There’s a recurring meme on the internet: “I don’t care if he’s a fictional character, I still want to marry him.” But the level of investment goes beyond that kind of romantic fantasy: say, the tangible scars many felt from Britney Spears’ story earlier this month. Or the trace of social media stories when the “Friends” reunion aired. The audience was mad, the cultural characteristics were obvious. Then there are groups that work in the background all year round, such as the tanks of the BTS army around the Korean pop band.
These events are often grouped under the banner of “fandoms” or “stanning” or “shipping” people, but it can manifest as a family, platonic, or romantic bond. This world of celebrity gossip, crush, attachment – investing in the lives of people we’ve never met and probably never will – has a label. “Parasocial relationships” are when we form a one-sided psychological relationship with actors, influencers, other famous people.
“When we care about someone – even a celebrity – they feel like an extension of ourselves, so good things that happen to them feel good and bad things that happen to them feel bad,” Shira Gabriel, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo in the United States, told HuffPost.
Fans have the illusion of a personal relationship with these people in the spotlight. The phenomenon was first identified in 1956 when social scientists Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl observed American audiences’ associations with television programs and found that those associations resembled real social relationships.
“When we enter into a parasocial bond with someone, we feel like we really know them,” said Gabriel. “We know logically that we don’t know, but our primitive brain doesn’t recognize it, so the feeling is real.”
Why people enter into these relationships is a complex story. For one thing, our tendency to socialize as a means of survival is well known – researchers agree that we have a primitive mechanism that urges us to form close bonds with people.
“We as a species rely on social interaction to survive, and there’s a part of our brain that can’t tell the face in front of me in real life with the face on TV,” said Gayle Stever, who studied fandoms and adults parasocial relationships at SUNY Empire State College in the United States, Atlas Obscura said.
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We also know that every relationship also determines how we see ourselves. “People with low self-esteem could use their parasocial relationships to see themselves more positively, much like people with high self-esteem do with their ‘real’ social relationships,” said Jaye L. Derrick, associate professor of psychology who studies PSRs at from the University of Houston, HuffPost said.
This is because “a parasocial relationship is safe,” Derrick said. “Your favorite celebrity can’t get out of a magazine article to turn you down. That has changed a bit with the development of social media, but that is still rare. “
Historically, parasocial relationships were seen as a manifestation of loneliness and isolation. However, this was debunked by a study that found no link between loneliness and the intensity of the viewer’s parasocial relationship with the screen character. Some experts have found that the relationship instead helps viewers to significantly shape their own identities and expand their social network rather than restrict it. At other times, these numbers serve a worthwhile purpose as people project their desires, hopes, and expectations onto them. We get satisfaction from their life milestones when they make an iconic movie, get married.
While researchers believe that women tend to be more invested in the fates and fantasies of celebrities, there is also growing evidence that men have similar bond strengths. For the latter, the relationship with characters like superheroes like Iron Man or Captain America is forged, one researcher found.
Experts have found similarities between parasocial relationships and real-world relationships. Just as we are emotionally or physically attracted to people in real life, we may feel connected to people on screen – be it on movie screens or our 6-inch smartphone screens. There is attraction, interest, level of engagement, exposure to toxicity, and so on. The creation, maintenance and dissolution of a parasocial relationship is in many ways similar to real interpersonal relationships.
Notably, there are two elements of real relationships that also translate into parasocial ties – jealousy and breakups. “For example, Justin Biber had to shut down his Instagram because he and his then-girlfriend of the fans of Jelena – or Justin and Selena Gomez – hate them,” Tukachinsky Forster, an emotional attachment writer, told HuffPost. Parasocial jealousy occurs in relation to a revered celebrity’s romantic choices. Like any other emotional attachment, parasocial relationships can be positive or negative.
Like any relationship, parasocial relationships, however one-sided, must be properly nurtured. Celebrity appearances, fan get-togethers, and regular viewings keep the relationships going.
Parasocial relationships also end – maybe when a television series ends, a character leaves the show, or when the audience is fed up with one personality above all else. A famous parasocial breakup was the Friends show, which is coming to an end; A 2006 study found that “the deeper the viewers’ parasocial relationships with the characters, the greater the distress of the viewers when the show ends.”
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One study found that physical attraction wasn’t as important in developing parasocial relationships. The theory was that the reason for the connection is rooted in the person’s skills, personality, and traits. It depends on who they find “socially attractive”. It’s not always looks, you know.
The emotions don’t necessarily have to be adoration and idealization either – people can also “love, hate” characters and celebrities. Think of Keeping Up With the Kardashians and the decades-long relationship the Kardashian-Jenner family has built with their fans. Even when a famous person does something that we don’t like or disagree with, it affects us noticeably.
And the stubbornness is almost the same for both fictional characters and non-TV characters. The researchers analyzed the level of attachment people feel for Homer Simpson and Oprah Winfrey, with engagement being high for both. But what also determined their level was: how satisfied they felt looking at the figure; how much they felt obliged to keep watching the figure; and whether they had other good alternatives to the media figure.
Of course, the internet has done wonders for these relationships to flourish where celebrities (of all time, including bloggers, gamers, YouTubers) have become more accessible and accessible than ever.
And while the world of famous people is incomplete without their fans, online behavior can also become toxic to the person on the other end of that relationship. It can harm the mental health of the Creator, who often receives hatred and unfounded criticism because his audience has a right to him based on the perceived personal relationship.
“If you can draw the line and draw the line by saying, ‘This is my reality and this is my entertainment,’ there is nothing wrong with using it as an escapist fantasy,” said Advaita, practicing psychologist, The Swaddle in a podcast.
The golden rule when it comes to any relationship is to recognize our own limits and those of the other person. The same is true here too. As Teen Vogue noted in an article, “… if the parasocial relationship inspires aggressive behavior towards the source of your interest or towards other fans, then it is time to step back and divert your energy.”