaired reality testing. On the other hand, conspiracism involves the accumulation and aggregation and organization of facts. Conspiracy theories are based on facts.

Now, these facts are put in the wrong order and in the wrong pattern, in the wrong structure and so they yield conspiracy theories. But these are still facts.

So, conspiracism is distinct from paranoid ideation. Paranoid ideation is not fact-based and the reality testing there is totally short. Conspiracism is fact-based. It's just that the way the facts are perceived and then ordered and then interpreted is utterly wrong. A hypervigilance is a hybrid between paranoid ideation and a conspiracy theory. Hypervigilance involves a conspiracy theory. I am the center of attention. I am the butt of mockery and derision and ridicule. I am the topic of gossip. This is hypervigilance. It involves what we call referential ideation, ideas of reference. And so, in some respects, there is… hypervigilance involves elements of paranoid ideation. But these elements are then taken mixed with facts and they yield a conspiracy theory.

So, let me give you an example.

You enter a room. You're hypervigilant. You're hypervigilant because you're traumatized. You have a history of trauma and you develop hypervigilance as a trauma response.

You enter the room. You scan everyone in the room. This is fact gathering. You're gathering facts. You notice that some of them are laughing at the corner, looking at you. That's also a fact.

So, in this sense, the whole thing is fact-based.

But then, you generate a conspiracy theory. They're laughing at me because they're looking at me. This is the outcome of hypervigilance.

There's a lot of paranoid ideation there because that's not a fact. That's a wrong interpretation of facts.

So, hypervigilance is the bridge between conspiracism, which is more grounded, and paranoid ideation, which is on the verge of psychosis.

I mentioned that conspiracism involves creativity and imagination. So, conspiracism is a form of psychoticism.

Now, wait a minute. Do not confuse psychoticism with psychosis or psychotic disorders.

Psychoticism is one of the three traits used by the psychologist Hans Eysenck in his famous PEN model.

Psychoticism, extraversion, and neuroticism. It's a model of personality.

Psychoticism in this model has nothing to do with psychosis.

So, when I say that you have elevated psychoticism or heightened psychoticism, I simply mean that one of the elements in your personality is more dominant than the other two.

Now, psychoticism involves, according to Eysenck, creativity and imagination. It is a dimension of personality in Eysenck's dimensions, also characterized by aggression, impulsivity, aloofness, and antisocial behavior. It's called psychoticism because, as I've been saying for many, many, many years, both narcissism and psychopathy, exactly like borderline, are on the verge of psychosis. They are susceptible to psychosis and even more so to psychopathy, antisocial personality.

So, people with the conspiracism psychological trait are creative, imaginative, intelligent usually, and this means that the element of psychoticism in their personality is emphasized.

But, unfortunately, psychoticism also goes hand in hand with antisocial aspects of behavior, including aggression and impulsivity.

Originally, Eysenck developed the factor of psychoticism to distinguish between normal individuals and people with schizophrenia or bipolar disorders. And he used all kinds of tests like judgment of spatial distance, space, reading speed, level of proficiency in drawing, mirror drawing, adding rows of numbers, and so on and so forth.

Today, we don't do any of this. Today, psychoticism is conceptually similar to the constrained factor in Télegens's three-factor model of personality, Télegens or Télegens, depending on the country, three-factor model of personality. There is a factor there called constrained.

Psychoticism can be divided into narrower or reduced into narrower traits, such as impulsivity, the dimension, but also sensation seeking, and those can be further subdivided. So, impulsivity can be divided to narrow impulsivity.

Unthinking, responsivity, risk-taking, reactance, non-planning, liveliness, and so on and so forth.

Sensation seeking, similarly, has multiple facets. We are beginning to see a profile of a personality. It's someone who is creative, who is imaginative, who is impulsive, who is aggressive, who seeks thrills and sensations, and in this sense, someone who is highly antisocial.

But, at the same time, this kind of person is highly creative and highly imaginative, one could even say artistic.

Now, this is, may I remind you, we're discussing the psychological trait of conspiracism.

But you remember that conspiracism is at one end of the spectrum, and there's a bridge of hyper-vigilance which leads to paranoid ideation.

So, it all starts with a tendency to develop conspiracy theories, to suspect the environment, other people's behaviors, motivations, agendas, etc. Suspicion is at the core of all these.

Kostein-McRae, for example, said that agreeableness and conscientiousness, two elements in the five-factor model, represent low levels of psychoticism.

And so, we can also say that people with heightened psychoticism, conspiracists, hyper-vigilant people, people with paranoid ideation, are less agreeable and less conscientious.

Psychoticism begins to resemble very much a mild case of psychopathy or impulsive unsocialized attention-seeking, in the words of McRae and Kostein.


Okay, why do we have all this? Why do people end up being conspiracy theories or paranoid or hyper-vigilant and so on?

Trauma, it could be individual trauma, it could be intergenerational trauma, it could be an environmental trauma such as, for example, the COVID-19 period or transition from communism or 9/11 or a civil war. So trauma can be imported from the environment, can be appropriated by the individual.

And so, all these are reactions to trauma when we try to make sense of an unusual environment, a new environment, an environment very high in uncertainty, in determinacy and ignorance because we're ignorant of a new environment. Or if the environment changes suddenly and abruptly, we are also ignorant, we can't predict the environment, it's very disorienting and terrifying.

In such situations, we seek cues, we hunt for cues and signals and messages from the environment. For example, we intend to interpret other people's behaviors as some kind of message, some kind of signal.

Now, in extreme cases, we tend to interpret every behavior as a signal or a message.

There's the famous erotic delusion, when people develop a crush or fall in love with a celebrity and then they interpret every action or inaction of the celebrity as a message intended for them. This is a form of inverted self-referential ideation.

So, when the environment doesn't provide us with sufficient information, we hunt for this information and then we would tend, there would be a cue of a perception, we would tend to perceive or a signal of a perception. We would tend to interpret everything as a cue or a signal even when it's not.

And this is of course a great description of suspiciousness.

Mental healthwith not all people with conspiracies and mentally ill, of course, vast majority of conspiracy theories, actually not mentally, people with hypervigilance are not necessarily mentally ill.

Paranoid ideation is a border case, boundary case. So, more people with paranoid ideation are mentally ill than not. But the vast majority of these people are actually mentally healthy.

And the mental health is indicated by the ability to keep the hypervigilance or the conspiracies at bay in proportion, in perspective.

And one major telltale sign of mental health in the face of suspicion, in the face of hypervigilance, in the face of conspiracy theories, in the face even of paranoid ideation, one major sign is the ability to self-deprecate, to laugh at yourself, to realize how ridiculous you are, or to agree that other people may perceive you as ridiculous even when you don't consider yourself as wrong.

There's a simple procedure to counter hypervigilance and conspiracies and paranoid ideation.

Ask yourself, how likely is it? It is possible, even when it is possible, ignore that, ignore the fact that some theory can be possible. Ignore the fact that your hypervigilance may lead you to possibly real outcomes. Ignore the possible. Focus on the likely. It is possible, but is it likely? If it is not likely, immediately rule it out. Instantly rule out all unlikely scenarios, even if they are possible. Rule out the implausible. Rule out the implausible even if it's possible. This is the opposite of Sherlock Holmes' dictum.

Sherlock Holmes said, if you rule out the impossible, whatever is left, however implausible, must be true. And I'm saying exactly the opposite. You first rule out the impossible. Of course you rule out the impossible, but even when you're left with the possible, you rule out the implausible, the unlikely.

And once you've ruled out these scenarios, the unlikely scenarios, instantly and totally tell yourself, this is unlikely, so just ignore it and I'll behave as if it were impossible, as if it were wrong, as if it were counterfactual.

So you confront a situation, some people, behaviors, news, events, whatever, you confront the situation, you come across it, you gather information.

Now you rule out the impossible, of course, and then there's the possible. You ask yourself, is it likely? If it's unlikely, never mind how possible it is, you rule it out too, it's wrong.

In your mind, use this equation. Unlikely is as bad as impossible. Unlikely is impossible. That's it.

Don't ask yourself how you feel about it. Don't ask yourself, do I feel that it is likely?

Ask yourself, is it likely? Don't focus on epistemology, focus on ontology.

If you ask yourself, do I believe? Do I feel? Do I think that this is likely?

You might get the wrong answer because sometimes we want things to be true. But if you behave as a scientist would, you observe and then you say, is it likely? Would others find it likely?

Then you're far likelier to get a likely answer, a correct answer.

If the vast majority of people you can think of would consider something unlikely, consider it unlikely too and then rule it out as impossible.

Simple rule.

I used to have a friend and he would say, if three people tell you you are drunk, go to sleep. That's the cure to hypervigilance, over suspiciousness, conspiracy theories and of course, paranoid ideation.

Now, are you sure I haven't been manipulating you and planting in your head all kinds of ideas which will blossom later and take over? Of course you can't be sure because you are paranoid and hypervigilant and conspiracy theories.

Goodbye.

Bye.

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