Paranoia testing

Because I live on the internet I sometimes meet some interesting characters.  On this particular occasion I found myself in a conversation with someone who suggested, “I don’t know if I’m paranoid or not”.  The full story had some drug use and what I can only describe as peculiar circumstances (if they were in fact being accurately reported but I have no reason not to believe the reports).

Intrigued by this puzzle and I was not entirely sure what the best course of action to do with a potential mentally unwell person – Should I discourage the stories, should I indulge the stories?  If I say something that causes my friend to drop into a state of greater paranoia I would be liable to try to help them out again.  After a short while of talking I figured that I would just try and get the person to think and feel about the “edges” of what it means to have paranoia.

Which is how I came up with the idea to run some simple thought experiment tests that might give you a hint as to whether you have paranoia or not.  I didn’t know if I could be trusted by this person so I was always very careful to suggest ideas and not insist on any ideas.  It’s not necessary for me to insist someone seek treatment.

As a brain living inside the conditions like paranoia it’s difficult to have an objective test because any scientific test that can be done on faulty equipment is going to come up with faulty results the equivalent to the fault.  A camera with a dust speck on it’s lens will always take a photo of the dust spec. Unfortunately paranoia is a more complicated fault to test.  

Any experiment that you might try, could run into multiple errors at the same time or multiple errors in the one experiment.  Could paranoia machinery change at different times of day?  Different amounts of stress?  If you were to try and design a normal experiment knowing that your equipment was faulty you’ll be trying to aim for reliability, validity and accuracy.  

Repeating the experiment for reliability – which is to say that if you were shooting an arrow and you always land in the direction of the target you know you have at least the reliability to shoot an arrow.  If you regularly hit one foot to the left of the bullseye you have the accuracy to get close to the target, you just need to move the target or improve your aim so that you actually hit it.

The other problem that you might have is validity. Which is if you try to weigh a feather to work out how much an average feather weighs but you only happen to have peacock feathers you might end up with a different answer than if you measured a pigeon’s feathers.  Depending on what you want to know – your experiment needs to validly come to a result. a result that doesn’t represent the information you are trying to measure is going to be useless. 

So in thinking about paranoia how can you test whether you are paranoid or not using your faulty equipment that may or may not be faulty (paranoid)?

First I started trying to think of something that is a little bit random but has a known randomness to it. For example a coin flip. You know that it will probably land either heads or tails but it might be a test that you have to run a couple of times before you conclude that it is it a biased or before you conclude that the coin is actually random.

The next strategy I considered was the random person strategy. For example a stranger on a bus or a server at the supermarket.  In law there is a reasonable person test that can be applied, something like, “what would a reasonable person have done in the situation given the details and facts of the experience that the defendant was going through”.  Curiously the reasonable hypothetical person was once described as, “The man on the Clapham omnibus is a reasonably educated, intelligent but nondescript person, against whom the defendant’s conduct can be measured.”, or, “The bald-headed man at the back of the omnibus.”.  As a map-making strategy, I find it kind of neat that they describe a “reasonable person” as a “man on the bus”.  So when running your experiment or thought experiment – do you think you could ask a stranger on a bus the result of a coin flip and have them tell you the true answer?

For a non paranoid person – the server at the supermarket, or a person on the bus has no incentive to lie to you about anything you might ask them.  If you are specifically unsure if the other humans are all in cahoots with each other scheming against you, at some point it gets damn expensive to pull off a ruse like “all of the people on every bus you ever catch are paid to stand around and answer your questions incorrectly”. For example if you ask the stranger on a bus, what day of the week it was – do you think you could trust their answer?


If all the humans in your life, or many of the humans in your life were part of a grand scheme, very quickly the cost of maintaining a grand scheme starts to grow. Where maybe a room full of people could pull a practical joke on someone for about an hour or two – “just for fun”…  By the time the ruse’s time scale stretches out to a day or perhaps several days there needs to be some sort of value being generated, for simplicity – in terms of “dollars” to incentivise people to “keep playing along”. By the time you want your brain to believe that – 5 people you have never met – scheming or pulling a practical joke on you. If those 5 people spend more than a day on that practical joke the cost of keeping them pulling that joke starts to escalate where a full day might be 12 hours x 5 people x your country’s minimum wage (I will use $10 for simplicity) = $600 for a day’s practical joke.  It’s not cheap.  I would say bordering on irrational to burn that sort of cost on a practical joke.

I really want to believe that I am important enough to scheme about but I know the incentives here. If you can’t afford to pay those 5 confederates to participate in your practical joke then after about a day they’re going to go home and get on with their lives.  I do consider myself “valuable” but I don’t know that I consider myself valuable enough for a 10 person scheme for 3 days even (10*12*3*10=$3600).  I mean, depending on what it’s worth to pull a thinly veiled paranoia plot, epic scheme or hilarious practical joke – there has to be a monetary cost to the scheme.  By the time you start to include public places – clearing up any chance of the “scheme” failing, starts to get quite expensive.

Maybe your number is higher than mine – maybe you think someone has $10,000 to spend on fooling you for a few days. But there still should be a limit to how complicated a scheme must be before it is unreasonably complicated and unlikely to be possible or valid because it just cost too damn much to pull off.

A note

What if you wrote yourself a note and hid it in a drawer?  Do you think that you could come back the following morning and expect that no one had tampered with it?

What if you wrote the note in code?  A simple substitution cipher is all it takes to make a slightly higher barrier to tampering.  Do you think you could trust the note to not be tampered with now?

From existing research we know that there is a limited number of people who can be involved in a conspiracy before it becomes unwieldy to keep a secret.

Simply put if you have too many people involved in the conspiracy it becomes impossible to keep a secret as time goes on.

The research (if you agree with their models and I am not so sure that I do) seems to suggest a much higher number of participants than I would have guessed, still.  Interesting to know.

Mostly I am curious of what test you might use or generate to evaluate if you are paranoid.  Knowing of course that no test is perfect and your faulty hardware could be getting in the way of you actually noticing a scheme afoot, or being able to tell if you are paranoid.

Cross posted to lesswrong:

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