The psychology of gang stalking, and the difference between conspiracy theory and delusion

If you’ve spent enough time on the Internet (or read the New York Times yesterday), you might have come across the phenomenon of gang stalking – the alleged stalking of particular individuals by organized groups. It might seem like gang stalking is a sort of conspiracy theory, and that we can maybe understand it in the same way that we think about things like the 9/11 Truth Movement and beliefs in UFO coverups. I’m not sure about this. There are some pretty major psychological differences between the two. It’s probably not helpful to conflate run-of-the-mill conspiracy theories, which are not considered to be an indicator of psychopathology, with gang stalking, which is widely considered to be the product of delusional thinking.

In gang stalking, large gangs of perpetrators will (allegedly) use subtle methods of manipulation and harassment – muttering hurtful phrases or insults while passing their target on the street, repeatedly driving past the target’s house, preventing them from sleeping by making loud noises at odd hours, and so on. Many people who claim to be victims of gang stalking (search YouTube for a reasonably representative sample) allege more exotic stalking methods – in particular, “electronic harassment,” the use of advanced technology to torture, annoy, or even control the mind of the target from afar.

If you think this sounds pretty far-fetched, you’re not wrong. Stalking is real, of course – there’s no denying that. And there are situations where multiple people participate in bullying or even stalking – often close friends or family members. But “gang stalking” – the type that involves muttered insults, dozens of strangers working together, electronic harrassment, secret hand signals – is not really an accepted thing. In fact, suspicions of gang stalking are considered to be markers of delusional disorders like paranoid schizophrenia. In a 2015 study, Sheridan and James examined 128 reports of group (gang) stalking in an online questionnaire and found that all of them – every single one – exhibited delusional qualities.

From an examination of free-text responses, all 128 group-stalked cases fell into one or more of three categories:

  • cases where the resources or elaborate organisation required to carry them out made the alleged activities highly improbable (e.g. hostile operatives being inserted in victim’s workplace and their children’s schools; 24-h electronic surveillance involving teams of men in black vans; surveillance by cameras placed throughout the city; staff of shops and libraries being amongst the group stalkers; everyone in the street being ‘plants’ acting out roles towards the victim; ‘more than a thousand’ people being involved; traffic lights being manipulated always to go red on approach; repeated sexual assault during sleep; horns on the street hooting to bring attention to particular sentences on the radio; collaboration between diverse agencies, such as the Automobile Association, a building society, a website and neighbours),
  • cases in which the activities described were impossible (e.g. minds of friends and family being externally controlled; use of ‘voice to skull’ messages; witchcraft focussed through gold objects; insertion of alien thoughts; organised electronic mind interference; remote removal of bank notes through electronic attraction; invasion of an individual’s dreams at night), and
  • cases where the beliefs were not only impossible, but bizarre (e.g. docile family dog replaced by exact double with foul temper; remote enlargement of bodily organs).

Gang stalking victim advocates maintain that any resemblance to psychosis is either coincidental, or the result of the very real harassment itself – that the sophisticated influencing technologies can mimic the symptoms of schizophrenia by inducing hallucinations, paranoid thinking, and so on.

Yet the “influencing-machine” delusion is a common enough one, with a long history. While 21st-century delusions involve mind manipulation via satellites, nanotechnology, and neuroscience, delusions during the Industrial Revolution involved that era’s high technology: the loom. The first known (or at least strongly suspected) case of paranoid schizophrenia, that of James Tilly Matthews in the late 18th century, involved persecution via a mind-control machine called the “Air Loom,” which allegedly controlled its targets’ thoughts and behaviour through the careful manipulation of magnetic fluids.

air-loom-drawing_jtm_med

The Air Loom, with its operator and targets.

At first glance, gang stalking seems like a conspiracy theory: a group of powerful individuals come together in secret to carry out a sinister and deceptive plan. And under that definition, it is. But even beyond the involvement of mental illness, there’s a crucial difference between delusions of persecution (like gang stalking) and conspiracy theories. In most conspiracy theories, the victim of the deception is usually a relatively large social group: Christians, men, African-Americans, the general public, taxpayers. Conspiracy theories are stories about one group trying to outmaneuver another. In persecutory delusions, the target is the self. While conspiracy theories say “they’re out to get US,” persecutory delusions say “they’re out to get ME.”

But for all the psychological differences between gang stalking and the rest of the conspiracy world, there is some crossover between them. Gang stalking proponents seem to have provided some of the raw material for more mainstream conspiracy theories – perhaps thanks to the efforts of gang stalking victim advocacy groups, the references to electronic harassment and mind control that pop up after mass shootings often adopt some of the language of the gang stalking subculture. There’s an interesting (though not, to my knowledge, very well-supported) hypothesis that psychoses like schizophrenia serve an important function in traditional cultures and in the evolutionary history of humanity: they provide a connection to a world other than our own, enrich us with insights that we wouldn’t otherwise have had, and give us ideas about how the world might work beyond what we can see. Maybe “targeted individuals” and other sufferers of delusional disorders serve a similar function in the world of conspiracy, providing raw material for speculation in the form of almost-spiritual insights into a world of power, evil, and high technology that goes beyond what the rest of us can grasp.

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