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Parasocial Relationships: I Get by with a Little Help from My (TV) Friends

Lately it seems like everywhere I turn, someone is talking about a TV show reunion. From Seinfeld to Friends, Sex and the City to 90210, the rumors circulate, even in the face of stars vigorously denying the possibility.  What would make us miss our favorite TV characters so much that, despite the stars’ protests, we still hold out hope of celebrities reviving their beloved roles? The answer may lie in our need to belong.

As discussed previously, humans have a fundamental need for social connections. This drive evolved much like our other basic needs and serves to facilitate our survival. People only truly thrive when they are able to form and maintain interpersonal relationships and when deprived of closeness, people show a host of negative physical and mental symptoms.1

Interestingly, when the need to belong is unmet, people may seek to fulfill this drive through “relationships” with their favorite TV personalities. Find this hard to believe? Just think back to a time when you waited with bated-breathe to see how a character’s life would unfold. You may have found yourself laughing, crying, or shocked by their antics. Much like our real life relationships, overtime we become invested in and more committed to these parasocial relationships.2,3 Although people understand that these affiliations are one-sided, they nonetheless feel a sense of connection to their onscreen friends.

More recently, researchers have advanced a Social Surrogacy Hypothesis that claims parasocial relationships help to fend off real life rejection.4 To illustrate what this means, let’s imagine that you recently experienced a break-up. You may start feeling sad, lonely, and depressed. Psychologists would urge you to turn to your friends and family to help fill the void caused by the loss of your partner. In line with the social surrogacy hypothesis, you may also find comfort in your parasocial relationships. In fact, studies show that thinking about these faux relationships actually bolsters self-esteem and elevates mood. 

Although researchers are still unpacking why media personalities may help to fulfill belongingness needs, feeling connected to TV personas is not new. I remember my parents expressing a sense of loss at the end of their long-term relationships with cherished shows like Cheers and Taxi. As I count down the final episodes of a series, like True Blood, that I’ve become invested in, I am reminded that I may miss these characters more than I imagined. Not only will I be searching for something to fill my Sunday night timeslot, but also a replacement for the parasocial connections that I have forged with characters like Sookie, Bill, and Eric. 

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1Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: Desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117(3), 497-529.

2Horton, D., & Wohl, R. R. (1956). Mass communication and para-social interaction: Observations on intimacy at a distance. Psychiatry, 19, 215-229.

3Branch, S. E., Wilson, K. M., Agnew, C. R. (2013). Committed to Oprah, Homer, or House: Using the investment model to understand parasocial relationships. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 2, 96-109.

4Derrick, J. L., Gabriel, S., & Hugenberg, K. (2009). Social surrogacy: How favored television programs provide the experience of belonging.  Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45, 352-362.

Dr. Sadie Leder-Elder - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr. Leder-Elder's research focuses on how people balance their desires for closeness and protection against rejection, specifically during partner selection, goal negotiation within established romantic relationships, and the experience of romantic love, hurt feelings, and relationship rekindling. Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

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