Rational Paranoia

The Post reminds us paranoia can be quite rational:

"People from North Korea are very paranoid," said Kim Heekyung, a clinical psychologist at Hanowan [in South Korea] who supervises group therapy for defectors.  Paranoia, she added, is a rational response to reality in North Korea.

A new U.N. human rights report describes North Korea as a place where ordinary people "live in fear and are pressed to inform on each other. The state practices extensive surveillance of its inhabitants. . . . Authorities have bred a culture of pervasive mistrust."

When defectors arrive at Hanowan, they whisper. They are reluctant to disclose their names or dates of birth. They question the motives of people who want to help them. They say South Koreans look down on them. On field trips from Hanowan to get their first checking accounts, they find bank tellers to be terrifying. …

"Paranoia in North Korea helped people survive, but here in South Korea, it is an obstacle to assimilation," Kim said. "Many defectors are scared to do anything."

Our problem isn't a capacity for paranoia, but is misreading clues about when to invoke that capacity.   We say someone has a mental problem if they are more paranoid than we think makes sense in our society.  But of course personal circumstances will vary, so we should beware of overconfident paternalism in judging when others are excessively paranoid.

Among North Korean defectors the opposite mental problem of insufficient paranoia is probably more common.  Alas we don't see many of those folks for obvious reasons.

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  • Alan

    So, are there any reliable tests for ascertaining the rationality of “paranoid” belief and behavior? If you are running a cutting edge technology firm, then perhaps you can rationally and profitably live by the motto that only the paranoid survive (a la Andy Grove). That’s different from the case of social systems where individuals live in a state of fear and mutual mistrust. In that case, people are paralyzed by mistrust. On the other hand, in business, a realistic ongoing assessment of the profound uncertainty and extreme competitive pressure may allow one to stay empowered, even to the extent of anticipating inflection points of structural change.

  • Kurt Cobain

    “Just because you’re paranoid / Don’t mean they’re not after you”

  • Fenn

    That buckshot really made you scatterbrained:

    “don’t mean they’re not out to get you”

  • http://www.stillcrapulent.wordpress.com jonah

    but the definition of paranoia (both colloquially and clinically) specifically entails a baseless or unwarranted suspicion of the ill will or machinations of others. thus if one is accustomed to living in a situation where government clandestine surveillance and general backstabbery are the norm, one’s concerns are not then “rational paranoia” but merely “rational” (if perhaps excessive? but then, better safe than sorry if you live in a police state, no?).

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