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Parasocial interaction (or para-social relationship) is a term used by social scientists to describe one-sided, "parasocial" interpersonal relationships in which one party knows a great deal about the other, but the other does not. The most common form of such relationships are one-sided relations between celebrities and audience or fans.
- 1 Evolution of the term
- 2 Parasocial Relationships
- 3 Parasocial Relationships as a Subset of Social Interaction
- 4 Positive Consequences of Parasocial Interactions in Childhood
- 5 Negative Consequences of Parasocial Interactions in Childhood
- 6 Parasocial Interaction on the Internet
- 7 Future Research with Parasocial Interaction
- 8 See also
- 9 References
- 10 Further reading
Evolution of the term
The term was first introduced by Donald Horton and Richard Wohl in their widely cited 1956 academic paper, "Mass Communication and Para-social Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a Distance", published in the Psychiatry journal.
Parasocial relationships were first described from the perspective of media and communication studies. In 1956, Horton and Wohl explored the different interactions between mass media users and media figures and determined the existence of a parasocial relationship, where the user acts as though they are involved in a typical social relationship. However, parasocial interactions have existed before mass media, when citizens would establish a bond with political figures, gods or even spirits. Since then, the term has been adopted by psychologists, in furthering their studies of the social relationships that emerge between consumers of mass media and the figures they see represented there.
Studying social interaction, and by extension parasocial interaction (PSI), follows a social cognitive approach to defining individual cognitive activity. Accordingly, there are similar psychological processes at work in both parasocial relationships and face-to-face interactions. However, the parasocial relationship does not follow the process of the typical long-term relationship. The media user remains a stranger to the media figure, whereas this “strangeness” would gradually evaporate in typical social interaction.
Parasocial interaction became an increasingly common phenomenon during the latter half of the 20th century, as it was coupled with the growth in popularity of television and film media. It involves a real person on one end, but on the other end can be a real celebrity (talkshow host or famous sport player), an organization (sports team) and/or an entirely fictional character.
Even though such one-way friendships are based on illusion of interaction via television or radio rather than actual social interaction, a bond of intimacy is created and the viewers feel they really know the media character. The viewer is made to believe that the person on the screen is communicating directly to them, even though the other participants—actors or players—have no knowledge or attachment to fans, other than as an aggregation of numbers comprising an audience and their income.
Television executives have actively promoted parasocial relationships, and the celebrities will often engage in the illusion of 'one-on-one' interaction with the audience, for example by addressing them directly. Talk shows for example are a type of a media programme that heavily relies on parasocial interaction. The talk show is such a popular format because of the actual methods used in the program. In particular, the host seeks to establish a sense of "togetherness" with the viewer. Moreover, shows like Ricki Lake have as their goal a sense of reconciliation, contributing to a feeling of solvency and contentment within the viewer. Soap operas are another popular genre. In many ways, the plots of soap operas involved overly romanticized versions of everyday interpersonal activity. Thus, the genre appeals to many as a way to realize a sense of excitement which may be lacking in the interpersonal relationships of the viewer.
Early Studies in Media and Communication
Since coining the term in 1956, numerous studies have elaborated on parasocial relationships from both a communications and media perspective, increasing in conjunction to our growing media exposure. Early studies done of British television viewers explored their responses to the drama of soap operas and identified two key features: companionship and personal identity. As the notion of identity is grounded in psychoanalytic theory, this marked a transition into studying parasocial interaction through the lens of psychology. Specifically, it prompted the creation of the PSI Scale in 1985. Subsequent studies using this scale reinforce s findings that PSI is directly related to viewing motives, perceived realism and attraction to the media figure being watched.
Studies with Children and Adolescents
Parasocial interaction is best explored across a lifespan, which explains the growing focus on parasocial interaction in children and adolescents. Studies have found that sex-role stereotyping is common in children’s parasocial relationships with media figures, though boys most overwhelmingly chooses male characters, while young girls are less likely to prefer one gender over another. Additionally, sex-role stereotyping is more common in children ages 5-6, but decreases in children age 10-11. Existing literature also intimates that attachments, parasocial or otherwise, established in early childhood, are highly influential on relationships created later in life. Many studies have focused on adolescent girls because they are more likely to form a strong bond with a media figure and be influenced in terms of lifestyle choices.
The primary effect is that of learning: consistent with Bandura's (1986) social cognitive theory, much evidence shows that children learn from positive and negative televised role models, and acquire norms and standards for conduct through media outlets such as television and video games. This is supported by a study by Cynthia Hoffner with children aged 7-12, which showed that the gender of children’s favorite televised characters was strongly correlated to the gender of the children. Furthermore, the research showed “wishful identification” with parasocial relationships, namely, that boys preferred intelligence, while girls preferred attractiveness when picking favorite characters.These alternatives are both enhanced and mitigated by their separation from reality. On one hand, parasocial interactions are particularly appealing to adolescents in the throes of identity formation and increasing autonomy from parents because these relationships provide idealized figures with whom the adolescent can envision total acceptance. The lack of actual contact with these idealized figures can offer positive social interactions without risk of rejection or consequent feelings of unworthiness. One cannot know everything about a media figure or icon, allowing adolescents to attach fantasized attributes onto these figures in order to meet their own specific wants or needs. On the other hand, entities far removed from reality tend to be less influential on children.
A study by Rosean and Dibble examined correlation between realism of favorite television character and strength of parasocial relationships. Results showed a positive correlation between social realism (how realistic the character is) and strength of parasocial relationships. Results also show age-related differences among children. Older children tended to prefer more realistic characters, while younger children generally had more powerful parasocial relationships with any character. Age, however, did not impact the correlation between social realism and strength of parasocial interaction, which suggests that more real characters are grounds for more powerful parasocial relationships in children of all ages.
Learning through the Media
The ability to learn from parasocial relationships is directly correlated to the strength of the relationship. In a study by Lauricella, Gola, and Calvert (2011), eight 21-month-old infants were taught seriation sequencing by one of two characters. One character, Elmo, is iconic in American culture and therefore socially meaningful, and the other, DoDo, although popular with children in Japan, is less well known in American media. Children were better able to learn from socially meaningful character (Elmo) than from the character who was less easily recognized (DoDo). Furthermore, children could be taught to learn from less socially-relevant characters such as DoDo, by developing a parasocial relationship with that character. Accordingly, after children were given DoDo toys to play with, ability to learn from that character increased.
In the past two decades, people have become increasingly interested in the potential negative impacts media has on people's’ behavior and cognition. Many researchers have begun to look more closely at how people’s relationships with various media outlets affect behavior, self-perception and attachment styles, and specifically in regards to creating parasocial relationships.
Further research has examined these relationships with regard to body image and self-perception. Interest in this more narrow area of research has increased as body image issues have become more prevalent in today’s society.
A study was conducted to examine the relationship between media exposure and adolescents’ body image. Specifically, researchers looked at parasocial relationships and the different motivations for self-comparison with a character. This study surveyed 391 7th and 8th grade students and found that media exposure negatively predicted body image. In addition to the direct negative impact, the study indicated that parasocial relationships with favorite characters, motivations to self-compare, and engagement in social comparison with characters amplified the negative effects on kids’ body images. Furthermore, the researchers found that making social comparisons with favorite characters distorted actual, or ideal, body image and self-perception. Studies have been done exploring these effects across gender.
A study examined the parasocial relationships between men and superheroes; the study looked at muscular vs. non-muscular superheroes and men who either did or did not develop a one-sided psychological bond with a superhero character. The results from this study indicated a significant impact on body image, particularly when exposed to muscular superhero characters. The research found that men who formed a parasocial relationship with a muscular superhero had poor self-perception and felt negatively about their own bodies after exposure to the muscular character.
Further studies have looked into parasocial relationships and more specifically at the impacts on violent and aggressive behavior. A study done by Keren Eyal and Alan M. Rubin examined aggressive and violent television characters and the potential negative impacts they may have on viewers. The study was based on social cognitive theory and looked at trait aggression in viewers and identification and parasocial interaction with aggressive characters. The researchers measured trait aggression in each of the participants and compared that to the level of identification with aggressive characters.The study found that more aggressive viewers were more likely to identify with aggressive characters and further develop parasocial relationships with the aggressive characters.
In parasocial interaction there is no "normal" social interaction; it is a very one-sided relation. The knowledgeable side has no direct control over the actions of the side it observes, and it is very difficult for it to contact and influence it.
Though most literature has focused on parasocial interaction as a television and film phenomenon, new technologies, namely the Internet, have necessitated a closer look at such interactions.
In 1998, John Eighmey, from Iowa State University, and Lola McCord, from the University of Alabama, published a study titled “Adding Value in the Information Age: Uses and Gratifications of Sites on the World Wide Web.” In the study, they observed that the presence of parasocial relationships constituted an important determinant of website visitation rates. “It appears,” the study states, “that websites projecting a strong sense of personality may also encourage the development of a kind of parasocial relationship with website visitors.”
In 1999, John Hoerner, from the University of Alabama, published a study titled “Scaling the Web: A Parasocial Interaction Scale for World Wide Web Sites,” in which he proposed a method for measuring the effects of parasocial interaction on the Internet. The study explained that websites may feature “personae” that host to the visitors to the sites in order to generate public interest. Personae, in some cases, are nothing more than the online representations of the actual people, often prominent public figures, but sometimes, according to the study, will be the fictional creations of the sites' webmasters. Personae “take on many of the characteristics of a [real-life] companion, including regular and frequent appearances, a sense of immediacy…and the feeling of a face-to-face meeting.” Additionally, the study makes the point that, even when no such personae have been created, parasocial relationships might still develop. Webmasters might foster parasocial interactions through a conversational writing style, extensive character development and opportunities for email exchange with the website’s persona.
Hoerner used the Parasocial Interaction (PSI) scale, developed by Rubin, Perse, and Powell (1985), and modified the scale to more accurately assess parasocial interactions on the Internet. They used the scale to gauge participants' reactions to a number of different websites, and, more generally, to determine whether or not parasocial interaction theory could be linked to Internet use. The study concluded, first, that parasocial interaction is not dependent on the presence of a traditional persona on a website; data showed that websites with described "strong personae" did not attract significantly more hits than other websites selected by the study conductors. "The literal, mediated personality from the newscast or soap opera of the past [around which the original PSI-scale was framed] is gone. The design metaphor, flow of the web experience, and styles of textual and graphic presentations of the information all become elements of a website persona and encourage parasocial interaction by the visitor/user with that persona."
The study also confirmed the accuracy of the "PSI web scale" as a way to gauge consumer parasocial interaction with websites.
The influence of media in childhood has received little attention from developmental psychologists, even though children have a high degree of exposure to media. While many studies and experiments have explored the nature of parasocial relationships, there are many opportunities for future research. For example, a potential future area of research could be the issue of reruns, where the relationships have outcomes which are already known or well-established. In addition, another area of research could focus on production techniques or televisual approaches. This would include techniques such as chiaroscuro or flat lighting, the strategic placement of close-ups or establishing shots, deductive or inductive shot sequences, hip hop editing, or desaturation. These techniques have long been theorized to have some sort of influence on the formation of parasocial relationships, but their influence has yet to be determined.
Other concerns include the continuity of media figures representation across various media outlets, and the notion of parasocial interaction as compensation for lack of social outlets. Popstars, for example, may not only appear on television, but on several different television or radio programs, as either a chat guest or a performer; further repeated viewings of these stars would intensify visual aspects of parasocial interaction with that star. Most research has typically characterized media users as a television viewer who is often solitary and in need of social interaction. The different types of user-figure interaction can be addressed by conceptualizing parasocial interaction as an extension of ordinary social interaction. Through close examination of social encounters that are significant for parasocial relationships, we can continue to distinguish between parasocial interaction an isolated activity and longer-term interaction.
The divergent contexts in which parasocial relationships operate have only, at best, been explored on the surface. More research is needed on developmental aspects of media use in situations involving children. It is agreed that parasocial interaction is a topic worthy of closer scrutiny by psychologists, and communication specialists alike. The next major theoretical leap in the research agenda requires a comprehensive analysis of parasocial literature to develop a causal model that attempts to contextualize the functions of parasocial relationships. Rather than such relationships being necessarily
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