Fresh Look – It doesn’t require paranoia to have enemies

Enemies are people who hate us personally and want to undermine our efforts.[1] They are typically seen as sources of threats, and this perception creates intense negative emotions[2] Much has been made of the personalities of those who are likely to see (or invent) enemies in social situations.[3] Practically speaking, it is unlikely that when we see people who claim to have enemies that they are genuine paranoids. More commonly, there are situations that evoke enemyship that we should be aware of. Two situational factors seem important in this regard. One is the instability of one’s power status. People who feel secure in their position are less likely to perceive enemies among those with whom they work.[4] Changes in top leadership stimulate such insecurity, but so too do any other alterations that threaten people’s power. A second important factor is more chronic—low mobility.[5] When people cannot be transferred or promoted for whatever reason, it makes them more prone to identify others as enemies. Feeling trapped leads to paranoia.

Exactly what can we expect from people who have (or think they have) enemies? Keeping proximity helps people monitor the actions of the enemy. As Michael Corleone said in The Godfather Part II (1974): “My father taught me…keep your friends close but your enemies closer.” Accordingly, when people perceive enemies, they are likely to do what they can to keep them proximate. In addition, people will pay inordinate attention to enemies and remember everything they say or do. Indeed, we could say that people demonstrate fixation on enemies.

Being politically astute requires an understanding not just of who your enemies are, but the conditions under which enemies arise.

[1] G. Adams. 2005. The cultural grounding of personal relationship: Enemyship in North American and West African worlds. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 88: 948–968.
[2] D. Motro & D. Sullivan. 2017. Could two negative emotions be a positive? The effects of anger and anxiety in enemyship. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 69: 130–143.
[3] D. Freeman, D. Stahl, S. McManus, H. Meltzer, T. Brugha, N. Wiles, P. Bebbington. 2012. Insomnia, worry, anxiety and depression as predictors of the occurrence and persistence of paranoid thinking. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 47:1195–1203.
[4] N. Mead & J. Maner. 2012. On keeping your enemies close: Powerful leaders seek proximity to ingroup power threats. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 102: 576–591.
[5] L. Li, T. Masuda & H. Lee. In press. Low relational mobility leads to greater motivation to understand enemies but not friends and acquaintances. British Journal of Social Psychology.