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Mental Health Center

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.
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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.”

Among the skeptics are Jill P. Weber, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist in Vienna, Va. “The idea that more people are becoming delusional due to reality TV or The Truman Show phenomenon is tenuous, as it is likely that these people would have become psychotic with or without these influences, but the content of the delusion would be different. If we lived in a world of no TV, and entertainment was in the form of tribal dance, someone who is psychotic may begin to believe that the dance is only for them.”

Still, other experts acknowledge the possibility.

Simon Rego, PsyD, associate director of psychology training at New York’s Montefiore Medical Center, is intrigued by the notion but wants to see if more patients emerge in other cities and countries over time.

“We know that although core themes are quite stable, shifts take place,” he says. “For example, after 9/11, we saw a lot of delusional content about terrorists. With the exponential growth of reality TV and the use of personal web cams and Facebook, some people may be susceptible to developing Truman Show delusion. The danger is self-labeling -- that we are creating a phenomenon -- not discovering one. There’s a difference.”

Carole Lieberman, MD, a Beverly Hills-based media psychiatrist, says, “There is no question that reality TV is dangerous to our nation’s psyche. The Truman Show delusion has not been incorporated into the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of the American Psychiatric Association, and it is unlikely that it will be anytime soon. However, this doesn’t necessarily negate the clinical experiences of the Drs. Gold.”

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