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Parasocial interaction (PSI), as originally hypothesized by Horton and Wohl (1956), offers an explanation of the ways in which audience members develop their one-sided relationships with the media being consumed. PSI is described as an illusionary experience, such that media audiences interact with personas (e.g., talk show host, celebrities, characters) as if they are engaged in a reciprocal relationship with them, and feel as though a mediated other is talking directly to them (Rubin, Perse, & Powell, 1985). PSI can be developed to the point where media audiences begin to view the mediated others as “real friends” (Stern, Russell, & Russell, 2007). Feelings of PSI are nurtured through carefully constructed mechanisms, such as verbal and nonverbal interaction cues, and can carry over to subsequent encounters (Labrecque, 2014).
- 1 Evolution of the term
- 2 Parasocial interaction and parasocial relationships
- 3 As a subset of social interaction
- 4 Positive consequences in childhood
- 5 Negative consequences in childhood
- 6 On the Internet
- 7 Future research
- 8 See also
- 9 Further reading
- 10 Notes
- 11 References
Evolution of the term
Parasocial interaction was 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 interaction have existed before mass media, when citizen 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. Initially, Horton and Wohl (1956) viewed parasocial interactions as abnormalities resulting from a lack of time spent with others. Perse and Rubin (1989) contested this view, finding that parasocial interactions occurred as a natural byproduct of time spent with media figures.
Although originated from a psychological topic, the researches of PSI were made extensively in the area of mass communication, with manifold results being produced (McQuail, Blumer, & Brown, 1972; Palmgreen, Wenner, & Rayburn, 1980; Rubin & Rubin, 1985). Psychologists started to show their interest in the concept in the 1980s and researchers began to develop the concept extensively within the field of communication science (Giles, 2002). Many important questions about social psychology were raised, concerning the nature of relationships that are problematic for existing theories in those fields. The concept of parasocial interaction, and detailed examination of the behavioral phenomena that it seeks to explain, have considerable potential for developing psychological theory.
The concepts development of PSI and PSR are interpreted and employed in a different ways in various literature. When it is applied in the Use-and-gratifications approaches, the two concepts are typically treated interchangeably, with the regard primarily to a special type of “interpersonal involvement” with media figures that includes different phenomena such as interaction and identification (Rubin, Perse, & Powell, 1985). In contrast to the U&G approaches, research in other domains such as media psychology and semiotics, argue for a clear distinction between the two terms (Klimmt, Hartmann, & Schramm, 2006). PSI specifically means the one-sided process of media person perception during media exposure; whereas PSR stands for a cross-situational relationship that a viewer or user holds to a media person, which includes specific cognitive and affective components. Schmid & Klimmt (2011) further argue that PSI, PSR, are progressive states such that what begins as PSI has the potential to become a PSR. In sum, the terms, definitions, and models explicating PSI and PSR differ across scientific backgrounds and traditions.
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.
The research of PSI obtain significant interest after the advent of the uses and gratifications approach to mass communication research in the early 1970s (McQuail, Blumler, & Brown, 1972). In a study of early soap opera, McQuail et al. (1972) identified two essential functions of PSI: companionship and personal identity. Rosengren and Windahl (1972) further argued that PSI could be identified in the process of viewers’ interacting with media figures, but such interaction did not produce identification. This is an important distinction, because identification has a longer history than PSI. Subsequent research has indicated that PSI is evident when identification is not present (Chory-Assad & Yanen, 2005; de Bruin, Suijkerbujk, & Jansz, 2006). During last several decades, PSI has been documented in the research analyzing the relationship between audience members and television newscasters, TV and radio talk-show hosts, sitcom characters and other TV celebrities or performers (Palmgreen, Wenner, & Rayburn, 1980; Rubin & Perse, 1987, Sood & Rogers, 2000; Park & Lennon, 2004; Spitzberg & Cupach, 2007). Although different PSI scales have been employed in these studies, PSI was clearly documented with each persona (Hataway, 2008).
Noticing the importance of media in the area of psychological research, Giles (2002) asserted that there is a need for PSI research to move away from the field of mass communication and into the field of psychology. Studies in this area is commonly conducted by focusing a key psychological issue for PSI: concerning the similarity between parasocial relations and ordinary social relations (Turner, 1993; Gleich, 1996; McKenna & Bargh, 2000; Giles, 2002; Jin & Park, 2009). For example, Turner (1993) adopted the idea of homophily (i.e., the tendency for friendships to form between people that are alike in some designated respect) to examine the interpersonal and psychological predictors of parasocial interaction with television performers. The author found that one dimension of homophily (i.e., attitude) was the best predictor of parasocial interaction. Hataway (2008) indicated that although there seems to be prevailing to analyze PSI in the domain of social psychology, a solid connection to psychological theory and developmental theory has been missing. Hataway (2008) further suggested that more psychological research is needed in order to develop parasocial theory. Specific issues cited were “how parasocial relationships are derived from parasocial interaction and the way those relationships further influence media usage as well as a social construction of reality, and how parasocial interaction is cognitively produced” (p. 18). He saw that the majority of PSI research has been conducted by mass communication scholars as a weakness and called for psychologists should refer to Giles (2002) for directions of studies.
Another important consideration for the study of PSI at a psychological level is that there is a form of PSI existing even in interpersonal social situation. People may use fundamentally the same cognitive processes in both interpersonal and mediated communication (Perse & Rubin, 1989). Giles (2002) also suggested that the element of direct interaction occurred in mediated interaction, such as talking to a presenter or celebrity guest, may continue in social interaction, with a cartoon character or a fictional protagonist in the mind. This may finally constitute a new way of interpreting social interaction. A further consideration is application of social cognitive approaches in individual levels. It is traditionally accepted that this approach is inadequate by itself for the study of relationships (Duck, 1994). However, a number of growing literature on the role of imagination in social interaction (Taylor, 1999; Gleason, Sebanc, & Hartup, 2000; Eyal & Cohen, 2006) suggests that some imaginative activity (e.g., imaginary friends) may be an influential factor in the outcome of real social interaction. PSI is nowadays regarded as an extension of normal social cognition, specifically in terms of the use of the imagination. Current PSI literature commonly acknowledge that the psychological processes acting at the individual level parallel those used in ordinary social activity and relationship building.
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 social identity theory says that people become motivated to behave in ways that boost their self-esteem. Having high self-esteem creates the perception that a person is intelligent, likable, and a good person. In regards to sports teams, fans create a connection within their team to attach themselves to a particular victory or championship.
In 2012, Evan Frederick (University of Southern Indiana), Choong Hoon Lim, Galen Clavio, and Patrick Walsh (Indiana University) conducted a study on perceived parasocial relationships of Twitter users and athletes. “Analysis of the data revealed a sense of heightened interpersonal closeness based on the interaction style of the athlete. Followers of the social athlete were driven by interpersonal constructs” (p. 481).
In 2007, Brett Boyle and Peter Magnusson, from Saint Louis University published a study titled “Social Identity and Brand Equity Formation: A Comparative Study of Collegiate Sports Fans”. The authors empirically tested fans of a University men’s basketball team. According to the study students, alumni, and the general public were all a part of building brand/team equity through means of heightened social identification factors.
Positive consequences in childhood
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 Taiwan, is less well known in American media. Children were better able to learn from the socially meaningful character (Elmo) than from the character who was less easily recognized (DoDo). Furthermore, children could become better able 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, their ability to learn from that character increased. In a later study, this effect was found to be greatest when children showed stronger parasocial relationships: Children's success on the seriation task, and therefore their ability to learn from a less familiar character, was greatest for children who exhibited more emotional nurturing behaviors toward the DoDo toy during play (Gola, Richards, Lauricella, & Calvert, 2013).
Personalization of a character makes a child more likely to nurture the character, and thus more likely to form a parasocial relationship that would improve learning from videos featuring the character (Calvert, Richards, & Kent, 2014). In place of DoDo and Elmo, Calvert et al. (2014) gave children Scout and Violet dolls. These interactive plush toy dogs can be programmed to say a child’s name and have particular favorites (i.e., a favorite food, color, and song). 18-month-old children were given either personalized toys ( matched for gender, programmed to say the child’s name, and programmed to have the same favorites as the child) or non-personalized toys (the opposite gender, programmed to call the children “Pal” and have random favorites). At the end of the study, children who had received personalized dolls were better able to learn from their characters than were children who had received non-personalized toys. Children also nurtured personalized toys more than non-personalized toys. It seems that perceived similarities increase children’s interest and investment in the characters, which motivates the development of parasocial relationships and helps improve later screen-based learning.
Negative consequences in childhood
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.
Parasocial interaction has been linked to psychological attachment theory and its consequences have seen the same dramatic effects as real Relationship breakup. In considering the relationship between parasocial interaction and attachment styles, Cohen (2004) found that individuals who were more anxious media consumers tended to be more invested in parasocial relationships.
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.
While much research focuses on the formation and maintenance of parasocial relationships, other research has begun to focus on what happens when a parasocial relationship is dissolved. Eyal and Cohen define parasocial breakup as "a situation where a character with whom a viewer has developed a PSR goes off the air."  Eyal and Cohen (2006) found that the distress that media consumers experienced after a parasocial breakup was quite similar to that of a social relationship. However, the emotional distress experienced after the parasocial breakup was weaker than that of the real life interpersonal relationship. Lather and Moyer-Guse (2011) also considered the concept of parasocial breakup, but in a more temporary sense. While the study focused on parasocial breakups as a result of the writers' strike from 2007-2008, the researchers found that media consumers still experienced different levels of emotional distress. This study, like previous studies, showed that parasocial relationships operate very similarly to real-life relationships.
On the Internet
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. The applications of PSI to computer-mediated environments are continuously documented in literature in last decade (Ballantine and Martin 2005; Goldberg and Allen 2008; Labrecque, 2014). Many researchers concluded that, just as parasocial relationships are present in television and radio, they are also present in online environments such as blogs and other social networking sites. Through an exploration of followers on politicians’ blogs, Thorson and Rodgers (2006) found that parasocial interacting with the politician influences people’s opinions about the politician, and promotes them to vote for the politician. Social media is designed to be new channel through which parasocial interaction/relationship can be formed. Research has shown that interacting with individuals through blogs and social media such as Twitter can influence the perceptions of those individuals (Thorson & Rodgers, 2006; Frederick, et al., 2012). As Internet users become more active on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, followers often feel more engaged with them, making the parasocial relationships stronger.
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.
One direction for future PSI concerns the advancement of methodology. As theories become more defined and complex, experiments seem to be necessary to be employed in testing hypotheses. Because the meanings of perception and emotion take up much of what parasocial interaction/relationship research interest, the cause and effect is hard to be distinguished and potential spuriousness is difficult to be avoided (Oliver & Raney, 2014). For example, whether similarity precedes PSI and whether mediated interaction create a sense of similarity requires experimental validation (Murphy, Frank, Moran, & Patnoe-Woodley, 2011).
Cohen (2001) also suggested that different types of relationship are encouraged to be analyzed by different genres, which particularly challenges scholars in examine the mediated relationship in those reality TVs (e.g., Survivor) (Nabi, Stitt, Halford, & Finnerty. 2006). These prototypical reality shows which are built around narratives, displaying a lot of emotions which seem to invite empathy and identification, and also demonstrating the characters’ skills as to develop fandom. Ratings and audience responses provide strong evidence that those reality shows create significant mediated relationship, but future inquiries should examine whether this new kind of mediated interaction/relationship evolves or do these interactions/relationships conform to existing patterns (Oliver & Raney, 2014).
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.
The prevailing use of social media and its impact on mediated relationship also require further study of PSI (Branch, Wilson, & Agnew, 2013). Different social media platforms provide channels through which celebrities communicate with their followers easily, making parasocial interaction/relationships seem less unidirectional and perhaps more satisfying and intense (Labrecque, 2014). As such, whether social media has made PSI more a part of everyday life needs further exploration. Baek, Bae, and Jang (2013) also mentioned that technological development have been raising questions regarding the role of PSI in our social lives, as media content is available in more places and times. Our mediated friends are never too far away, instead, they actually rest in our pockets and sleep in our beds. Whether this means that we spend more time and effort on cultivating these relationship and will be less dependent on real social relationship, need further exploration (Labrecque, 2014).
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.
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