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- In the film “The Truman Show,” Jim Carrey plays a man who is an unknowing star of a TV show. His life is streamed to an audience at all times.
- The movie spawned a moniker for a psychological delusion in which patients believe they’re being watched or controlled: the “Truman Show delusion.”
- A psychiatrist who has treated patients with this delusion says the condition existed long before the movie came out. Throughout history, some people have felt controlled by the technology of the day.
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An iconic scene in the 1998 film “The Truman Show” depicts actor Jim Carrey painting on a bathroom mirror with a bar of soap. Carrey, who plays Truman, outlines an astronaut helmet around the reflection of his head, then winks at the mirror (which obscures a hidden camera) and says, “That one’s for free.”
The scene marks a turning point: Truman has realized that his world is not real. Instead, he is the unknowing star of a TV show streamed to viewers around the clock. Everything he does is captured on camera, and every person he interacts with – including his wife and best friend – are paid actors. Truman’s tiny hometown sits inside a dome controlled by TV producers.
Since the movie came out, it has lent its name to a real psychological condition: Those who believe their entire lives are being watched or filmed suffer from the “Truman Show delusion.”
“I’ve treated a number of young men who all believe their lives were reality television shows,” Joel Gold, a psychiatrist at the New York University School of Medicine, told Business Insider. Gold and his brother, Ian, coined the term the “Truman Show delusion” in 2008.
He said they’ve encountered this type of paranoia in hundreds of patients, many of whom reference the movie.
“They said to me, ‘Do you know that movie ‘The Truman Show?” and I said yes,” Gold recounted. “And they said, ‘That’s my life.'”
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The Golds don’t think the film gave rise to a new type of delusion; rather, it’s a new iteration of a type of paranoid delusion that has plagued people for generations. Throughout history, some people have felt controlled by whatever the technology of the day happened to be.
“Back in the day, people felt they were being controlled by magnetic rays, mesmerism, microwaves, or influencing machines,” Gold said.
In the years after “The Truman Show” came out, he added, it was closed-circuit TV and cameras. Now, the delusion may be evolving again.
‘You’re an actor playing a psychiatrist’
In psychology, delusions are personal ideas or belief systems that people maintain with conviction in spite of evidence to the contrary. They are symptoms of mental illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Sometimes, patients’ delusions can improve or abate with psychotherapy or drugs, but delusions often tend to be chronic.
Gold said he first came across a patient with what he and his brother would later label the “Truman Show delusion” at Bellevue Hospital in New York City around Halloween 2003.
“The first time I experienced it, I was fascinated but didn’t think much of it,” he said. “By the time we got to five patients, I said, ‘This is something unusual.'”
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Gold spent the next 11 years studying the phenomenon – a type of paranoid psychosis. He and his brother published a book, “Suspicious Minds,” in 2014 that details the ways the delusion manifests in psychiatric patients. Typically, these patients think one of a few things, according to Gold: The people in their lives aren’t real, they’re constantly being watched, or they don’t have control over their lives.
Gold estimated that he “probably gets an email a week from someone saying, ‘I have this’ or have had it.”
He said patients have told him, “you’re an actor playing a psychiatrist,” or “my friends and family are actors reading from scripts,” or “whole world is watching, and I have no privacy whatsoever.”
Some of these patients feel obstacles are intentionally being put in their way by some external force, preventing them getting promoted or being with someone they love. (In “The Truman Show,” the producers remove the woman Truman loves from the cast to ensure he ends up with the actress they selected to be his love interest.)
One particular patient, Gold said, thought his life was a story akin to the 2001 movie “Rat Race,” in which strangers compete in a scavenger hunt for $2 million while a group of rich men take bets on the outcome.
“A guy we call ‘Ethan’ in our book was a young man who believed he was being watched – primarily on laptops – and people would bet on his behaviors,” Gold said.
Ethan believed that decisions like whether to order pizza or Chinese food would garner big winnings for people in a far-off room, and a cut of that money would go to charity.
“Though it was painful for him to have no privacy, he believed that he was doing something for the greater good, which gave him some solace,” Gold said.
A new version of the ‘Truman Show delusion’ could involve video games
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In the case of his patients in the early 2000s, the “Truman Show delusion” was tied to a sense of “being controlled through people watching you via things like CCTV in a surveillance society,” Gold said.
But two decades later, the dominant technology has shifted. Video games, in particular giant, multi-player games that involve hundreds of thousands of users signing into the same game world, have skyrocketed in popularity.
This summer, Ryan Reynolds is set to release a film called “Free Guy” in which he plays a bank teller whose bank gets robbed 17 times per day, every day. Eventually, Reynolds’ character, named Guy, realizes that he’s a non-player character in a video game.
The movie then follows Guy’s journey as he tries to break free of his programming and befriend a “real” person playing the game.
- Kirsten Acuna/Insider, Fox
Gold hasn’t seen the movie yet, of course, but he said Guy’s experience is reminiscent of Truman’s.
“I’m not a gamer,” Gold said, “but this is an example of people being controlled in a concrete way.”
In fact, one patient described in Gold’s book, nicknamed Lawrence, believed he was living in a video game that had been programmed by aliens in the future. Lawrence reached out to Gold with concerns that he lacked free will.
It’s all about free will, or a lack thereof
To Gold, concerns about an absence of free will are at the crux of the “Truman Show delusion.”
His patients, he said, grapple with the question: “Do I have free will or am I just a bunch of molecules bouncing around?”
Patients who think “someone at a distance is moving my body for using a machine or putting thoughts in my brain,” Gold added, realize they have no control and are plunged into mental anguish because of that.
“It feels like they discover something they were not in on before: I thought I had free will. Now, I discover I haven’t had it. And now I try to gain it for the first time,” he said.
Truman, similarly, has “the gradual realization that his life is counterfeit” in “The Truman Show,” Gold said, as does Reynolds’ character in “Free Guy.”
- The Truman Show
Gold said he doesn’t know whether “Free Guy” will come to be as frequently referenced by psychiatric patients as “The Truman Show.” But he certainly sees parallels.
“I don’t know if there will be a ‘Free Guy delusion’ and if I should copyright that now, or leave it to another psychologist to write about,” Gold said.