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The Attachment Theory Explanation

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The Attachment Theory Explanation

People enter into parasocial relationships because they lack something in their own lives. At least, that’s what McCutcheon (2006) suggests. What exactly might a person lack that causes them to enter into unilateral, unrequited relationships? Bowlby’s attachment theory addresses why parasocial relationships develop, and other psychologists such as McCutcheon (2006) and Kienlen et al. (1997) have also suggested we may find the answer in childhood attachment.

Attachment, Social Theory, StudySmarterSocial relationships, freepik.com/vectorjuice

Attachment theory explanation of parasocial relationships

Parasocial relationships occur when a person enters a one-sided relationship, usually with a higher-status person unaware of this infatuation. Parasocial relationships are typical for celebrities and well-known or popular people in society and fictional characters. Attachment theory states that parasocial relationships develop due to developmental problems in childhood.Bowlby’s explanation states that people who cannot form close relationships with their caregivers in childhood have difficulty forming attachments and relationships with others as they grow older.

Children form relationships with celebrities because they did not have close relationships with their parents in childhood, forming an insecure attachment to the celebrity.

Since these bonds are one-sided and the other person is usually unaware of the existence or infatuation of the particular person, they avoid the problem of rejection.

Attachment theory: Ainsworth’s attachment types

In the context of attachment, we explore Ainsworth’s (1970) attachment types. We can use these types to explain the formation of parasocial relationships because attachment theorists assume people who form parasocial relationships probably had difficulty forming attachments early in life.

Here is a recap of Ainsworth’s attachment types to jog your memory:

  • In childhood, people with an insecure-resistant attachment type are most likely to enter into a parasocial relationship because they do not risk rejection. They may engage in the clingy behaviour typical of insecure-resistant attachment (e.g., obsessively following every news story about their celebrity crush) without experiencing the pain of childhood rejection.

The attachment theory explanation, The four types of attachment, StudySmarterChart showing the four types of attachment. Created with Canva.

According to Hazan and Shaver (1987), an insecure-resistant attachment type manifests itself in adulthood through clingy, jealous behaviour that makes it difficult for them to form relationships with others, meaning they are more likely to form parasocial relationships.

Insecure-avoidant attachment types avoid all relationships, including the parasocial relationships mentioned above.

Bowlby: maternal deprivation theory

Bowlby’s (1969, 1988) maternal deprivation theory of attachment can further explain parasocial relationships. In his theory, Bowlby assumes those who do not form strong attachments in early childhood seek attachment substitutes in adulthood.

Bowlby’s maternal deprivation theory could explain parasocial relationships, as a celebrity or crush could fill in for the lack of attachment to their caregiver.

Bowlby’s internal working model could be another explanation for parasocial relationships.

The internal working model states that your first relationship, the attachment to your primary caregiver, becomes the template for all your future relationships.

Thus, if your caregiver did not comfort you, respond to your needs, or provide you with a sense of security, as with insecure-resistant attachments, you may seek out similar relationships in adulthood. A parasocial relationship reflects this attachment type because it is one-sided, meaning your ‘partner’ does not address your needs or comfort you.

Overall, Bowlby’s model suggests that, according to attachment theory, parasocial relationships develop because of a lack of close attachments in childhood. People seek attachments to celebrities because they are less likely to be rejected and form insecure attachments.

The Attachment theory explanation, Celebrity Attachment Theory, StudySmarterAttachment to celebrities, freepik.com/vectorjuice

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Attachment theory explanation of parasocial relationships: evaluation

McCutcheon et al. (2006) argued that adults with insecure attachment behaviours are more likely to develop parasocial relationships. However, they found no correlation between insecure-resistant attachment and more intense parasocial relationships. This finding contradicts the idea that attachment theory proposed that certain types of childhood experiences and their influence on attachment affect parasocial relationships in adulthood.Correlational research: most research on parasocial relationships is correlational, meaning that we cannot claim a direct cause-and-effect relationship.

For example, although Kienlen et al. (1997) found that disrupted attachment in childhood was related to the borderline pathological disorder, this was only a correlation and not a direct cause and effect, meaning that we cannot scientifically say that disrupted attachment causes intense parasocial relationships.No single attachment style profile could be correlated with pathological behaviours.

However, Cole and Leets (1999) examined the parasocial relationships that teenagers with TV personalities developed. To do this, they used 115 student participants who completed the parasocial scale and two attachment style questionnaires. They found individuals with anxious-ambivalent attachment styles were more likely to develop parasocial relationships, while avoidant styles were least likely to develop parasocial behaviours. This supports the idea that attachment styles influence the development of parasocial relationships.Similarly, Roberts (2007) found that individuals with insecure attachment were more likely to have some form of contact with celebrities.

The Attachment Theory Explanation - Key takeaways

  • Attachment theory states that people with insecure resistant attachment types are most likely to form borderline pathological parasocial relationships.
  • Parasocial relationships are when a person develops a one-sided relationship, usually with a higher-status person unaware of this infatuation. Parasocial relationships are typical for celebrities and well-known or popular people in society and fictional characters.
  • Attachment theory states parasocial relationships develop due to developmental problems in childhood.
  • Ainsworth’s attachment types explore attachment problems in childhood. People with an insecure-resistant attachment type in childhood are most likely to enter into a parasocial relationship because they do not risk rejection.
  • Bowlby’s (1969, 1988) maternal deprivation theory of attachment can further explain parasocial relationships. In his theory, Bowlby assumes those who do not form strong attachments in early childhood will seek attachment substitutes in adulthood.
  • Overall, Bowlby’s model suggests that, according to attachment theory, parasocial relationships develop because of a lack of strong attachments in childhood. People seek attachments to celebrities because they are less likely to be rejected and form insecure attachments.
  • McCutcheon et al. (2006) found no association between insecure-resistant attachment and more intense levels of parasocial relationships. However, Cole and Leets (1999) found individuals with anxious-ambivalent attachment styles were more likely to develop parasocial relationships.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Attachment Theory Explanation

Although there is much research support from Kienlen and Cole, and Leets, much of this research is correlational and thus not very valid. Also, research from McCutcheon showed no correlation between insecure-resistant attachments and parasocial relationships. 

According to Hazan and Shaver (1987), an insecure-resistant attachment type manifests in adulthood through clingy, jealous behaviour, making it difficult for them to form relationships with other people, meaning that they are more likely to form parasocial relationships.


If you suffered maternal deprivation, i.e. if your caregiver did not comfort you, respond to your needs, or provide you with a sense of security, as with insecure-resistant attachments, you may seek out similar relationships in adulthood. A parasocial relationship reflects this attachment type because it is one-sided, meaning your ‘partner’ does not address your needs or comfort you.


Although there is much research support from Kienlen and Cole and Leets, much of this research is correlational and thus not very valid. Also, research from McCutcheon showed no correlation between insecure-resistant attachments and parasocial relationships.

Attachment theory states that your early attachments can affect your behaviour and relationships in adult life. 

The main idea of attachment theory is that your early attachments can affect your behaviour and relationships in adult life.

The attachment theory is important because it can help to explain why early life experiences can influence our later behaviour. 

Final The Attachment Theory Explanation Quiz

Question

What did McCutcheon (2006) suggest about parasocial relationships?

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Answer

McCutcheon (2006) suggested that people form Parasocial Relationships due to things lacking in their own lives 

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Question

What are parasocial relationships?

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Answer

Parasocial relationships are where a person develops a one-sided relationship, usually with someone of higher status who is not aware of this infatuation. This is seen typically in celebrities, as well as people in the community who are well-known or liked, and fictional characters.  

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Question

What does attachment theory suggest about parasocial relationships?

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Answer

Attachment theory suggests parasocial relationships develop as a result of childhood development issues. 

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Question

What does Bowlby specifically suggest about childhood attachment and parasocial relationships?

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Answer

Specifically, Bowlby's explanation suggests that people who fail to form close relationships with their caregivers when they're young, struggle to bond and establish relationships with others when they grow older.  

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Question

What is Ainsworth's insecure-resistant type of attachment style?

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Answer

Exhibit clingy behaviours but then rejects caregiver, not comforted by caregiver, non-exploratory, difficult to soothe.

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Question

What did Hazan and Shaver (1987) suggest about how an insecure-resistant attachment style in adulthood?


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Answer

An insecure-resistant attachment type manifests in adulthood through clingy, jealous behaviour which makes it difficult for them to form relationships with other people, meaning that they are more likely to form parasocial relationships.  

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Question

Bowlby's ______ deprivation theory suggests that those who do not form strong attachments in early life will seek out attachment substitutes in adulthood.  

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Answer

maternal

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Question

What does the internal working model state about future relationships?

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Answer

The internal working model states as your first relationship, your attachment to your primary caregiver become a template for all your future relationship 

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Question

According to the internal working model, if your caregiver did not comfort you, did not respond to your needs or make you feel secure, you will ______.

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Answer

seek out similar relationships in adulthood.  

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Question

What did McCutcheon et al. (2006) find in their study?

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Answer

They found no correlation between insecure-resistant attachment and more intense levels of parasocial relationships 

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Question

What did Cole and Leets (1999) find in their study?

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Answer

They found that those with anxious-ambivalent attachment types were more likely to develop parasocial relationships, and avoidant styles were least likely to develop parasocial behaviours. 

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Question

Kienlen et al. (1997) found that ______ childhood attachment was linked to a borderline pathological disorder 


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Answer

disturbed

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What did Roberts (2007) find in their study?

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Answer

Roberts (2007) fond that insecurely attached people were more likely to engage in some form of contact with celebrities. 


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Question

What's an issue with the correlational research into parasocial relationships?

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Answer

Most research into parasocial relationships is correlational meaning that we cannot claim direct cause and effect relationships in the research. 

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Question

Why would children form a parasocial relationship with a celebrity when they grow up, according to attachment theory?

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Answer

Children form relationships with celebrities because they didn't have close relationships with their parents when they were young, so they form an insecure attachment to the celebrity.  

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