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The Trouble with "Main Character Syndrome"

Is living your life online, as if you are a fictional character, a good idea?

Key points

  • Main character syndrome is when somebody presents, or imagines, themself as the lead in a sort of fictional version of their life.
  • Digital communication platforms make it easier for people to fall into the trap of main character syndrome.
  • Main character syndrome could share traits with psychological problems like narcissistic personality disorder for a minority of people.
Source: GaudiLab/Shutterstock

Every few months, there appears a new problem or syndrome allegedly arising from social media usage. This may either say something about the dangers of the technology, our fears of the new, or both. The latest of these to emerge is called "main character syndrome." Currently, main character syndrome is a vague term, which has more media, and social media, usage than scientific. The term refers to a wide range of behaviours and thoughts, but, at root, it is when somebody presents, or imagines, themself as the lead in a sort of fictional version of their life (usually their own, although sometimes, disturbingly, somebody else’s), and presents that "life" through social media.

We should be clear that main character syndrome is not the same as a self-presentation strategy. Here, a person focuses on one or more aspects of themself that they hope fits the situation, often to their own advantage. Clearly, almost everybody presents different aspects of themselves in different situations and contexts. Adopting different behaviours from our repertoires, in different contexts, in order to highlight aspects of our own personality, is entirely acceptable. In fact, this may make social interactions easier and safer. In contrast, those with main character syndrome seem to want to be somebody else entirely. So, while almost everybody will self-present, to some extent, not everybody has main character syndrome.

Moreover, highlighting particular aspects of a personality does not have the same function as main character syndrome—that is to say, main character syndrome is not done for the same reasons as self-presentational alterations. Perhaps an interesting parallel to main character syndrome to think about, and that illustrates this difference, is its similarities with Munchausen syndrome. Although Munchausen syndrome is purely about faking illness, it is a way to deal with emotional difficulties—self-presentation strategies are not. Main character syndrome may just be taking that sort of behaviour a bit further into all aspects of a person’s life.

Leaving aside the extreme Munchausen parallels, if you are asking whether a digital fantasy-life is really a problem, then think about this sort of behaviour being transplanted from social media into the real world. Imagine how it would look, and how you would feel if you witnessed it, especially in one you know well. This exercise very quickly illustrates that somebody behaving in this way in the real world would be thought of as doing something quite peculiar. Now, that can sometimes show us that the real world has a problem, and we need to think about our attitudes or norms; however, in the case of main character syndrome, it is unlikely that this caveat applies.

This type of fantasy behaviour is only new in that it is now being done through social media. There are countless non-digital examples of people reinventing themselves, or presenting false versions of themselves—like the fictional Baron Munchausen, himself, or as in Frank Harris’ My Reminiscences as a Cowboy. We also need to be careful to distinguish main character syndrome from reinventing a "persona" for professional entertainers—although there are plenty of examples of where that has gone terribly wrong, too. Social media just makes it very much easier and quicker for anybody to present a false version of themself. There are parallels with fake news—again, not a new phenomenon, but one that social media facilitates.

Digital communication platforms make it easier for people to fall into the trap of main character syndrome. The anonymity afforded by digital communication allows people to reinvent themselves, or, in extreme and potentially dangerous cases, to present entirely false versions of themselves, much more easily. The lack of direct and corrective face-to-face feedback enables this behaviour to persist. As a parallel, it is worth noting that the ease of lying over the internet may have encouraged "Munchausen by Internet."

People are rapidly reinforced for their behaviour on social media platforms. Sometimes this leads them into being manipulated by others into more and more outrageous behaviours in order to obtain the social approval that they may crave but otherwise lack. Predators use the internet, and will manipulate vulnerable others into acting in ways they would not normally. We see this with people being sexually exploited by being encouraged to engage in inappropriate behaviours for attention. They are then horribly treated and targeted afterwards. There is psychopathy in these manipulations, and these predators usually show elements of the dark triad—psychopathy, Machiavellianism, and narcissism. There may not be many "pros" to main character syndrome—and the bullying and derision that it can lead to just illustrate another "con."

It could be (somewhat brutally) suggested that main character syndrome, itself, shares traits with psychological problems, like narcissistic personality disorder, and any disorder involving delusions. I suspect that this is only the case for a minority of people indulging in main character syndrome, but there is a suggestion that this type of fantasy can lead to behaviours that eventually mimic those seen in personality disorders, if it becomes too ingrained. Escape-maintained fantasy behaviours may also be a severe problem for those vulnerable to developing psychological issues, like anxiety and depression, and not just personality disorders.

Some view main character syndrome as a form of empowerment—a way of reinventing oneself to take control—but this is just adding to the problems of that person. If somebody needs to reinvent themself, then there is more than likely something fundamentally wrong with their life and/or their living environment. Developing a digital fantasy-life is, at best, a distraction, that will fuel further problems, and prevent the person from addressing what needs to be addressed.

The suggestion that main character syndrome is a form of mindfulness, allowing people to live in the moment, has also been made. This claim is interesting, but I think wrong. Mindfulness is about being aware of the realities of your present, noticing your environment, and freeing yourself from past influences. In the case of main character syndrome, you are removing yourself from the reality by imagining it to be different than it is—or, at least, presenting yourself to be in a different reality than you are.

Thus, we need to be clear that main character syndrome, in so far as we can define it, is a different sort of thing to a self-presentation strategy, and, to the extent it removes people from considering their real situation, will have to be harmful on the whole. It would be great if there were more research to draw on regarding main character syndrome, but, once again, we are playing catch-up with an incredibly fast-moving digital world.

Facebook image: GaudiLab/Shutterstock

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