Just because you’re paranoid, that doesn’t mean no one’s out to get you. That old saying is true for some people. Paranoia can be a useful trait for a spy, say. Or a despot. But for most people it’s just a problem. Paranoia, loosely defined as a psychological disorder involving delusions of persecution or grandeur, can cause intellectual impairment, hallucinations and just plain crotchetiness. At the extreme it can lead to homicidal tendencies or the need to rule the world. It causes suspicion of other people and can make for a very difficult social life. Paranoia is not a viable survival trait outside of a few very specific situations. It’s not a good evolutionary trait either. The human species wouldn’t be successful if everyone was paranoid. Still, it would be just as bad for us if we were completely free of suspicion. If the tiger didn’t get us the loan shark would.
If paranoia is going too far in one direction and total naivety is going too far in the other, then where is the reasonable middle way? Recent discoveries of rampant altruism in nature have led to a new look at the mechanisms of natural selection. The old simplistic ideas about evolution based on vicious self-interest, or paranoia, are giving way to a new concept – pronoia. Pronoia is a term coined by Helena Cronin (or possibly Dr. Fred H. Goldner of Queens College) to describe the role of altruism in the survival of individuals, groups and species. The opposite of paranoia, pronoia is about the tendency to support each other, and the expectation that altruistic acts will be reciprocated.
Darwin has been misrepresented. His work has been reduced by some to the misleading notion of the survival of the fittest, usually taken to mean the most successfully competitive. This has then been used to justify all kinds of deplorable things like greed, hoarding, classism, slavery, etc. But Darwin recorded many instances of altruism and self-sacrifice in nature. He noted how it helped animals to survive and multiply.
Pronoid behavior – cooperating and sharing with the expectation of the same in return – is far better in the long run than paranoid behavior. While selfishness and exploitation can bring some rewards to individuals, it is really a way of being a parasite. Normal pronoid members are working together as a group, creating more benefit all told than they could by selfishly refusing to cooperate. The power of pronoia is so great that the group can tolerate a few inevitable parasites who only want to take.
Just as paranoia breeds more paranoia, so does cooperation breed more cooperation. Just because you’re pronoid, it doesn’t mean no one’s out to help you.