What Are Parasocial Relationships And Are Yours Healthy?
A term coined by social scientists Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl in 1956, a paper from Oxford defines parasocial relationships as “a kind of psychological relationship experienced by members of an audience in their mediated encounters with certain performers in the mass media, particularly on television. Regular viewers come to feel that they know familiar television personalities, almost as friends.”
In simple words, these are generally the relationships we have with celebrities, where we may feel like we know who they are, may care for them, however, they may as well not even be aware of our very existence. Psychologically, they resemble the intensity of the kind of relationship where there is face-to-face interaction, but only for one person as they are, of course, mediated and one-sided.
However, there is a difference between parasocial attachments and stalking.
“The news anchor stalkers, John Lennon’s murderer and Madonna’s violent stalker were not suffering from PSR that went wrong because they got too intense; they were people with an untreated health condition that caused their violent behaviour,” said Riva Tukachinsky Forster, an assistant professor at Chapman University in California who studies media psychology and wrote a book on this very subject matter.
Television or movie characters, radio personalities or even a favourite book character could be an object to this “intimacy at a distance.”
This may seem like a far-off concept, but only until you think of a celebrity incident that may have affected you. Most recently, many in their late 20s can be seen in emotional upheaval on the internet over Steve Burns of Blue’s Clues being “proud of them.” Beyonce’s lemonade and the confirmation of Jay Z’s adultery, Kanye West infamously interrupting Taylor Swift’s speech at the MTV Video Music Awards, maybe Barack Obama shedding a tear as he said goodbye to the White House.
The point is, a parasocial relationship is almost inevitable in the human experience, especially today, as celebrity culture becomes inescapable, all thanks to the internet.
They are perfectly normal and as a matter of fact, healthy. As humans, we are built to make social connections and so when we’re presented with a person through audio or video, we seek to establish a bond with them. Despite the knowledge that the interaction is an illusion, the brain would react as if it were not.
Many can find parasocial relationships to be grounding, they can prove to be pivotal in an individual’s character development.
Take the word of Jaye L. Derrick, an associate professor of psychology who studies PSRs at the University of Houston, “People with low self-esteem might use their parasocial relationships to see themselves more positively, much like people with high self-esteem do with their ‘real’ social relationships,” said he.
“A parasocial relationship is safe,” Derrick said. “Your favourite celebrity cannot reach out of a magazine article to reject you. This has changed somewhat as social media has developed, but that’s still rare.”
More often than not, these relationships are a surrogate reality, a projection of who we see as our ideal selves. Although plenty of parasocial attachments take on a crush quality ― fangirls obsessing over K-Pop boybands today ― that’s not always the case.
They are often cultivated by the people you have them with. They do so by letting you into their private lives, speaking to the camera as if they are speaking with you, etc. They can make you feel like they are in that relationship, too. With the internet, now the “interaction” is also increased, heightening this culture like never before.
Despite the one-sided nature of parasocial relationships, there are similarities between these relationships and more traditional social scenarios. Studies show parasocial relationships are voluntary, provide companionship, and are influenced by social attraction. Furthermore, viewers experience a connection with the media personality and express feelings of affection, gratitude, longing, encouragement, and loyalty towards them.
They also require to be maintained by both parties.
As it goes, if you cannot stand a certain celeb, sorry to inform you that that is a relationship, too.
However, research is still patchy on parasocial relationships in the current scenario. Now that most celebs can be found on social media, the line between them being a person and them being a figure external to our lives is blending. When many begin their sentences with “hey guys” instead of talking in a much more formal setting of a TV or magazine interview, they become more real to us when in reality they are just as unattainable.
It is most important to be aware of the reality, once you are, there isn’t a need for fear. Again, like all relationships, parasocial attachments can be healthy and beneficial when one’s mental and emotional issues are not projected into and on them.