Skip to content

Mental Health Center

Font Size

The Truman Show Delusion: Real or Imagined?

A few delusional people are convinced they are stars of an imaginary reality show, but doctors disagree on whether it's only an act.
By Suzanne Wright
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Two doctor/brothers, Joel and Ian Gold, have identified symptoms of a mental illness unique to our times: the Truman Show delusion, named for the 1998 movie that starred Jim Carrey as a suburbanite whose movements were filmed 24/7 and broadcast to the world. The two say a handful of individuals are convinced they are stars of an imaginary reality show.

Though limited, their findings are creating a buzz in the media and the psychiatric community: Is it possible that reality TV is shaping delusions?

Recommended Related to Mental Health

Actor Tony Shalhoub Takes on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

This fall, USA Network will air the 100th episode of the hit detective series, Monk. “It should be a lot of fun,” says actor Tony Shalhoub, 54, who has played the title character for seven seasons. “Especially because Monk really likes the number 100.” Adrian Monk, for those not in the know, is a warm and brokenhearted detective who has obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), a mental illness with specific traits that Shalhoub says are not all that hard for him to identify with. Brilliant crime...

Read the Actor Tony Shalhoub Takes on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder article > >

In an interview with WebMD, Joel Gold says, “The Truman Show delusion encompasses a patient’s entire life. They believe their family, friends, and co-workers are all reading from scripts and their home, workplace, and hospital are all sets. They believe they are being filmed for the whole world to see.” 

Joel Gold, who is on the psychiatric faculty of New York’s Bellevue Hospital and serves as a clinical assistant professional of psychiatry at New York University's School of Medicine, first began to see the symptoms dubbed Truman Show delusion in 2002 with patients at Bellevue Hospital. He initially treated five white male patients with middle-class upbringing and education, all who likened themselves to actors on reality TV shows. Three specifically referenced the movie TheTruman Show, giving rise to the disorder’s name.  

“It’s important to state that Truman Show delusion is a symptom of psychosis,” Joel Gold says. “People who choose to be the center of attention, have concerns about social standing, or who may fear being in public eye or seek it out, may be more drawn to identify with this delusion. I don’t think people are making it up or choosing it.”  

Both Golds are careful to say that the Truman Show delusion is not a new diagnosis, but rather, as Ian Gold says, “a variance on known persecutory and grandiose delusions.” Ian Gold, PhD, holds a Canada Research Chair in philosophy and psychiatry at McGill University in Montreal.

Although some psychologists scoff at the notion that cultural Zeitgeist can shape delusions, the phenomenon has precedence.

Joseph Weiner, MD, PhD, chief of consultation psychiatry at North Shore University Hospital/Manhasset and associate professor of clinical psychiatry and medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, weighed in via email about what he saw during his psychiatry residency.

“I recall two patients in one week who stated that they were Elizabeth Taylor; in the 1940s, psychotic patients would express delusions about their brains being controlled by radio waves; now delusional patients commonly complain about implanted computer chips,” Weiner says. “Because reality shows are so visible, it is an area that a patient can easily incorporate into a delusional system. Such a person would believe they are constantly being videotaped, watched, and commented upon by a large TV audience.”

Today on WebMD

contemplation
Differences between feeling depressed or feeling blue.
lunar eclipse
Signs of mania and depression.
 
man screaming
Causes, symptoms, and therapies.
woman looking into fridge
When food controls you.
 
Woman standing in grass field barefoot, wind blowi
Article
Plate of half eaten cakes
Article
 
Phobias
Slideshow
mother kissing newborn
Slideshow
 
Woman multitasking
Article
thumbnail_tired_woman_yawning
Article
 
colored pencils
VIDEO
Woman relaxing with a dog
Feature
 

WebMD Special Sections