Parasocial Relationships

Have you ever had a crush on a celebrity who did not know you existed? Whether you stan TikTokers, idolise your favourite K-pop band or can't stop watching TV shows with your favourite actor in them, it's likely that you've experienced parasocial relationships. Let's explore the curious concept of these one-sided relationships in psychology

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Table of contents
    • First, we'll introduce the concept of parasocial relationships in psychology and differentiate between the three levels of parasocial relationships.
    • Next, we'll outline the psychological explanations of parasocial relationships, including the absorption addiction model of parasocial relationships and the attachment theory explanation.
    • Then, we'll apply these explanations to parasocial relationship examples.

    • Finally, we'll summarise the potential benefits of parasocial relationships and discuss the negative effects of parasocial relationships.

    Parasocial relationships, crowd of fans making heart gestures above their head, StudySmarter Fig. 1: Developing feelings of connection towards celebrities is common among fans.

    Parasocial Relationships Psychology

    The typical social relationships we have with our friends, family or partners, are characterised by reciprocity; two people are mutually involved in developing and maintaining the connection. So, how is it that we can develop feelings of connection and attachment to media figures or even fictional characters that we don't actually have reciprocal interactions with?

    These types of one-sided relationships with people that we will never meet are called parasocial relationships.

    Parasocial relationships occur when we develop a feeling of connection to a media figure (e.g. celebrity) or fictional character. These relationships are one-sided, as the subject of our attachment is unlikely to reciprocate our feelings or even know of our existence.

    Despite the lack of reciprocity, parasocial relationships can feel as real and meaningful to us as any other relationship. We might feel like we deeply know the person we adore, even if they have never heard of us.

    The role of media has always been crucial for the development of parasocial relationships, but this role has certainly evolved over time.

    • At first, the celebrities or characters could interact with their fanbase through books, newspapers, radio and television.
    • The character of these interactions was completely one-directional, but nowadays with the development of the internet and social media, we all can to some extent interact with media figures and their content.

    Mediated relationships are a broad category of relationships where the interaction between the people involved occurs through media rather than face-to-face.

    Even though parasocial relationships are often mediated nowadays, not all mediated relationships qualify as parasocial.

    For example, you can have a bidirectional friendship with someone over social media, this would be a mediated but not a parasocial relationship.

    Also, not all parasocial relationships are mediated, for example, you can develop a feeling of connection to a performer that you saw somewhere in real life.

    The Three Levels of Parasocial Relationships

    McCutcheon et al. (2002) established the Celebrity Attitude Scale (CAS), identifying three levels of parasocial relationships:

    1. Entertainment-Social – The least intense level, where celebrities serve only to entertain. At this level, people don't tend to have strong feelings or attachments towards the celebrity/character.

    2. Intense-Personal – At this level, people develop a sense of greater personal connection with the celebrity. They might feel compelled to learn more about their life and personality, they might idolise them or start to mirror them, developing obsessive thoughts.

    3. Borderline Pathological This is the most intense level, which can include obsessive fantasies and extreme behaviour. This extreme behaviour may include financial investments, such as spending a lot of money to see the person or get their attention, or illegal behaviour, such as stalking. At this level, it is also common for the fan to believe their feelings will be reciprocated when they meet the target of their adoration.

    An example of an entertainment-social level of parasocial relationships would be if you followed the Kardashians because you find them entertaining. You might also find this family to be a fun subject for you to discuss with your friends and gossip about.

    Let's consider an example of the intense-personal level of a parasocial relationship. You became attached to one of your favourite content creators on Twitch. You feel a need to watch all their streams and binge-watch all their videos on other platforms.

    You perceive them as perfect and truly feel like they are someone you could bond with in real life, and you begin to adopt their mannerisms, such as speech patterns and phrases.

    The Absorption Addiction Model of Parasocial Relationships

    McCutcheon et al. (2002) investigated the character of parasocial relationships and put forward an absorption-addiction model to explain how they develop and evolve.

    • They identified that people who lack meaningful relationships in their personal life, or feel their lives are lacking and appear to be more introverted, are more prone to develop parasocial relationships. Celebrities become sources of fulfilment.

    These relationships start with an absorption phase, the individual starts to derive fulfilment from allocating their attention to the celebrity, and they enjoy learning about them and following their life.

    With time, they might develop a need to seek greater connection with the celebrity and develop delusional beliefs about their relationship with them.

    For example, they feel like they intimately know and understand them.

    With time, as these delusions are reinforced through further absorption, seeking a connection with the person can become an obsession.

    The phase that follows is addiction. The authors see addiction as a coping mechanism with identity deficits, or lack of social roles that could be a source of fulfilment. The individual begins to compulsively seek fulfilment through the parasocial relationship.

    • When they develop a tolerance to the old ways of seeking a connection to the celebrity, they are compelled to look for more extreme ways to engage with them.

    Parasocial relationships, person holding a a smartphone with showing an Instagram page with tall buildings in the background, StudySmarterFig. 2: Nowadays social media gives us even greater opportunities to become absorbed in the life of media figures,.

    The Attachment Theory Explanation of Parasocial Relationships

    Another explanation for parasocial relationships comes from Bowlby's (1969) theory of attachment and Ainsworth's (1978) studies on the quality of attachment.

    1. Bowlby proposed that we have an innate instinct to form a relational bond with our caregiver in childhood. This bond is formed through proximity-seeking behaviour and helps to ensure that the child's needs which depend on the caregiver are met.
    2. Ainsworth identified three types of attachment in children: secure attachment, anxious-avoidant attachment and anxious-resistant (ambivalent) attachment. It's been found that children who develop a secure attachment in childhood have better outcomes in their romantic relationships in the future. In contrast, insecurely attached people might develop behaviours to protect themselves from rejection, that actually harms the quality of their future relationships.

    Based on the attachment theory, people who did not develop a secure attachment with their parents might be more likely to look for parasocial relationships to compensate for that, especially if they are struggling to form relationships in their personal lives.

    It's been proposed that insecure-resistant people are most prone to develop parasocial relationships, which might be less threatening than real ones due to a lower risk of rejection.

    Parasocial Relationships Examples

    Consider the following example of a parasocial relationship. In our example, David is facing issues with his relationships.

    David started following a gaming YouTube channel over the Covid-19 quarantine. He felt connected to the YouTuber as he would spend hours watching him live at a time when he felt very isolated from the rest of the world. David's parents often ignored him.

    After a few months, David became obsessed with the YouTuber. He tried to contact him by reaching out to his friends on social media, tried finding his personal information, and eventually moved on to stalking.

    When some people on the internet accused the YouTuber of problematic behaviour, David harassed them on social media, spread false information about them or even revealed their address to the rest of the world. All in hopes to get the attention and support of the YouTuber in return for his loyalty.

    How could the absorption addiction model explain this example?

    • David was prone to forming a strong parasocial relationship due to feelings of isolation and perhaps a lack of meaningful relationships in his life at the time.
    • He was quickly absorbed into the life of the YouTuber, to maintain the fulfilment he looked for increasingly more extreme ways to connect with him and developed delusions about what actions would bring them closer together.

    If we look at this example through the attachment theory, we could hypothesise that David did not form a healthy attachment to his parents, this could result in him having difficulty in personal relationships and making him look for ways to fulfil his attachment needs without the threat of rejection. The level of attachment he developed to the YouTuber was so intense that it drove him to engage in aggressive behaviour that put other people in danger.

    Are there any Benefits of Parasocial Relationships?

    Generally, parasocial relationships can be beneficial to our well-being and add rather than take away from our social lives. They are often a source of entertainment, which can help us manage stress.

    • The media figures we feel connected to can also become positive role models for us and be a source of inspiration.

    From an attachment perspective, the mental representation of the subject of our parasocial relationship can be used as a source of emotional support or protection, similar to how the mental representation of a caregiver can be soothing.

    As long as the parasocial relationship doesn't take over your life, or lead you to delusions or extreme behaviour, it's definitely not always a bad thing.

    What About the Negative Effects of Parasocial Relationships?

    Parasocial relationships often become a problem at the Pathological-Borderline level. At that point, they can start to interfere with one's everyday life and even disrupt existing social relationships.

    For example, they can lead to extreme behaviours like reckless spending or even illegal behaviour.

    Parasocial relationships at an extreme level can result in stalking of the celebrity.

    For some, intense parasocial attachment can deepen feelings of loneliness and have negative psychological consequences.

    If the parasocial relationship leads a person to spend more and more time-consuming media, it can be further isolating and prevent social interactions.


    Parasocial Relationships - Key takeaways

    • Parasocial relationships occur when we develop a feeling of connection to a media figure (e.g. celebrity) or fictional character.
    • These relationships are one-sided; the subject of the fan's attachment is unlikely to reciprocate their feelings or even know of their existence.
    • Parasocial relationships are different to mediated relationships. Three levels of parasocial relationships have been identified: Entertainment-social, intense-personal and borderline-pathological.
    • McCutcheon, Lange and Houran (2002) put forward an absorption-addiction model, this model identifies individual characteristics that make people engage in intense parasocial relationships and describes how such relationships can progress to extreme levels.
    • Based on the attachment theory, people who did not develop a secure attachment with their parents might be more likely to look for parasocial relationships to compensate for that. It's been proposed that insecure-resistant people are most prone to develop intense parasocial relationships.

    References

    1. Giles, D.C., & Maltby, J. (2006). Praying at the altar of the stars.
    2. McCutcheon, L. E., Lange, R., & Houran, J. (2002). Conceptualization and measurement of celebrity worship. British journal of psychology (London, England : 1953), 93(Pt 1), 67–87. https://doi.org/10.1348/000712602162454
    3. Cohen, J. (2004). Parasocial Break-Up from Favorite Television Characters: The Role of Attachment Styles and Relationship Intensity. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 21(2), 187–202. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407504041374
    4. Maltby, J., Giles, D. C., Barber, L., & McCutcheon, L. E. (2005). Intense-personal celebrity worship and body image: evidence of a link among female adolescents. British journal of health psychology, 10(Pt 1), 17–32. https://doi.org/10.1348/135910704X15257
    5. Greenwood, D. N., & Long, C. R. (2009). Psychological predictors of media involvement: Solitude experiences and the need to belong. Communication Research, 36(5), 637–654. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093650209338906
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Parasocial Relationships

    What is a parasocial relationship?

    Parasocial relationships occur when we develop a feeling of connection to a media figure (e.g. celebrity) or fictional character. These relationships are one-sided, the subject of the fan's attachment is unlikely to reciprocate their feelings or even know of their existence. 

    What are the levels of parasocial relationships?

    The levels of parasocial relationships are entertainment-social, intense-personal, and borderline-pathological. 

    Are parasocial relationships dangerous?

    Parasocial relationships can lead to extreme behaviours such as stalking or spending a lot of money to show one's dedication to the celebrity. However, parasocial relationships don't involve dangerous behaviour for most people.

    How celebrities use parasocial relationships?

    The celebrities can use parasocial relationships to advance their careers. Having a dedicated fanbase that will support their activities and business ventures is definitely an asset.

    What is the difference between social cognitive theory and parasocial relationships?

    Social cognitive theory describes how the models in our life can influence our behaviour, while parasocial relationships refer to the connection we develop to media figures or fictional characters.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    When did McCutcheon et al. propose the absorption addiction model?

    Absorption is a form of _______.

    The absorption addiction model is problematic because it is _______.

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