The XX Factor

Study About Paranoid People Reveals That Paranoid People Are Right To Be Paranoid

Worried that your co-workers gossip about you? They do! (Have a good day.)

Yippee. Another study about how your private insecurities are to blame for troubled work relationships and probably everything else that’s going wrong in your life. Researchers from the London Business School have determined that self-conscious, paranoid people are more likely to be gossiped about behind their backs, because they’re so insanely self-conscious and paranoid.

In a paper called “Do I want to know? How the motivation to acquire relationship-threatening information in groups contributes to paranoid thought, suspicion behavior and social rejection,” a team led by Jennifer Carson Marr notes that it’s normal and healthy to wonder what others think of you—up to a point. If you seem too invested in the question or sniff around too eagerly for hints, your peers get weirded out. And then they develop a negative opinion of you, based on the fact that you were so worried they might have a negative opinion of you.

To find out how MARTI (“motivation to acquire relationship-threatening information”) messes with people, Carson Marr and her colleagues assigned 102 test subjects a set of tasks. The researchers then implied that some participants were doing a better job on the tasks than others—and asked each subject if he or she wanted to exclude certain group members from the mission. People who showed high MARTI qualities were, on average, 3.63 times more likely to get the ax than less paranoid people.

In other words, you’d better not care too much about what the world thinks, or you’ll become a pariah! Of course, someone reasonably at peace with the idea of being disliked would not obsess over just that possibility— whereas if Carson Marr’s research worries you, it may already be too late: Your office probably has you pegged as a nut job. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: Those who are anxious about others’ disapproval will ironically act in ways that attract that disapproval.  

Or, as the researchers put it:

We propose that group members vary in their motivation to search for diagnostic information about whether other group members seek to cause them indirect harm….We hypothesize that this motivation is associated with paranoid thought patterns and suspicion behaviors that can anger other group members and lead them to reject those who actively search for evidence that others are secretly trying to harm them.

Ugh. I hate studies like this. What are the paranoiacs supposed to do now? I can’t help thinking that the ethical response to such results would have been to keep a lid on them, out of kindness to all the self-conscious neurotics out there who might otherwise amplify their misery by imagining conspiracies (and annoying co-workers) with renewed vigor. In fact, the “vicious cycle” study—and its breathless recap in the press—has become a bit of a subgenre. I wrote a few months ago on an experiment suggesting that Facebook made lonely kids lonelier: Depressed students would post depressing status updates, thereby estranging the few friends they had. I titled the post, “If You Think Your Facebook “Friends” Don’t Like You, They Probably Don’t.” Which was a jerky thing to do, in hindsight, because if the study is to be believed, then maybe someone, somewhere, was saddened by the headline, dropped a melancholy phrase onto her Facebook profile, and irritated her peers, who then froze her out.

Anyway, the cat has vacated the bag on this MARTI research, but it’s not too late to make the broader point that sometimes studies prove useful to a general audience, and sometimes they don’t. Sometimes, in fact, they are counterproductive. For instance, when a study informs excitable people that they would be so much happier if only they could turn off their excitability. So I find myself in the frustrating position of having an emphatic answer to Carson Marr’s clearly rhetorical question.

“Do I want to know?”


(But what do you think about me?)

Correction, September 5, 2012:  This piece originally misidentified Jennifer Carson Marr as Jennifer Mason Carr.