Organizational Paranoia Research Paper

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Social scientists have long recognized the deleterious role distrust and suspicion play within organizations (Fox, 1974). More recent treatments suggest the problem continues to be an important and ongoing concern (Hardin, 2004). Despite the enduring importance of the problem, conceptual frameworks that systematically articulate the antecedents and consequences of intra-organizational distrust and suspicion remain in short supply. A primary aim of this research-paper is to summarize some of what we know about the origins and dysfunctional consequences of exaggerated distrust and suspicion in the workplace. To approach these two important issues, I first provide a framework for conceptualizing exaggerated distrust and suspicion in the workplace. The framework derives from recent social cognitive theory and research on paranoid cognition.

Conceptualizing Paranoid Cognition In Organizations

To develop the concept of paranoid cognition, it is useful to begin with a brief overview of some of the more prominent images of distrust and suspicion found in the social science literature. Social scientists have conceptualized distrust as an active psychological state characterized by a specific constellation of expectations and beliefs about the lack of trustworthiness of other persons, groups, or institutions. For example, Govier (1993) defined distrust as “a lack of confidence in the other, a concern that the other may act so as to harm one, that he does not care about one’s welfare or intends to act harmfully, or is hostile. When one distrusts, one is fearful and suspicious as to what the other might do” (p. 240).

As this definition suggests, suspicion is a major part of distrust. Fein (1996) characterized suspicion as a dynamic cognitive state in which a social perceiver “actively entertains multiple, plausibly rival, hypotheses about the motives or genuineness of a person’s behavior” (p. 1165). Fein and Hilton (1994) noted further that suspicion entails a “belief that the actor’s behavior may reflect a motive that the actor wants hidden from the target of his or her behavior” (p. 169).

In explaining the origins of distrust and suspicion, researchers have often noted the importance of social interactional histories. Models of trust development typically posit, for example, that an individual’s judgments about another’s trustworthiness or lack of trustworthiness can be construed largely as history-dependent processes. According to such conceptions, trust increases or decreases as a function of the cumulative history of interaction between two or more interdependent actors.

In suggesting the formative role that social histories play in the emergence of trust and distrust, these models imply that individuals’ judgments about another’s trustworthiness or lack of trustworthiness are anchored, at least in part, on their a priori expectations about the other’s behavior and the extent to which subsequent experience affirms or discredits those expectations. Boyle and Bonacich’s (1970) analysis of trust development supports such arguments. Individuals’ expectations about trustworthy behavior, they propose, tend to change, “in the direction of experience and to a degree proportional to the difference between this experience and the initial expectations applied to it” (p. 130). In support of such arguments, numerous empirical studies have shown that interactions that reinforce individuals’ expectations about others’ trustworthiness increase trust, while interactions that violate those expectancies undermine trust.

Although individuals’ a priori expectations clearly play an important role in judgments about others’ trustworthiness, other research has shown that their a posteriori attributions also affect such judgments. According to these studies, such attributions influence the inferences social perceivers make about others’ motives, intentions, and dispositions. These inferences are critical for deciding how much they should be trusted or distrusted. Experiments by Fein and his associates (Fein, 1996, Fein & Hilton, 1994; Hilton, Fein, & Miller, 1993) have shown that induced suspicion often triggers sophisticated attributional analysis “characterized by active, careful consideration of the potential motives and causes that may influence people’s behaviors” (Fein, 1996, p. 1167). Their findings suggest that suspicion is evoked when perceivers have forewarnings that others might be insincere or untrustworthy, when their expectations about others have been violated, and/or when they recognize situational cues are in possession of contextual information that suggests others might have ulterior motives for their actions (Fein, 1996 ).

The social perceiver portrait that emerges from these diverse streams of research is compatible with the notion that people often act much like “intuitive social scientists” who try to make sense of their social worlds. According to such perspectives, people (in the ideal, at least) confer trust on others or withhold it based more or less on rational (i.e., systematic and orderly) processes of logical inference and hypothesis testing. Like good Bayesian statisticians, they update these trust judgments based on their ongoing experiences with others.

Although recognizing that trust and distrust judgments sometimes resemble this sort of mindful and rational cogitation, many researchers have noted that other variants of social distrust and suspicion appear to be far less rational with respect to both their origins and their judgmental consequences. Deutsch (1973), for example, proposed the need to distinguish between pathological and nonpathological varieties of trust and distrust. “The essential feature of non-pathological trust and distrust,” he noted, “is that it is flexible and responsive to changing circumstances” (p. 170). In contrast, pathological trust and distrust are characterized by an “inflexible, rigid, unaltering tendency to act in a trusting or suspicious manner, irrespective of the situation or the consequences of so acting” (p. 171). The pathology of such irrational trust and distrust, Deutsch went on to note, is reflected in “the indiscriminateness and incorrigibility of the behavioral tendency” they engender (p. 171). These irrational forms of distrust and suspicion reflect exaggerated perceptual and judgmental propensities. Such inclinations can arise and may be sustained even in the absence of specific experiences that justify or warrant them.

Paranoid cognitions constitute perhaps the prototypic example of such irrational distrust and suspicion. Colby (1981) defined paranoid cognition as “persecutory delusions and false beliefs whose propositional content clusters around ideas of being harassed, threatened, harmed, subjugated, persecuted, accused, mistreated, wronged, tormented, disparaged, vilified, and so on, by malevolent others, either specific individuals or groups” (p. 518). In trying to understand these rather peculiar, and in many respects striking cognitions, theorists have turned most often to psychodynamic constructs. Colby (1981), for example, described paranoid cognitions as the end products of a “causal chain of strategies for dealing with distress induced by the affect of shame-humiliation” (p. 518). The strategy of blaming others for one’s difficulties functions “to repudiate the belief that the self is to blame for an inadequacy” (p. 518). The presumption behind such clinical accounts is that paranoid cognitions are reflections or manifestations of an acute intrapsychic disturbance. Such conceptions thus locate the cause of paranoid cognitions “inside the head” of the social perceiver, rather than viewing them as causally connected to the social context within which such cognitions are embedded and to which they might reflect some sort of intended adaptation.

In contrast to these clinical conceptions, recent social psychological research suggests a different perspective on paranoid cognitions, a perspective that gives more attention to their social and situational origins (Fenigstein & Van-able, 1992; Kramer, 1994, 1995a, 1995b). This research takes as a starting point two suggestive observations. The first observation is that, in milder forms, paranoid cognitions seem prevalent even among normal individuals. As Fenigstein and Vanable (1992) commented, it is not unusual for ordinary people “in their everyday behavior manifest characteristics—such as self-centered thought, suspiciousness, assumptions of ill will or hostility, and even notions of conspiratorial intent—that are reminiscent of paranoia” (p. 130). There are many social occasions where people may think they are “being talked about or feel as if everything is going against them, resulting in suspicion and mistrust of others, as though they were taking advantage of them or to blame for their difficulties” (p. 133). Based upon such observations, Fenigstein and Vanable concluded that the concept of paranoia needs broadening to “include the thought processes that characterize everyday life” (p. 133).

The second observation relates to the emergent and often transient nature of these milder forms of paranoid cognition.

As Siegel (1994) noted in this regard, “almost everyone has had a mild experience such as the vague suspicion that something is out there just waiting to get us. Many people experience it when they are alone in the house at night or walking down an unfamiliar street” (p. 7). Findings from several recent survey studies support such observations, suggesting that paranoid-like perceptions, including the perception that one has been the victim of a conspiracy involving a romance or friendship at school or work are far from uncommon.

These observations converge on two general propositions that are central to the conceptual argument I wish to advance in this research-paper. First, these more ordinary variants of paranoid cognition are forms of social misperception and misjudgment characterized by misplaced or exaggerated, rather than necessarily false or delusional, distrust and suspicion of others. By shifting the reference point between reality and error, we access a large group of concepts from social cognitive theory on judgmental errors when trying to understand the cognitive and social origins of these paranoid-like social misperceptions and misjudgments.

Second, paranoid cognitions can be viewed as byproducts of an interaction between the social information processing strategies paranoid perceivers use and the social contexts in which they seem sensible, rather than as manifestations of individual psychopathology. They are efforts by social perceivers to make sense of and cope with threatening and disturbing social environments. These ordinary and more benign forms of paranoid cognition are adaptive responses to disturbing situations rather than manifestations of disturbed individuals.

Origins Of Paranoid Cognitions In Organizations

The conception of paranoid cognition developed in this research-paper proceeds largely from a social information processing perspective on organizational behavior. According to this perspective, a complete understanding of paranoid cognition—or any form of social judgment in organizations —requires recognition of the organizational context within which such judgments are embedded. As Salancik and Pfeffer (1978) argued, in order to understand organizational behavior, it is essential to examine the “informational and social environment within which behavior occurs and to which it adapts” (p. 226). One reason context is so consequential, they argue, is that it selectively directs individuals’ attention to certain information, making that information more salient and thereby increasing its effect on their expectations about and interpretations of others’ behavior. According to this perspective, what one sees depends literally on where one sits in the organization.

From a social information processing perspective, situational factors trigger paranoid cognitions within organizations that bring on states of dysphoric self-consciousness, which is an aversive psychological state. People are motivated to make sense of whatever they perceive as inducing it and adaptively respond to it. These sense-making efforts promote a hyper vigilant and ruminative mode of social information processing. Hypervigilance and rumination, I posit, enjoy a circular causal relationship: The hyper vigilant appraisal of social information tends to generate more raw data about which the paranoid perceiver ruminates, and rumination in turn helps generate additional paranoid-like hypotheses, prompting more vigilant scrutiny of the situation, and especially of others’ behavior.

Hypervigilance and reflection are posited further to contribute to several modes of paranoid-like social misperception and misjudgment, including (a) the sinister attribution error, (b) the overly personalistic construal of social interactions, and (c) exaggerated perceptions of conspiracy. These errors and misperceptions contribute to paranoid behavior. According to this model, one of the ironic and unintended consequences of such paranoid behavior is that it tends to elicit and worsen the situations that lead to increased scrutiny and self-consciousness. Thus, within organizational systems, there is a self-sustaining and escalatory dynamic associated with paranoid social cognition and behavior.

This model is not a complete theory of paranoid cognition in organizations. It is a middle-range theory that organizes and integrates what is currently known about the cognitive and social bases of such cognition. It is presented as a heuristic device for stimulating further research and not as a final statement.

Having described the basic parts of the model, and their interrelationships, I turn now to elaborating on these elements. Dysphoric self-consciousness is one of the primary psychological precursors of paranoid cognition. Dsyphoric self-consciousness is an aversive form of heightened public self-consciousness characterized by the feeling that one is under intense evaluative scrutiny. Dysphoric self-consciousness contrasts with more positive forms of social attention, in which individuals may feel as if they are “basking” in their own or others’ reflected glory. Dysphoric self-consciousness can be construed as a negative form of social attention in which one is perceived to be “baking” under the harsh, unremitting limelight of others’ evaluative scrutiny.

Many studies have documented an association between self-consciousness and a tendency toward the overly personalistic construal of social interactions. Fenigstein (1984) postulated the existence of a general over perception of self as target bias. He argues that self-consciousness increases the extent to which individuals’ see others’ behavior in self-referential terms (i.e., as intentionally focused on, or directed toward, them). The results of his studies provide evidence that self-consciousness contributes to the onset of paranoid social cognition. They also suggest that a consequence of such self-consciousness is a spontaneous attributional search aimed at helping individuals make sense of their dysphoric experiences. When individuals become self-conscious, they look for reasons why they are self-conscious. Self-consciousness acts as a cue stimulating attributional search: If one is self-conscious, then someone must be watching. And if someone is watching, then something might be amiss. These results also invite the question of what kinds of social situations are likely to trigger such self-consciousness.

If dysphoric self-consciousness is an important causal trigger of paranoid cognition, the question then arises, “What are some of the situational or contextual factors in organizations that serve as antecedents of paranoid cognition?” I address this question in the following subsections.

Perceived Distinctiveness And Paranoid Cognition

All human beings are members of multiple social groups. As a result, people can categorize themselves—and be categorized by others—in a variety of different ways. These include categorizations based upon physical attributes (such as age, race, or gender), as well as categorizations based upon social attributes such as religion, social class, and organizational affiliations. Recognizing their importance, researchers have afforded much attention in recent years to exploring how such categorization processes affect social perception and behavior within social systems (e.g., Kanter, 1977a; Kramer, 1991).

Several conclusions emerge from this research. First, social categories can affect how individuals define themselves in a given social situation, a process that Turner (1987) characterized as se/-categorization. Research on self-categorization has shown that individuals often categorize themselves with attributes that are distinctive or unique in a given setting. For example, if an individual is the only female in a group, she may disproportionately emphasize her distinctive gender status when explaining her behavior, affecting not only how others see her, but also how she sees herself. From a cognitive standpoint, the distinctiveness of this category makes gender-based attributes more available during social information processing. They tend to “loom larger” during social interaction, affecting the social inference process for both actor and observer.

Projecting from such evidence, it can be argued that individuals who belong to distinctive social categories are more likely to be self-conscious. Because they feel they are different from other group members, they overestimate the extent to which they are under evaluative scrutiny by other group members. The argument that self-categorization on the basis of distinctive or exceptional status can contribute to the perception of being under evaluative scrutiny and dysphoric self-consciousness is consistent with a consider-able body of evidence about the cognitive and social consequences of merely being different from other members of a social group (Kanter, 1977a, 1977b).

One result of individuals’ awareness of being different from others is that it prompts sense-making activity, including a spontaneous attributional search for the causes of others’ behavior toward them. Such self-consciousness might be expected to be especially pronounced and aversive when individuals are uncertain about precisely how much being different from others matters (e.g., its impact on whether they will be accepted by others and the kind of treatment they will receive from them). So-called token members of groups or organizations exemplify this quandary. Token status in groups is based upon “ascribed characteristics (master statuses such as sex, race, religion, ethnic group, age, etc.) or other characteristics that carry with them a set of assumptions about culture, status, and behavior that are highly salient for majority category members” (Kanter, 1977b, p. 966). In her now classic discussion of the effects of token status on social perception and interpersonal relations, Kanter (1977a, 1977b) noted that individuals who are members of token categories are likely to attract disproportionate attention from other group members, particularly those who enjoy dominant status from their greater numerical proportion. For example, she argued that females in many American corporations often feel as if they are in the “limelight” compared to their more numerous male counterparts.

In support of these observations, Taylor (1981) demonstrated that observers often allocate disproportionate amounts of attention to individuals who have token status in groups, especially when making attributions about group processes and outcomes. Lord and Saenz (1985) provided an important extension of this early work by showing how token status affects the cognitive processes of tokens themselves. They concluded that, “Tokens feel the social pressure of imagined audience scrutiny, and may do so even when the ‘audience’ of majority group members treat them no differently from nontokens” (p. 919).

On the basis of such evidence, it can be argued that individuals who have token status in a social system will be more self-conscious and perceive themselves as under more evaluative scrutiny than nontoken members. Tokens will tend to overestimate the extent to which they are the target of other’s attention. They will be more likely to over-construe their interactions with other group members—especially interactions involving nontokens—in personalistic, self-referential terms. Evidence in support of this general hypothesis was provided in a study of social perception among incoming Masters of Business Administration (MBA) students at a major business school during the first term of their 2-year program (Kramer, 1996).

Uncertainty About Social Standing

Social standing is another situational factor that might induce dysphoric self-consciousness and contribute to the emergence of paranoid cognition. Research suggests that people often afford considerable importance to information about their standing in social groups and organizations. As Tyler (1993) noted, one reason that people attach importance to such information is that they believe it will “tell them something about whether they will be treated fairly and whether they are valued” by other group or organization members (p. 143). A large body of theory and research can be adduced in support of the related proposition that most people experience uncertainty about their standing in a social system as an aversive psychological state and are highly motivated to reduce it.

This evidence suggests that a factor that contributes to the onset of situationally induced paranoia is an individual’s length of time as a member of a group or organization. There are several reasons why such tenure status might correlate with their susceptibility to paranoid social cognitions (Fine & Holyfield, 1996). First, as tenure increases, people can gain much information about their standing in a group. As experienced group members, they become knowledgeable about, and comfortable with, group norms and interaction routines. Such “old timers” know where they stand because they have successfully negotiated their place in the group or organization. Their uncertainty—and the social anxieties that attend such uncertainty—likely is relatively low. In contrast, newcomers to a group are likely to have greater uncertainty and insecurity about their standing in the group. Because they are still negotiating their place in the social order, they are likely concerned with such things as how well they will fit into the group’s culture and whether they will be accepted by other group members. They also may be anxious about how well they will perform in their expected roles. As a result of such uncertainties, newcomers are likely to be relatively self-conscious during their social interactions, experiencing a form of intragroup anxiety similar to and no less distressing than the intergroup anxiety described by Stephan and Stephan (1985).

Because their social uncertainty and the motivation to reduce it are both high, newcomers to a group should, all else equal, be fairly vigilant and proactive when seeking diagnostic information about their standing. They will find salient and actively process information about how they are treated during their interactions and exchanges with other members as clues to their group standing. Such information is “communicated both by interpersonal aspects of treatment—politeness and/or respect—and by the attention paid to a person as a full group member” (Tyler, 1993, p. 148).

From an attributional standpoint the diagnostic value of such information is often problematic, because the correct interpretation of many social interactions among group members is often ambiguous. The cause of another person’s behavior is almost always subject to multiple interpretations, making the attribution process difficult even for the most motivated intuitive scientist. For example, the fact that a faculty colleague in a university department (0) fails to say hello to another faculty member (S) as they pass each other in the hallway on a Monday morning may reflect a personalistic cause (0 is angry at S for something S said or did at the last faculty meeting). Many nonpersonalistic causes may also explain 0’s behavior (e.g., 0 was preoccupied by a traffic ticket received on the way to work that morning and did not even notice S as they passed each other).

From a normative standpoint, individuals should discount the validity of any particular explanation for another person’s behavior when multiple, competing explanations for that behavior are available. Even when individuals suspect they are the target or cause of another’s behavior, they should discount this personalistic attribution until more conclusive evidence is available. Despite the logical inappropriateness of doing so, people often make overly personalistic attributions of others’ actions even when competing explanations for those actions are readily available (Fenigstein, 1979; Fenigstein & Vanable, 1992). Extrapolating from this research, it might be expected that newer members of a group, all else equal, will be more self-conscious and more likely to construe their interactions with other group members in overly personalistic terms, compared to those with longer tenure in the group. This tendency may be especially pronounced in unequal status interactions (i.e., interactions between lower and higher status group members). Such interactions might be expected to be particularly salient to newcomers, and information about such encounters is processed more extensively because of its greater putative diagnostic value. For example, to the newly hired assistant professor in a department, interactions involving senior colleagues might be expected to be more noticeable and processed more extensively than comparable interactions with other assistant professors. An ambiguous act, such as passing by in the hallway without saying hello, may be attributed to simple rudeness, arrogance, or social awkwardness if done by another new assistant professor. The same behavior by a senior colleague may be interpreted more ominously as evidence that the person does not like one or did not want to see one hired in the first place. According to this logic, the tendency to make overly personalistic attributions about another’s behavior should be particularly pronounced with respect to interactions involving newcomers and those with longer tenure. The results of two studies support these hypothesized relations (Kramer, 1994, 1996).

The results of these studies converge on several conclusions. First, situational cues that trigger dysphoric forms of self-consciousness are likely to promote paranoid-like (mis)construals of social interactions. Second, they suggest how ordinary cognitive strategies for coping with such implicit social threats contribute to the emergence of paranoid cogitation. They also suggest that paranoid perceivers tend to categorize and interpret more of others’ behaviors as diagnostic of their standing. They are more likely to engage in intense thoughts about such behaviors compared to their less paranoid counterparts. While it is obvious that low trust and paranoid cognition are far from equal constructs, these findings suggest that people with low expectations about others’ trustworthiness are more vigilant and perceptually prepared to find evidence of others’ lack of trustworthiness. As Colby (1975) noted, the state of the paranoid perceiver is not unlike that of a spy in a dangerous foreign country:

To him, everyone he meets is a potential enemy, a threat to existence who must be evaluated for malevolence. To survive, he must be hyper vigilant and fully mobilized to attack, to flee, to stalk. In this situation, appearances are not to be taken at face value . . . but each must be attended to and interpreted in order to detect malevolence. (p. 2)

Dysfunctional Consequences Of Paranoid Cognition In The Workplace

The harmful effect of paranoid cognition on judgments about distrust and suspicion of others in the workplace can be viewed from two vantage points. First, they can be approached from the perspective of how they affect perceivers’ presumptive trust in other coworkers (i.e., their a priori expectations about others’ trustworthiness). Second, they can be approached from the perspective of how they affect the attributions they make about others’ observed behavior. Research has investigated several specific manifestations of these two forms of social misjudgment.

Sinister Attribution Error

The sinister attribution error or bias refers to the tendency for social perceivers to overattribute lack of trustworthiness to others (Kramer, 1994). In contrast to the sort of “active, careful consideration of the potential motives and causes that may affect people’s behaviors” described by Fein (1996, p. 1167), the sinister attribution bias is associated with the tendency to be overly suspicious of others’ intentions and motives (i.e., to “go beyond” available data when making such inferences).

Overly Personalistic Construal Of Social Interactions

A second judgmental bias associated with paranoid cognition is the tendency for paranoid perceivers to view others’ actions in unrealistically self-referential terms. As Colby (1981) noted in his discussion of clinical paranoia: “Around the central core of persecutory delusions [that preoccupy the paranoid perceiver] there exists a number of attendant properties such as suspiciousness, hypersensitivity, hostility, fearfulness, and self-reference that lead such individuals to interpret events that have nothing to do with them as bearing on them personally” (p. 518). Because of this overly personalistic construal of social interaction, paranoid perceivers overestimate the extent to which they are the target of others’ thoughts and actions. Many studies described earlier show some ways heightened self-consciousness and the perception of being under evaluative scrutiny by others contributes to this tendency.

A particularly interesting form of this bias is the biased punctuation of social interaction. The notion of biased punctuation comes from research showing that when individuals view ongoing social events, they typically do not perceive them as continuous events. Instead, they tend to perceive social interactions as discrete episodes or “punctuated” sequences with distinct “chunks” of causally interdependent activity. Conflict research further suggests that biased punctuation of interactions contribute to the development of what Deutsch (1986) colorfully characterized as “malignant spirals” of distrust and suspicion.

Gilovich (1991) has a perceptive analysis of how ordinary and innocent constraints on people’s chances to generate representative samples of experience can lead them to idiosyncratic punctuations that foster erroneous inferences from the informal observations they allow:

[As I stand impatiently waiting for a bus] I can become convinced that all of the buses are headed in the wrong direction by observing quite a number headed the wrong way before I encounter one going in my direction. Note that the opposite cannot happen: Unless I have difficulty boarding, I never observe several going my way before I discover one headed in the opposite direction. If a bus is going in my direction, I take it. Because of this asymmetry, we can experience a certain kind of “bad streak,” but not a complementary streak of good fortune. (p. 68, [italics added])

For the hyper vigilant paranoid perceiver, such “patterns” are likely to loom especially large and, through rumination, they are embellished. Because of their vigilance and thought, they are likely to link even logically disparate but temporally proximate events together in a coherent, causal sequence.

Exaggerated Perceptions of Conspiracy

Exaggerated perceptions of conspiracy are another form of paranoid social cognition. The phrase exaggerated perception of conspiracy refers to a paranoid perceivers’ tendency to overattribute social coherence and coordination to others’ actions. Just as the biased punctuation of social interaction is an overperception of episodic or causal linkages among disparate, independent events, exaggerated perceptions of conspiracy are the overperception of social linkages among actors engaged in independent actions.

Conspiracy perceptions are complex cognitions and have been the subject of much study by social scientists from a variety of disciplines. From the standpoint of the theory of organizational paranoid cognition developed here, conspiracy perceptions can be viewed as the end result of an intentional rational effort by social perceivers to make sense out of their seemingly recurring dysphoric experiences. As Baumeister (1991) noted,

Meaning is a matter of associations—of connecting things up into broad patterns. If the only broad pattern is happy and optimistic, then isolated contradictory events can be dismissed as minor problems and annoyances. Each problem seems minor and trivial in comparison with the totality of positive aspects. The crucial step occurs, however, when these contradictory events link together to form a larger pattern of negative, dissonant though. (p. 304, [italics added])

Summary And Conclusions

This research-paper has described some antecedents and dysfunctional consequences of workplace paranoia. In putting the contributions of the present framework in perspective, it is useful to raise at the outset a few caveats about the logic of the arguments. First, many labels used for the constructs, such as “paranoid cognition” and “irrational suspicion,” may be viewed by some as loaded and excessively negative. In effect, they seem to blame the victim as they imply there is something amiss inside the social perceiver’s head, rather than something flowing from his or her social circumstances. For example, characterizing the cognitive processes of individuals who happen to occupy relatively disadvantaged positions within organizations as “paranoid” might seem to minimize the legitimacy of their concerns, deflecting attention from the situational origins of their plight. Much like the clinical conceptions avoided at the outset of this paper, they suggest a fundamental attribution error by ignoring the role situations play in shaping these cognitions. This is far from the intent of the present analysis, however. The spirit of this analysis has been to suggest how certain “locations” within organizational systems can affect the focus, direction, and intensity of social information processing. The research assumed as a point of departure the more serious presumption that what is seen depends upon where one is standing in a social system. Certain structural positions within an organizational system may more likely promote patterns of misconstrual and misattribution than other locations in social systems.

Along similar lines, terms such as “sinister attribution error” and “overly personalistic construal” might be regarded as casting unwarranted aspersions on the cognitive competence of the hapless perceiver by implying a flawed process of social inference. In defense of this label, I argue that, the research reviewed here shows that psychological processes such as dysphoric self-consciousness and rumination lead to systematic (i.e., directional) distortions in the attribution process. Terms such as error and bias seem appropriate and their usage congruent with social psychological tradition with respect to other attributional errors, such as the fundamental attribution error and the ultimate attribution error. A better understanding of the situational bases of such errors and biases is a critical first step toward the development of not only richer theory about distrust and suspicion, but also more efficacious behavioral technologies for building and restoring trust within organizations.

In making this point, it is crucial not to misconstrue such cognitive errors as judgmental errors in a more existential sense. As a large body of social cognitive research has shown, many of these cognitive processes help people make sense of themselves and other people as they navigate through various social situations. Social cogitation may be constructive, but it is also intentionally adaptive. In many social situations, the costs associated with misplaced trust may be substantial and, in some instances, outweigh the costs associated with misplaced distrust. For example, in highly competitive or political organizations, a propensity toward vigilance with respect to detecting others’ lack of trustworthiness may be prudent and adaptive. In such environments, it may be far better to be safe than sorry.

Such arguments prompt consideration of other potentially adaptive functions that paranoid cognitions play in organizational settings. While the arguments here have emphasized the maladaptive cognitive and behavioral results of paranoid cognition, there are several ways in which the cognitive processes associated with paranoid perception (i.e., heightened vigilance and rumination) may have adaptive consequences, especially for individuals who are relatively disadvantaged with respect to their power or status in an organizational system. First, as just noted, distrust is not always irrational. Although individuals’ fears and suspicions may sometimes be exaggerated, this does not mean that their distrust is necessarily without foundation or basically misplaced. When viewed from this perspective, psychological states such as vigilance and rumination may be useful. For example, vigilant appraisal and mindfulness —which might be construed as more adaptive variants of hypervigilance and rumination—are enormously important cognitive orientations that not only help individuals make sense of their social situations, but also help them determine the right forms of behavior for those situations.

Paranoid cognitions may also play an important role in the maintenance of an individual’s motivation and persistence in such situations. In much the same way that defensive pessimism enhances individuals’ motivation to engage in effective preemptive failure avoidant behavior, so might paranoid cognitions help individuals maintain their motivation to overcome perceived dangers and obstacles even in situations where those dangers and obstacles, from the perspective of a more neutral observer, might seem grossly exaggerated. Because they are so willing to expend considerable cognitive resources, including the willingness to maintain vigilance and to think at length about other’s intentions, motives, and plans, such people might detect patterns of threat that others fail to see. By maintaining a heightened, even if exaggerated, sensitivity to interpersonal dangers that surround them, paranoid perceivers maintain their alertness and focus. As Lewis and Weigert (1985) noted, distrust and suspicion help reduce complexity and uncertainty in organizational life by “dictating a course of action based on suspicion, monitoring, and activation of institutional safeguards” (p. 969). As former Intel CEO Andrew Grove (1996) liked to remind his executives, “Only the paranoid survive.”


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