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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?

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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.

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