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Researchers from University College London Psychology & Language Sciences studied some of the ways in which every day social experiences put a strain on mental well-being. In an online experiment involving more than 2,000 people, they found that social differences alone are enough to strike paranoia. For example, differences in social status and political beliefs may cause people to suspect that others intend to cause them harm.

Before the experiment, each participant was given a questionnaire to assess their typical levels of paranoid thinking, their own perceived social status, and political affiliation. They were then paired up with others of varying social status and political beliefs. These differences were found to play a major role when it came to trust, with lower levels of trust linked to higher levels of paranoid thinking.

Being alert to social danger is key to our survival, but the study results suggest social difference alone encourages us to think that the other person wants to harm us.

Intense paranoia is also a symptom of mental ill health, and it is more common among people who perceive themselves to have low social rank. The findings could shed light on why paranoia is more common in those who are struggling on the social ladder or excluded by society.

In the study, participants were given a sum of money and asked to decide how they should share it — either split it 50/50, or keep it all. The other person was asked to rate the motivation of that person’s decisions based on self-interest and desire to deny them the money.

Regardless of the previously determined levels of paranoid thinking, the researchers found that people paired with participants of higher social status or different political beliefs were more likely to assume their choices were motivated by a desire to cause harm. But these differences did not affect their assumptions about self-interest.

The findings suggest that people who struggle with high levels of paranoia are equally well tuned to social difference despite sometimes seeming that they misperceive the social world. The research may help us to understand how exclusion and disadvantage fuel some of the most severe mental health problems. WHY exclusion and disadvantage fuel some of the most severe mental health problems is already understood.