Researchers from the Institute of Psychiatry at King's College London have developed a programme recreating a journey where a person interacts with other travellers. The British Journal of Psychiatry found that 30% of the 200 people studied had paranoid thoughts, with (not surprisingly) those anxious and worried most likely to do so.
The researchers believe the programme could be used to assess and treat people in combination with counselling.
Dr Daniel Freeman said: "Paranoid thoughts are often triggered by ambiguous events such as people looking in one's direction or hearing laughter in a room. But it is very difficult to recreate such social interactions.
"Virtual reality allows us to do just that, to look at how different people interpret exactly the same social situation. It is a uniquely powerful method to detect those liable to misinterpret other people."
The study funded by The Wellcome Trust had participants wearing headsets. They were taken on a four minute virtual Tube ride. Volunteers walked around a carriage filled with "virtual" passengers who behaved like real people.
The "avatars" - breathed, looked around, and sometimes met the gaze of the participants. Though all the characters were designed to be neutral, showing neither overt hostility nor friendliness, the volunteers interpreted the same characters in very different ways.
One participant who experienced paranoid thoughts said: "There's something dodgy about one guy. Like he was about to do something - assault someone, plant a bomb, say something not nice to me, be aggressive."
A woman said: "Felt trapped between two men in the doorway. As a woman I'm a lot more suspicious of men. Didn't like the close proximity of the men. The guy opposite may have had sexual intent, manipulation or whatever."
Another said: "There was a guy spooking me out - tried to get away from him."
Dr Freeman said the results suggest that paranoia was a quite normal emotion: "In the past, only those with a severe mental illness were thought to experience paranoid thoughts, but now we know that this is simply not the case."