What Is a Parasocial Relationship?

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A parasocial relationship is a one-sided relationship that a media user engages in with a media persona.

Media users can form parasocial relationships with celebrities, live-action fictional characters, social media influencers, animated characters, and any other figure they encounter through media, including movies, TV shows, podcasts, radio talk shows, or social media platforms, such as Twitter, Instagram, or TikTok.

While the research on parasocial relationships typically focuses on friendship-like bonds between a media user and a favored media persona, media users may also form negative parasocial relationships and even romantic parasocial relationships with different media figures.

History of Parasocial Relationships

Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl originated the concept of parasocial relationships in 1956, when they published their seminal article "Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a Distance" in the journal Psychiatry.

As the title of the article suggests, along with parasocial relationships, Horton and Wohl also introduced the concept of parasocial interaction, which they defined as the approximation of "conversational give and take" between a media user and media persona.

Unlike parasocial relationships, which extend beyond a single media interaction and psychologically operate much like a real-life relationship, parasocial interactions take place exclusively while interacting with a persona via media and psychologically resemble real-life face-to-face interactions.

For example, if you feel like you're one of the gang while watching the characters from Friends spend time together at the Central Perk, you're experiencing a parasocial interaction. If you continue to think about Rachel, Chandler, Monica, or one of the other members of the group after you've finished the episode, maybe even reference their behavior on the show as if they are someone you know, you've formed a parasocial relationship with that Friends character.

Despite the differences between these concepts, scholars often used the ideas of parasocial interactions and parasocial relationships interchangeably, leading to some confusion in the research literature. More recently, however, scholars have come to the conclusion that although parasocial interaction and parasocial relationships are related, they are distinct concepts.

In addition, the concept of parasocial connections has been extended by media psychologist Gayle Stever to include parasocial attachments. Based on the theory of attachment originated by Bowlby, which describes the deep bonds formed between caregivers and children as well as between romantic partners, parasocial attachment happens when a media "persona becomes a source of comfort, felt security, and safe haven."

Like parasocial interactions and relationships, parasocial attachments function similarly to attachments in real-life and, therefore, an important component of parasocial attachments is proximity seeking.

However, instead of direct interaction, the proximity in parasocial attachments is achieved through mediated means, such as watching and rewatching particular fictional characters in a movie or TV show or keeping up with media personalities' social media accounts.

How Do Parasocial Relationships Form?

Like in-person relationships, parasocial relationships start when a media user meets and gets acquainted with a media persona. If the persona makes an impression that causes the media user to think about them beyond the interaction, parasocial interactions can lead to a parasocial relationship.

In turn, parasocial relationships can be strengthened by further parasocial interactions, sometimes leading to parasocial attachment.

Moreover, if the parasocial relationship ends, either because the media figure dies, the show or movie series they appear in ends, or the media user decides they no longer wish to engage with the media persona, the media user can go through a parasocial breakup.

Research has found that people respond to the loss of a parasocial relationship in ways that are similar to the loss of a social relationship. For example, when the TV show Friends ended, those with the strongest parasocial relationships with one of the characters expressed the most distress.

Why Do We Form Parasocial Relationships?

At first blush it may seem strange that media users form parasocial relationships despite their lack of reciprocity, but it's important to remember that humans are evolutionarily wired to make social connections. Media is a fairly recent development in human history and hasn't yet had an outsized impact on our evolution, Instead, the social characteristics we've evolved to ensure we form interpersonal relationships have been extended to media use.

In particular, humans tend to pay special attention to other humans' faces and voices. For centuries, the only faces and voices we regularly encountered were those of the people in our daily lives. That changed starting in the early 20th century with the advent of radio and movies, and by the time television became widely available, the number of faces and voices one could become familiar with through media had grown exponentially.

However, our brains never evolved to distinguish between people who we see and hear through media and those we see and hear in our real lives. Therefore, we process and respond to these encounters in the same way, leading to parasocial phenomena in all its forms.

Consequently, while psychological research has sometimes attempted to pathologize parasocial relationships, most scholars now agree that engaging in parasocial connections is normal, and something that a majority of media users do. Furthermore, most people are aware that their relationships with media figures are not real even though this knowledge doesn't prevent them from reacting as if they were.

Impact of Parasocial Relationships

Research has shown that parasocial relationships can impact media users in a number of ways. In a recent review of the literature, Liebers and Schramm found that if an individual has a parasocial connection with a media persona, that persona can influence their political views and voting decisions, their purchasing behavior, attitudes about gender stereotypes, and their trust in various groups of people, such as scientists.

This influence may be positive or negative depending on whether the parasocial relationship with the media figure is positive or negative. On a more optimistic note, parasocial connections can increase self-confidence, improve one's belief in their self-efficacy, and result in stronger feelings of belonging.

The isolation caused by quarantine orders issued during the COVID-19 pandemic has increased interest in the social surrogacy role media figures can play.

Although the research on this topic is limited, it seems people who didn't have other social outlets while they were in lock-down turned to TV and movie characters and online social media in order to satisfy their need for interaction and connection. So parasocial relationships helped some people cope with a long period of limited social contact.

Finally, because friends and family can engage in parasocial relationships with the same media persona without jealousy, discussing these mutual parasocial relationships can strengthen social relationships. Moreover, because fans often create online or in-person communities dedicated to specific performers, characters, and other media figures, parasocial relationships can also be a catalyst for the formation of real-life relationships with like-minded others.

Does Social Media Change Parasocial Relationships?

To date, the majority of studies on parasocial phenomena has focused on film and TV, while new media has been the focus of less than one-fifth of the investigations.

Nonetheless, new media, and especially social media has surely changed the nature of parasocial relationships. Of particular interest is whether the ability to directly communicate and possibly be contacted by a media figure online might make parasocial relationships more social. For example, if a fan exchanges direct messages with their favorite actor via Twitter, the relationship takes on a social dimension.

As a result, Stever has proposed that parasocial and social relationships should be seen as operating along a continuum. On the social end of the spectrum are the people we regularly interact with in our daily lives and on the parasocial end of the spectrum are media persona we have no access to, such as fictional characters or performers that have passed away.

In between those two extremes, are relationships with celebrities that one has the potential to interact with either in real-life or online.

This can take the form of meeting a pop star after their concert or running into an actor while out shopping in Hollywood, but the rise of social media has increased the likelihood that fans can gain access to their favorite celebrities online.

For example, when a media user responds to a post by their favorite performer on Twitter, the performer may acknowledge them by liking or re-tweeting their message. Scholars have proposed that in these circumstances the relationship between fan and performer should still be considered parasocial because despite the social recognition by the media figure, the media user still lacks direct access to them.

Nonetheless, following a favorite media figure on social media can deepen media users' parasocial relationships with them.

A Word From Verywell

Parasocial relationships are completely normal and can even have a positive impact on a person's well-being. However, parasocial relationships are best a supplement or an addition to someone's social relationships and social needs. While it's OK to have parasocial relationships, they shouldn't replace real-life, in-person relationships and interactions.

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