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Monday, September 6, 2021

Paranoia and belief updating during the COVID-19 crisis

Suthaharan, P., Reed, E.J., Leptourgos, P. et al. 
Nat Hum Behav (2021). 


The COVID-19 pandemic has made the world seem less predictable. Such crises can lead people to feel that others are a threat. Here, we show that the initial phase of the pandemic in 2020 increased individuals’ paranoia and made their belief updating more erratic. A proactive lockdown made people’s belief updating less capricious. However, state-mandated mask-wearing increased paranoia and induced more erratic behaviour. This was most evident in states where adherence to mask-wearing rules was poor but where rule following is typically more common. Computational analyses of participant behaviour suggested that people with higher paranoia expected the task to be more unstable. People who were more paranoid endorsed conspiracies about mask-wearing and potential vaccines and the QAnon conspiracy theories. These beliefs were associated with erratic task behaviour and changed priors. Taken together, we found that real-world uncertainty increases paranoia and influences laboratory task behaviour.


The COVID-19 pandemic has been associated with increased paranoia. The increase was less pronounced in states that enforced a more proactive lockdown and more pronounced at reopening in states that mandated mask-wearing. Win-switch behaviour and volatility priors tracked these changes in paranoia with policy. We explored cultural variations in rule following (CTL) as a possible contributor to the increased paranoia that we observed. State tightness may originate in response to threats such as natural disasters, disease, territorial and ideological conflict. Tighter states typically evince more coordinated threat responses. They have also experienced greater mortality from pneumonia and influenza throughout their history. However, paranoia was highest in tight states with a mandate, with lower mask adherence during reopening. It may be that societies that adhere rigidly to rules are less able to adapt to unpredictable change. Alternatively, these societies may prioritize protection from ideological and economic threats over a public health crisis or perhaps view the disease burden as less threatening.