THE BLOG
07/08/2016 11:59 am ET Updated Jul 08, 2017

Capgras Syndrome Or Public Delusion

Why should people imagine that public figures and celebrities have been replaced by doubles? It's a strange concept. I can understand individual psychiatric patients believing their loved ones have been replaced by exact duplicates. That is the traditional Capgras delusion, based on the 1923 case of a patient of Dr. Capgras.1 He and Dr. Reboul-Lachaux described a 53-year-old woman who thought that her husband, children, and house were replaced by doubles in 1923. The eponymous delusion had been around forever, but Capgras was the first psychiatrist to name it. The delusion fascinates me and I've written many articles about it.
Recently I've been contacted by various journalists who are also intrigued by Capgras. One informed me that there is even a website dedicated to theories about pop stars and other celebrities being replaced by exact replicas, i.e., www.Xdisciplineblogspot Another one is www.doppels.proboards.com

The stories usually sound like this: Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan, Nicolas Cage, Oprah Winfrey, or Jennifer Lawrence has died or been kidnapped and a duplicate, look-alike has stepped in to replace him or her. Conspiracy theories abound. I remember when Bob Dylan had a motor cycle accident back in 1966. Pop media declared that he had died and was replaced by a duplicate. Other articles claimed that he was just trying to escape all the media attention. Probably people couldn't adapt to the new music he was producing after he recuperated.
Capgras delusion is a rare disorder usually seen in schizophrenia, dementia, or brain-damaged patients. When the public imagines replacement happening with celebrities, I think idealization or idolization is occurring. When the idol does something we don't agree with, he must be someone else.
Idolization is the blind worship of someone or something. The public has been elevating celebrities to idols in the last few years. Perhaps because we have lost respect for authority figures, we need someone to idolize.
Idealization2 is when we only see the positive side of someone or something and ignore or minimize the negative. In psychiatry, idealization is often a defense against the anxiety of viewing the "bad" side of someone. Eventually the negative side of any person presents itself and we must deal with a less than ideal person. In Capgras delusion, the systems of idealization or idolization break down in the most bizarre way. Instead of acknowledging that everyone has a positive and negative side, the person suffering from Capgras offers a psychotic explanation that a positive person has been replaced by a negative double. In that way idealization or idolization of the person remains intact and focused on the original. The double can receive all the negative. "Normal" people can see two sides to most people and are able to admit that their idols have flaws and so they don't have to imagine a double.
Is the public becoming more deluded than ever by believing stars and celebrities have been replaced by their doubles? It wouldn't be the first time.
Three examples of past public delusions are:
1) Snake oil and other medical hoaxes
2) Public hysteria (Salem Witch Trials)
3) The meteoric rise of demagogues (Hitler, etc.)
Of course, any of these three are dangerous. If you use snake oil instead of a real medicine, you are endangering your health and life. In the Salem Witch trials, many innocent people lost their lives because the public became hysterical and hung them as witches. Demagogues like Hitler and Mussolini deluded the public into thinking some groups were so horrid they had to be rounded up and murdered.
Could Capgras delusion about public figures and celebrities be dangerous as well? For example, let's say the people were convinced that the president was a duplicate. They could storm the White House and demand the president be removed, which in turn, could de-stabilize the country, causing wars and other atrocities. It hasn't happened yet, but the public being deluded is never a good trend.