Paranoia, sensitization and social inference: Findings from two large-scale, multi-round behavioural experiments

J. M. Barnby*, Q. Deeley, O. Robinson, N. Raihani, V. Bell, M. A. Mehta

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

18 Citations (Scopus)


The sensitization model suggests that paranoia is explained by over-sensitivity to social threat. However, this has been difficult to test experimentally. We report two preregistered social interaction studies that tested (i) whether paranoia predicted overall attribution and peak attribution of harmful intent and (ii) whether anxiety, interpersonal sensitivity and worry predicted the attribution of harmful intent. In Study 1, we recruited a large general population sample (N = 987) who serially interacted with other participants in multi-round dictator games and matched to fair, partially fair or unfair partners. Participants rated attributions of harmful intent and self-interest after each interaction. In Study 2 (N = 1011), a new sample of participants completed the same procedure and additionally completed measures of anxiety, worry and interpersonal sensitivity. As predicted, prior paranoid ideation was associated with higher and faster overall harmful intent attributions, whereas attributions of self-interest were unaffected, supporting the sensitization model. Contrary to predictions, neither worry, interpersonal sensitivity nor anxiety was associated with harmful intent attributions. In a third exploratory internal meta-analysis, we combined datasets to examine the effect of paranoia on trial-by-trial attributional changes when playing fair and unfair dictators. Paranoia was associated with a greater reduction in harmful intent attributions when playing a fair but not unfair dictator, suggesting that paranoia may also exaggerate the volatility of beliefs about the harmful intent of others.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberrsos191525
JournalRoyal Society open science
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2020


  • Interpersonal sensitivity
  • Paranoia
  • Psychosis
  • Social inference


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