The Truman Show Delusion

by Rob Horning

25 July 2008


It was only a matter of time before this started to happen. BoingBoing linked to this National Post article about psychologists who have identified a new syndrome in which sufferers believe they are the star of a reality TV show—that they are under constant surveillance and the people they know are actually actors and so on. They have dubbed it the Truman Show Delusion.

While traditionalists insist that this delusion offers nothing new—it is no different from, say, a deranged man who believes that the CIA has planted a microchip in his tooth—the Gold brothers argue otherwise. “It’s really a question of the extent of the delusion,” said Joel Gold, 39, who has been on staff at New York’s Bellevue Hospital Center for eight years. “The delusions we typically treat are narrow: There is Capgras Delusion, where someone will think his family has been replaced by doubles. Or the Fregoli Delusion, where someone believes that one person is persecuting him: a doctor, mailman, butcher. The Truman Show Delusion, though, involves the entire world.”

The doctors who named the syndrome link it to social networking and YouTube-level self-publicity.

Ian Gold, who holds a Canada Research Chair in philosophy and psychiatry at McGill University, added that there are unprecedented cultural triggers that might explain the phenomenon: the pressure of living in a large, connected community can bring out the unstable side of more vulnerable people.
“The wish for fame is a form of grandiosity, and the fear of threats such as surveillance can bring about paranoia,” said the Montrealbased Dr. Gold, 46, who specializes in delusion.
“New media is opening up vast social spaces that might be interacting with psychological processes.”

That last sentence in many ways sums up the point I was trying to make in several dozen posts about social networking. Perhaps because the way technological innovations are publicized, we have a tendency to assume they are tools, passively waiting there for us to employ them to improve our lives. But they obviously begin to reshape us in light of their possibilities, and in that dialectic much can go awry.

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