Paranoia: The 21st Century Fear

By Dr. Daniel Freeman
Wellcome Trust Fellow and Senior Lecturer in Clinical Psychology

October 1, 2007 and London is in the grip of another terrorism alert. Shoppers in Soho are sparked into panic by a strange noxious-smelling cloud. Suspecting the capital is under chemical attack, the emergency services cordon off roads and evacuate the area. Meanwhile, fire-fighters wearing breathing apparatus begin a three-hour search for the source of the stench.

This eventually turns out to be the Thai Cottage restaurant where, until he’d been asked to leave his kitchen, chef Chalemchai Tangjariyapoon had been midway through preparing a batch of nam prik pao. “We only cook it once a year - it's a spicy dip with extra hot chillies that are deliberately burned,” he said later. “To us it smells like burned chilli and it is slightly unusual. I can understand why people who weren't Thai would not know what it was but it doesn't smell like chemicals. I'm a bit confused. … When we came back at 7.30pm we saw the door had been smashed and there were fire brigade and police waiting outside. I was a bit scared but they were very nice about it.”

Should you wish to have a go at making the above-mentioned Thai dip, you will need charred chillies, garlic flakes, dried shrimps, palm sugar, shrimp paste, tamarind and vegetable oil. But then again, given Mr Tangjariyapoon’s experience, you might prefer to let the experts handle it. Provided they still dare.

Because, as the staff of the Thai Cottage know only too well, right now we’re more than a little jumpy. Threats seem to loom at us from all quarters. And of course sometimes it’s right to be cautious. Lurking within the kitchen of the Thai Cottage was nothing more sinister than a super-spicy savoury dip, but Londoners are well aware of the havoc terrorists can wreak. Muggers, vandals, delinquent teenagers, paedophiles, rapists, corrupt officials, malicious colleagues, gossips, spies, and blackmailers – none of these are entirely the figment of our fevered imaginations. The trick, of course, is keep a sense of perspective, recognising that these kinds of dangers are rare and taking that on into a calm and measured assessment of risk.

When we look at the data on rates of paranoia, however, it appears that many of us are finding that trick increasingly difficult to pull off. At any one time, around a quarter of the population are having regular paranoid thoughts, with lots more people probably experiencing them occasionally. Our fears have gotten the better of us, and the twenty-first century begins to look like a new age of paranoia.

Published by Oxford University Press, 2008