Pronoia: noun (Definition #1)

April 27, 2006

“The sneaking feeling one has that others are conspiring behind your back to help you.”

At first, this sounds a bit like a definition in a Hallmark card, and in fact the term was popularized by a wacky group of new age “Zippies” (which stands for zen-inspired professional pagans!) who, in the early 1990s, believed that they had a new generation of hippies plus technology with which to battle the growing forces of yuppies. Who knows where these “hippies with zip” are now? I’d actually like to know.

There’s actually some game theory behind pronoia too. An atmosphere of pronoia is self-sustaining. Another way to think about this in game theory jargon is that life is a non-zero-sum game: if you took all the winnings in Vegas, then subtracted all the losses, you’d end up with zero… on the other hand, if you took all of the benefits gained from a healthy community and subtracted all of the losses, one would come up with a sum greater than zero. A zero sum game is like chess… it is impossible for both people to win. In a city, family, company, or friend group, on the other hand, it is possible for every member of the system to benefit… cooperation in a complex environment will lead a gestalt to form where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. When a community works together to mutually benefit all of its members, a philosophy of pronoia is healthy and accurate and will contribute to the continued amplification of benefit.

One of the goals of focusing on pronoia is to gradually broaden the set of people that you believe are conspiring behind your back to help you. Mutual-improvement can happen in any sized group, from a relationship, to a family, to a neighborhood, to a company, to a city, to a country, and eventually to the world. Maybe I am a Zippy after all.


2 Responses to “Pronoia: noun (Definition #1)”

  1. timethief Says:

    Many of us “zippies” are alive well and very out front. Why presume we conspire behind your back? Why presume we want to help you? Perhaps if you presume nothing and simply be yourself you will learn more and grow more.:D You’re welcome at

  2. Dan McComb Says:

    The first time I heard the term “pronoia” was a couple years ago at Burning Man, from Rob Brezsny, who was leading a tent full of us on a guided meditation, in the middle of a massive dust storm. Totally unforgettable. There are so many ways to apply the concept, and I’m delighted to encounter your thoughts here. I’ve added you to the Biznik blog roll, and I look forward to your next post.

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