The Value of Paranoia

The complacency of fools will destroy them
-The Bible

    Andrew Grove, one of the founders of Intel wrote a book called Only the Paranoid Survive.    In an interview with Esquire he said

Success breeds complacency. Complacency breeds failure. Only the paranoid survive.

His facing the threats that faced him may not only be the reason for Intel's success but also the reason for his having survived the Nazis. 

   Lyndon Johnson once noted that everyone in politics needs to be able to walk into a room full of people and sense who is for him and who is against.   Robbins and Post point out in their book, Political Paranoia, that "politicians who lack this sensitivity will not last long.   In some political systems they will not even live long."

    In the workplace a healthy realization that it is likely that one is being spied upon may help one keep one's job.

   The word paranoia implies delusional beliefs of hostility from others.  Andy Grove and Lyndon Johnson when they used the word meant realistic beliefs of hostility from others.  Delusional beliefs about hostility from others generally lead to disaster.  A classic example of this were the delusional beliefs of Stalin toward the British which led him to believe that all intelligence information regarding Hitler's plans to attack Russia were British lies designed to get him to fight Germany.  According to Andrew and Gordievsky, KGB p262, "Stalin tended to see any warnings of a German attack, whatever their source, as further evidence of a British conspiracy".  Daniel Pipes in his book Conspiracy writes:

   Throughout the first half of 1941, Stalin had a great abundance of accurate information about German activities and plans...

   The warnings began in January 1941, with a U.S. government alert based on information from Berlin: this was confirmed by further American admonitions, letters from Winston Churchill, and a wide range of Soviet sources...By late March Moscow was steeped in rumors of approaching disaster...One defector from the Nazi forces who told of the imminent invasion was ignored; another was summarily executed for spreading disinformation.  In all, the Kremlin received one hundred or more separate warnings of a Nazi assault. 

   Beyond these diverse and authoritative sources, Soviet commanders at the front could see for themselves the massive German preparations.   The Nazi assault forces, prepared over a ten month period ranged along an 1,800 mile front from the Baltic coast to the Black sea, the Ostheer included 3.2 million men (Out of a total German force of 3.8 million), 600,000 trucks and 600,000 horses, 7,000 artillery pieces, 3,350 tanks, and over 2,000 airplanes.  In all "Few nations have been better warned of impending invasions than the Soviet Union in June 1941."

   Soviet forces, the German chief of staff recorded in his diary, "were tactically surprised along the entire front".  Their unreadiness permitted the Germans to win an immense initial advantage, one that cost the Soviet Union uncounted millions of lives over the next four years.

   Aaron Beck in his book Prisoners of Hate discusses how there are situations in which what is generally considered paranoid thinking can be to one's advantage but points out how this kind of thinking is likely to lead to false positives or identifying people as enemies when they are not. 

If you are engaged in a military operation, you will be on "red alert," prepared to process ambiguous stimuli rapidly, to assume that they are directed against you (self-reference or personalization),and to focus on small details--perhaps out of context--that might be indicative of a threat (selective abstraction).  You will make dichotomous judgments (a stranger is either a friend or an enemy), and you will be overly inclusive in your evaluations (overgeneralization).   When there is a clear and present danger, these kinds of appraisals are adaptive because they help to prepare us for action that may save our lives. 

    During Operation Desert Storm American troops were killed by friendly fire.  The red alert thinking of the Americans who fired on them identified them as the enemy.  This red alert thinking on the whole is probably best for war situations but in day to day living it can lead to our being paranoid of people who mean us no harm.

    Paranoia is a very dangerous feeling and can result in our striking out at innocent people.  Even if we don't strike out our attitude can offend the people we are paranoid of.  Paranoia is likely to put us into red alert mode which leads to exhaustion.  Aaron Beck writes:

Emergency mechanisms that are potentially life-saving in dangerous conditions, such as at the battlefront, are often triggered inappropriately in day-to-day interpersonal conflicts.  We are therefore not only susceptible to thinking errors, but may experience considerable distress, even psychological damage.


c o p y r i g h t   ( c )   1 9 9 9 -2004 Karl Ericson Enterprises.  All rights reserved

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