Suspicious Minds – is the USA clinically paranoid to spy on friends?
Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen
Daniel Freeman, a psychologist at the University of Oxford quotes Francis Bacon (1612) in his recent paper ‘Suspicious minds: The psychology of persecutory delusions’ published in the academic journal ‘Clinical Psychology Review’. Bacon appears to anticipate the current problem between the US and allies almost exactly 400 years ago: ‘Suspicions amongst thoughts are like bats amongst birds,—they ever fly by twilight. Certainly they are to be repressed, or, at the least, well guarded. For they cloud the mind, they lose friends, and they check with business, whereby business cannot go on currently and constantly. They dispose kings to tyranny, husbands to jealousy, wise men to irresolution and melancholy.’
Anthony Marsella from the Department of Psychology, University of Hawaii, has recently published a paper where he argues that the US is caught up in a mind-set ‘culture of war’. He quotes and cites evidence that at least as of 2010, 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.
Entitled ‘The United States of America: “A culture of war” the paper published in the ‘International Journal of Intercultural Relations’ goes on to cite evidence that an estimated 854,000 people, nearly 1.5 times as many people as live in Washington, D.C., hold top-secret US security clearances. Anthony Marsella quotes sources that in Washington and the surrounding area, building complexes for top-secret intelligence work, occupy the equivalent of almost three Pentagons or 22 U.S. Capitol buildings – about 17 million square feet of space.
Psychoanalysts would argue that there are ways of getting people’s secrets other than spying. That is to become intimate or close, through trust. Spying tends to lead to greater distrust once uncovered. This is precisely what happened with the Germans and the French, moving away from the US as a result of revelations over the North American spying.
But the paranoid find it very difficult to get close to others because by definition the mind set suggests everyone is out to get you.
This seems obviously delusional, but in fact, how paranoid are we?
A recent UK survey published in the ‘British Journal of Psychiatry’, of over eight thousand people (where those with probable psychosis were removed from the study) found 20% of the general ‘normal’ population had thought in the past year that people were against them. 10% felt people had deliberately acted to harm them. The study conducted by Louise Johns, Mary Cannon, Nicola Singleton, Robin Murray, Michael Farrell, Traolach Brugha, Paul Bebbington, Rachel Jenkins, and Howard Meltzer found 1.5% of this ‘non-clinical’ population had fears of a plot against them.
The study entitled ‘Prevalence and correlates of self-reported psychotic symptoms in the British population’ found Paranoid thoughts were associated with victimisation experiences. One theory of paranoia is that experiences of victimisation leads to a sense of vulnerability, and to view the world as hostile and threatening.
But the USA is the most powerful nation on earth and has been for some time now – how can it be thinking of itself as a ‘victim’ and feeling vulnerable to attack?
It may be that the US is caught in a vicious cycle often found in the clinically paranoid, where the belief becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Because the suspicious feel they are about to be attacked, they respond aggressively first with a pre-emptive strike, and this necessarily turns neutrals or even potential friends, into enemies.
Another mental problem that drives paranoia is the inability to fathom that others may have motives other than dedicating their lives to destroying you. The US hasn’t demonstrated an ability to generate a repertoire of possible motives in foreigners, other than an anti-US stance.
Daniel Freeman in his review points out that another theory over where paranoid fears come from is those vulnerable to paranoia are possibly less able to understand motivations of others, and so when others’ intentions are obscure, the paranoid tend to jump to the conclusion that a conspiracy exists.
Another psychological theory which could explain why the US adopts paranoid spying on friends comes from a series of experiments conducted by Susanne Täuber and Esther van Leeuwen from the University of Groningen and the University Amsterdam, The Netherlands.
Their study involved setting up a competitive situation in the form of a general knowledge quiz where teams of students competed against each other. They could legitimately openly request help from other teams, or covertly ‘spy’ instead, as a way of getting help for answering questions.
The results of the study entitled ‘When High Group Status Becomes a Burden – Requesting Outgroup Help and Spying by Members of High and Low Status Groups’, suggests that when a high-status group is feeling more threatened that their high status may be temporary, they will tend to spy rather than openly seek help.
The theory advanced by the authors is that spying secures a high-status group’s public image, because openly requesting help potentially damages this representation, by displaying the higher status group as incompetent and/or dependent.
The study, published in the journal ‘Social Psychology’, found that when social change is more feasible, in other words when the status of groups might be more in flux, members of high status groups spy more on lower status groups, than vice versa.
An intriguing implication of this study is that as US supremacy becomes increasingly threatened by the rise of China and perhaps India, North Americans will become even more paranoid and spy ever more.
One of the inspirations for this research is that the key role of espionage might be changing. Advantages and superiority in the realm of information are what will determine who is truly on top of the power league in the future – not who has the most weapons.
If this prediction turns out to be true, it suggests that we should all get more paranoid.