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Paranoia Gambit

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Jason's finest 12 hours.

"The more employees you have, the more you have to worry about them. Deliver some vague threats and a few hundred bucks to a security guard. If he's honest he'll tell his boss, who then wonders who wasn't so honest. For the cost of a nice dinner, you can get a whole security team canned."
Burn Notice, "Wanted Man"

Alice tells Bob that she will "get him". Bob freaks out and goes to great lengths to avoid falling victim to her plans. In the end, it turns out that Alice wasn't going to do anything to him and that her whole plan was to just sit back and let his paranoia make him do stupid things to himself. A variation commonly occurs where the gambit is not intentional, and Alice admits that she actually was going to do something to him, but everything Bob did to himself was much better than what she had planned.

This is usually a case of Restrained Revenge, although it can also be a practical joke with no prior provocation. It may overlap with Self-Fulfilling Prophecy when paranoia of a specific event (even if it's unlikely) causes said event to occur. The nastier versions may overlap with Fright Deathtrap.

Since it relies on the mark's paranoia, it resembles a Batman Gambit. Compare Confound Them with Kindness, where Alice acts nicely towards Bob after the fact to confuse him. Often this relies on making something innocent look like Shmuck Bait. Also compare Kansas City Shuffle, where the target's attempts to outmaneuver a con set him up for the real con. Also #20 of The Thirty-Six Stratagems. Compare and contrast with Properly Paranoid and Improperly Paranoid.


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    Comic Strips 
  • Baby Blues: In one Sunday strip, Zoe goes to take a shower and warns Hammie not to try and scare her. In fact, just to make sure, she announces that she intends to lock the door. Hammie says, "Good," which convinces Zoe he must have rigged the doorknob somehow. She announces she won't touch it to prevent his trick from working, but then realizes that means he can come in and scare her like always.
    Hammie: Don't you think it's cool when I can drive Zoe crazy by not doing anything at all?
    Darryl: (sigh)
    • That being said, Zoe is also capable of doing this towards Hammie. On more than one occasion, she's told Hammie stories with the intention to either scare him or mess with him.
  • Beetle Bailey: "The trick was, there was no trick."
  • An early Dilbert comic has Dogbert chuckling around Dilbert. Dilbert immediately figures out that Dogbert is only doing this so Dilbert will think Dogbert has played some kind of prank, so Dogbert upgrades to maniacal laughter. Dilbert does the same, and the strip ends with both of them sitting back to back, maniacally laughing, as Ratbert enters.
  • FoxTrot:
    • When Peter accidentally destroyed Jason's rocket, the latter proclaimed that he will have his vengeance in the next 12 hours. This led to Peter, among other things, jumping out of his room window after hearing a knock on the door, hiding all the knives in the house inside the toilet tank, destroying his mom's rose bush by hiding in it, hiding under the couch dirtying the house (all of the aforementioned actions causing him to be grounded), eating leaves for dinner and lying on dog poop for several hours. Just as Jason planned.
    • Another strip had Paige getting ready to eat a sandwich only to find Peter staring at her with an evil grin. She proceeds to bombard Peter with questions about why he's smiling and if he did something to her sandwich (specifically spitting on it) only for him to constantly shoot her down. Paige then dares him to eat the sandwich...
      Peter: (Thinking while eating the sandwich) Works every time.
      Jason: (Grinning) Don't you want to eat my sandwich?
    • All three Fox siblings have fallen for this at some point. Another strip has Jason hiding in the garbage after playing some prank on Paige. Peter and Paige then talk about how they love it when their little brother punishes himself.
  • This Garfield comic, where all Garfield needs to induce paranoia in Jon is a big smile.

    Films — Live-Action 
  • Non-Stop: The bad guy frames Marks as the hijacker and counts on him unwittingly acting like he is hijacking the plane because he wants to expose the incompetence of the air marshals and American security in general. It works better than expected when the passengers turn on him.
  • In The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe, the head of the French secret service pulls one of these on his Starscream number two, by convincing him that a completely random stranger, the titular blond, is in fact a top agent who will 'deal with him'. This causes the number two to get increasingly paranoid, and eventually results in him dying.
    • The same plot device is the basis of the American remake The Man with One Red Shoe, between the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency and his ambitious, backstabbing subordinate.

  • In Cricket, since one of the first things batsmen are taught is "know exactly where every fielder is at all times", some bowlers and captains will occasionally direct fielders to move by small amounts, not because the movement puts them in a more effective position, but simply to create doubt in the batsman's mind and make him think the bowler has some cunning plan.
  • In the National Football League, the intent of pre-snap movement by the defense is to cause this in the opposing quarterback. Unlike the offense who must remain "set" for a full second prior to snapping the ball (with the exception of one legal "man in motion" who can be moving as long as it isn't toward the line of scrimmage), defenders can move however they please. Most often, the "back seven" (a combination of linebackers, corners, and safeties) will creep closer to the line of scrimmage, potentially tricking the quarterback into thinking they're going to blitz. If successful, the QB may adjust his protections to defenders who aren't actually blitzing, allowing the actual pass rushers to get through. They may also trick the QB into throwing the ball to an earlier, typically less aggressive read, trying to get it out of his hands more quickly to avoid a sack. Peyton Manning was one of the all time greats at avoiding this, reading the defense before the snap (even if they tried to move and throw him off) then targeting the defense's weak spot.

    Tabletop Games 
  • Paranoia: Friend Gamemaster is encouraged to occasionally roll dice for no particular reason and smirk, or pass a note to a PC that just says "Act like this note says something important". (Or better yet, "Roll _____ and tell me the result", because then they're in the dark too.)

    Video Games 
  • Early in Amnesia: The Dark Descent, it will give you the helpful hint of how to hide from monsters. There are no monsters for quite a while. Not that you'd know that. The game in general does this so well, minor sounds can get you to scream just because the tension is that high and you're that paranoid.
  • In The Elder Scrolls series, one of the myths surrounding Sheogorath, the Daedric Prince of Madness, has a wizard come to him asking for power. Sheogorath says he can have it, if Sheogorath fails to drive the wizard insane within three days. The fear drives said wizard completely bonkers even though Sheogorath hadn't actually bothered doing anything.
  • VGA Planets: If you're controlling a faction that has cloaking technology, having your ships pop into view in an enemy's territory can cause them to panic and waste time and resources, even if you don't actually have the ships do anything.
  • You Don't Know Jack, starting in volume 3, has a category known as Impossible Questions, mind-bendingly difficult questions which are worth a game-breaking $20,000 to whoever can get one right (or a game-breaking loss of $20,000 for whoever gets one wrong.) One of the Impossible Questions is from a category called "It's a Dog!" The question is "What has four legs, barks, and is a common household pet?" Awkward silence from the contestants. (The answer really is "a dog.")

    Web Original 

    Real Life 
  • Bomb threats in general do this. Some terrorist groups sometimes report the bombs they planted - in vague terms. Evacuation of a large public place and related panic (especially if the threat turned out to be real) causes plenty of terror, even without killing civilians or even using any bombs. Killing civilians is bad PR. Disrupting business and operations by forcing them to evacuate is still quite effective. If you are a right bastard, you can do this enough times with fake threats to invoke Crying Wolf, and then hit them with a real bomb. See also: The University of Pittsburgh Bomb Threat Saga of Spring 2012. Nearly 150 bomb threats over the course of about a month. It cost the university thousands and thousands of dollars for each evacuation, and the bomber was never even on the same continent.
  • The concept of the "Panopticon" prison is founded on this. A clever circular design allows direct, line-of-sight observation of any prisoner cell from a central observation tower without the inmates being able to tell which cell the guards might be looking at. Without being able to tell which cells are currently under observation, or even how many guards are doing the observing, inmates must assume they are under observation and behave themselves. The effect still works even if the observation tower is unoccupied, so long as the inmates believe that it is. Of course, this only works if the prisoners actually care that somebody's watching them; as soon as it gets a prisoner who's willing to do stuff For the Evulz whether somebody's watching them or not, the whole system falls apart.
  • George Clooney (who has a reputation for pulling pranks on his co-stars) once did this to Brad Pitt. During the filming of Ocean's Twelve, a production staff member managed to get a key to Pitt's house and offered it to Clooney; this was after he had pranked Pitt several times during Ocean's Eleven. Clooney told the staff member to just tell Pitt that he had given the key to him. Pitt spent hours every night going through his house to see if Clooney had snuck in and done something.
  • Fascist Italy's OVRA may have been this trope, enacted by Benito Mussolini drawing on his experience as a journalist. As far as anyone knew back in the day it was a scaringly efficient Secret Police and anyone could have been a member-but there's no evidence it actually existed beyond a name that sounds suspiciously like "piovra" (meaning "octopus" in Italian) and served as anything more than this and a distraction for the regular police to do the actual job, and it never officially existed.
  • This story about a guy who got his revenge on his ex-girlfriend, two years later and during her wedding day, no less. The woman not only cheated on and stole a bunch of money from him, but after she got caught and dumped, she trashed his White Chevy Monte Carlo (four flat tires, a smashed windshield, and a can of red paint had been poured over it). So, as the wedding day approached, he sent her a letter with a cryptic message: a photo of a Monte Carlo, a wedding dress, and a packet of ketchup, along with a sheet of paper with three words: "Red on White", as if threatening to get her dress stained in red, and reinforced her paranoia by sending her some red items anonymously. As it turned out, all he wanted was for her to become a Bridezilla during her wedding, paranoid over the imminent ambush (that never came), and getting her exposed as how she really was in front of everyone.
  • After Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago property was searched by the FBI in August 2022, the Lincoln Project ran an ad designed to get under his skin, asking who provided the evidence that led to the search warrant and suggesting that various Trump family members and associates might have been The Stool Pigeon.


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A Good Nights Sleep Worth?

Mockridge managed to survive his encounter with Edward Nygma; the genius computer programmer that helped his company earn so much money that Mockridge fired. And since his debut as The Riddler, Mockridge now lives in eternal fear of his former employee coming back to continue his revenge.

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