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.

Types of Parasocial Relationships

Parasocial relationships can exist in a number of different forms. Oftentimes, these different forms may represent different stages of this type of relationship:

Parasocial Interactions

Parsocial interactions are 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.

Parasocial Interactions vs. Parasocial Relationships

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

Parasocial Attachments

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.

Levels of Parasocial Relationships

Parasocial levels are also often described as having three levels:

  • Entertainment-social involves the figure serving as a source of entertainment or gossip.
  • Intense-personal involves having strong interest, feelings, and compulsions about a media personality or celebrity.
  • Borderline-pathological involves having uncontrollable, sometimes delusional, fantasies about the individual that may lead to behaviors such as stalking or harassment.

Are Parasocial Relationships Healthy?

Parasocial relationships can impact people in several ways. Some of these influences can be negative, but there can actually be some benefits to this type of relationship

Potential Drawbacks

In a recent review of the literature, Researchers have found, for example, that having a parasocial relationship with a media personality can influence an individual's:

  • Political views
  • Voting decisions
  • Purchasing behavior
  • Attitudes about gender stereotypes
  • 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.

Potential Advantages

Parasocial relationships can certainly have drawbacks, but they may also have some benefits as well. Some of the positive effects include:

  • Increased belonging: 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.
  • Reduced loneliness: 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, people who didn't have other social outlets while they were in lockdown turned to TV and movie characters and online social media to satisfy their need for interaction and connection.
  • Stronger social connections: 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. Fans also often create online or in-person communities dedicated to specific performers, characters, and other media figures, which can contribute to real-life relationships with like-minded others.

Recap

Parasocial relationships have drawbacks and some benefits. Some people may be influenced by media personalities in negative ways. However, these relationships can also increase the sense of belonging, increase social connections, and help people cope with a long period of limited social contact.

How Do Parasocial Relationships Form?

Like in-person relationships, parasocial relationships start when someone meets and gets acquainted with a media persona. This initial parasocial interaction might involve seeing the individual on a tv show or movie, following them on social media, or even interacting with them online or in real life.

If the persona makes an impression that causes the individual 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?

It may seem strange that people 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 relatively 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 we see and hear through media and those we see and hear in our real lives. Therefore, we process and respond to these encounters similarly, leading to parasocial phenomena in all its forms.

While psychological research has sometimes attempted to pathologize parasocial relationships, most scholars now agree that engaging in parasocial connections is normal. It is something that a majority of people experience.

It is also important to note that most people know that their relationships with media figures are not real. However, this knowledge doesn't prevent them from reacting as if they were.

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.

The Social-Parasocial Continuum

As a result, researchers have 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.
  • On the parasocial end of the spectrum are media personalities 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. However, 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.

Recap

Parasocial relationships exist on a spectrum with other social relationships, and social media has played a role in how these relationships are formed and maintained. Following a favorite media figure on social media can deepen a parasocial relationship.

A Word From Verywell

While more research on parasocial relationships is needed, evidence suggests that these relationships can have downsides and potential benefits. Researchers believe that these relationships are normal and fairly common, but you should talk to a professional if your thoughts and behaviors about a media figure are causing distress or interfering with your ability to function normally.

14 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Cynthia Vinney
Cynthia Vinney, PhD is an expert in media psychology and a published scholar whose work has been published in peer-reviewed psychology journals.