BACKGROUND: It has been proposed that delusions of persecution are caused by the tendency to over-attribute malevolent intentions to other people's actions. One aspect of intention attribution is detecting contingencies between an agent's actions and intentions. Here, we used simplified stimuli to test the hypothesis that patients with persecutory delusions over-attribute contingency to agents' movements. METHOD: Short animations were presented to three groups of subjects: (1) schizophrenic patients; (2) patients with affective disorders; and (3) normal control subjects. Patients were divided on the basis of the presence or absence of delusions of persecution. Participants watched four types of film featuring two shapes. In half the films one shape's movement was contingent on the other shape. Contingency was either 'intentional': one shape moved when it 'saw' another shape; or 'mechanical': one shape was launched by the other shape. Subjects were asked to rate the strength of the relationship between the movement of the shapes. RESULTS: Normal control subjects and patients without delusions of persecution rated the relationship between the movement of the shapes as stronger in both mechanical and intentional contingent conditions than in non-contingent conditions. In contrast, there was no significant difference between the ratings of patients with delusions of persecution for the conditions in which movement was animate. Patients with delusions of persecution perceived contingency when there was none in the animate non-contingent condition. CONCLUSIONS: The results suggest that delusions of persecution may be associated with the over-attribution of contingency to the actions of agents.
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