I believe I'm not alone in this, but I get a sensation when I encounter someone who is in a position of power (relative to me) that the person will find me guilty of an infraction of some sort, regardless of how minor, and "drop the hammer," so to speak, even (especially, in fact) when I've done absolutely nothing wrong or even suspect.

Here is a simplified example: Walking down the sidewalk in the middle of the day, I notice a police officer standing nearby. I get a nagging sensation that the police office will suddenly decide I am a "person of interest" and question, detain, or even arrest me.

Just for background, I have never been arrested and I've only ever been "semi-detained" for (justified) traffic stops and on one other (unjustified) occasion, in the bicycle version of a Terry stop when I was out riding late at night. (The police were clearly bored and claimed I "matched the description of a guy they were looking for.")

This mentality could also be inspired by other people (i.e. not police) who act as "authority figures" with at least some measure of power over the person: teachers, security guards, etc.

I think it bears some passing similarity to a persecution complex, and I suppose it could be seen as a specific type of paranoia.

Is there a word or short (two- or three-word) expression to describe this particular sort of (mostly) irrational thinking?

  • 5
    "They" (whoever they are) may not have nabbed you yet ... but they're on to you, pal, they're definitely on to you. ;-) +1
    – user98990
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 9:18
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    I grew up with a parent that always made me feel wrong, as a result (I believe) I also walked about the world feeling vaguely guilty even when I'd done absolutely nothing wrong - legacy of bad parenting.
    – user98990
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 9:34
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    Thank you, Mr. Ballsack, I'm pretty much passed that and forgiven that parent who had been mistreated themselves. It's all good now.
    – user98990
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 9:43
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    It may not be irrational. "Nearly nine out of 10 stopped-and-frisked New Yorkers have been completely innocent," according to this article: nyclu.org/content/stop-and-frisk-data
    – Entbark
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 14:39
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    This seems to me very much like the feelings I get walking through Customs at airports where my very awareness I am probably being watched feels as if it is bound to make me act suspiciously, which is a fear that feeds back and seems to reinforce itself. It does not, I am absolutely sure, manifest as a feeling of conscience or guilt (real, imagined or superimposed), merely a feeling I am bound to be stopped. And yet I never have been (nor would it ever have been a problem if I were). This does seem more like paranoia to me, rather than theological/moral issues.
    – Marv Mills
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 16:47

8 Answers 8


In psychiatry and psychology, it is called guilty ideas of reference and it actually differs from delusions of guilt which is a more severe form.

Guilty ideas of reference. Those affected feel that others are blaming them; in more severe forms they feel accused. Insight is preserved and so sufferers recognise the feeling as their own. Intense forms shade into persecutory delusions.

Seminars in General Adult Psychiatry (edited by George Stein, Greg Wilkinson)

The following excerpt includes a more explicit definition and a comparison to simple ideas of reference:

Guilty ideas of reference refer to thoughts that other people are blaming them for some action or attribute, and in more severe cases may exhibit paranoid themes relate to thoughts that others are "out to get them" or punish them. On the other hand, simple ideas of reference exhibit more socially anxious themes characterized by self-consciousness and the belief that other people are taking special notice of their flaws, criticizing them, or laughing at them.

The moderating effects of perceived intentionality: exploring the relationships between ideas of reference, paranoia, and social anxiety in schizotypy (by Sean C.Morrison)

Further reading for a detailed description and a comparison to simple ideas of reference, delusions of guilt and pathological guilt:


This is the blight of a false conscience generating false guilt.

('Guilt' in the sense of 'feelings of guilt' rather than 'culpability'.)

See Pathwork™ Steps: Real and False Conscience, Real and False Guilt:

However, it is generally ignored that man is governed by two consciences. One is the expression of his higher or real self, the center of his being, aiming at full self‑realization. The other is a superimposed conscience that is, partly, the expression of superimposed rules and regulations, such as the dictates of public opinion, and, partly, an expression of the dictates of his private idealized self image....

The superimposed conscience, in its fear of disapproval and blind obedience to inherited and adopted outward standards, is often senseless and inhuman. Since it is created out of fear, it cannot help but breed more fear. Its principal fear is not knowing what is right or wrong, of not having a guide‑post for right conduct.

The above presents perhaps too idealised a view of man. In Christian theology in general, it is believed that the conscience is given to man as his internal moral compass, but that from the time man first chose to ignore its pointings, it malfunctions. Thus man often finds it hard to distinguish the correct course, and sometimes feels guilt inappropriately (or fails to feel it when appropriate).

Roman Catholics often use the term false conscience:

The judgment of the mind when it wrongly decides that something is lawful but that in fact is unlawful, or vice versa. The error may be due to the false principles used or because the mind was darkened or confused in its reasoning process. [Catholic Culture]

  • Edwin, I think you're on the right track. I found the term "overactive conscience" and I see it being used in conjunction with "false guilt."
    – pyobum
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 9:34
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    “When we played softball, I'd steal second base, feel guilty and go back.” ― Woody Allen
    – user98990
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 9:36
  • I took the liberty of repeating the term, to help disambiguate.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 10:16
  • @Mari-Lou A Mea culpa. Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 17:35
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    Apparently, one may also run into the Pope in the woods. Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 18:13

Sounds to me like it's just a specific type of paranoia.

Suspicion and mistrust of people or their actions without evidence or justification

As in, you are paranoid about police and other authority figures.

  • Not paranoia, as all evidence shows that the suspicion and mistrust are perfectly justified.
    – jamesqf
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 18:06
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    @jamesqf Maxim: "Just Because You're Paranoid Doesn't Mean They Aren't Out to Get You" Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 18:09

An extremely mild case of paranoid delusion resulting from anxiety.

It involves the person’s belief that he or she is being conspired against, cheated, spied on, followed, poisoned or drugged, maliciously maligned, harassed, or obstructed in the pursuit of long-term goals.


Maybe the words you're searching for are guilty conscience and you have some sort of paranoia they will detect it.

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    I think having a guilty conscience requires that you have done something wrong. I am referring to situations where a person is without wrongdoing.
    – pyobum
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 9:12
  • You state that this mentality is inspired by "authority figures" which means you feel like you've done something to upset them. That could easily be classified as guild
    – Zikato
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 9:15
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    'Guilty conscience' does not involve OP's ' having done nothing wrong': it may well be registering something the person has done wrong. Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 9:19
  • Well it still is guilty conscience even though it's not logically justified. He still feels the same thing he would if he was guilty.
    – Zikato
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 9:22

A guilt trip may fit the context you are describing:

  • Informal. a feeling of guilt or responsibility, esp. one not justified by reality.


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    Interesting, I'd only ever thought of "guilt trip" to mean when someone else deliberately makes you feel guilty.
    – pyobum
    Commented Mar 17, 2015 at 9:26

Hyper-vigilance. Wiki: "In hypervigilance, there is a perpetual scanning of the environment to search for sights, sounds, people, behaviors, smells, or anything else that is reminiscent of threat or trauma. The individual is placed on high alert in order to be certain danger is not near. Hypervigilance can lead to a variety of obsessive behavior patterns, as well as producing difficulties with social interaction and relationships."


hinky --slang for 'jittery, nervous, suspicious'.'The driver of the truck seemed hinky to the border guard who demanded to see the driver's license.'(Merriam-Webster.com)

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