A parasocial relationship (PSR) is a one-sided relationship that media users form as a result of exposure to media personas.
In 1956, the term parasocial relationship was coined by Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl. They focused on the psychological attachment that was formed from viewing television personalities. Their work laid the foundation and popularized a wide range of research on parasocial phenomena.
A parasocial interaction, an exposure that garners interest in a persona, becomes a parasocial relationship after repeated exposure to the media persona causes the media users to develop illusions of intimacy, friendship, and identification. Positive information learned about the media persona results in increased attraction and the relationship progresses. Parasocial relationships are enhanced due to trust and self-disclosure provided by the media persona. Media users are loyal and feel directly connected to the persona much like their close friends by observing and interpreting their appearance, gestures, voice, conversation, and conduct. Media personas have a significant amount of influence over media users, positive or negative, informing the way that they perceive certain topics or even their purchasing habits.
Social media introduces additional opportunities for parasocial relationships to intensify because it provides more opportunities for intimate, reciprocal, and frequent interactions between the user and persona.
The terms parasocial interactions and parasocial relationships were coined by anthropologist Donald Horton and sociologist R. Richard Wohl in 1956, laying the foundation for the topic within the field of communication studies. Originating from psychology, parasocial phenomena comes from a wide range of scientific backgrounds and methodological approaches. The study of parasocial relationships has increased with the growth of mass and social media such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram, particularly by those investigating advertising effectiveness and journalism. Horton and Wohl have stated that television personas offer the media user a sense of intimacy and have influence over them by using their appearance and gesture in a way that is seen as being engaging, directly addressing the audience, and conversing with them in a friendly and personal manner. By viewing media personas regularly and feeling a sense of trust with the persona, parasocial relationships offer the media user a continuous relationship that intensifies.
Celebrity endorsements and advertising
Advertising and marketing can use media personas to increase brand awareness, keep media users engaged, and increase purchase intention by seeking out attractive media personas. If media personas show that they are interested in and engage in rewarding interactions with media users, then if the media user likes the persona they will reciprocate interactions and over time form a parasocial relationship with them.
In this social media era, media users are able to have interactions with the media persona that are more intimate, open, reciprocal, and frequent. More media personas are using social media platforms for personal communication, revealing their personal lives and thoughts to consumers. The more frequent and conversational that the media persona self discloses via social media results in media users feeling high levels of intimacy, loyalty, and friendship. Media users know that the chances of receiving a direct message or getting a retweet from a celebrity are highly unlikely, but the possibility gives fans a sense of intimacy and adds authenticity to one-sided parasocial relationships with their favorite personas.
Celebrity endorsements are so effective with purchase intention because parasocial relationships form such an influential bond of trust. The acceptance and trustworthiness that the media user feels towards the media persona is carried over into the brand that is being promoted. Media users feel that they understand media personas and appreciate their values and motives. This accumulation of time and knowledge acquired of the media persona translates into feelings of loyalty, which can then influence their attitudes, voting decisions, prejudices, change their ideas about reality, willingness to donate, and purchasing advertised products. Celebrities and popular social media personalities who engage in social media endorsements are referred to as influencers.
Causes and impact
Parasocial relationships are a psychological attachment in which the media persona offers a continuing relationship with the media user. They grow to depend on them, plan to interact with them, count on them much like a close friend. They acquire a history with them and believe they know the persona better than others. Media users are free to partake in the benefits of real relations with no responsibility or effort. They can control their experience or walk away from parasocial relationships freely.
A media users’ bond with media personas can lead to higher self-confidence, a stronger perception of problem focused coping strategies, and a stronger sense of belonging. However these one-sided relationships can also foster an impractical body image, can reduce self-esteem, increase media consumption, and media addiction.
Parasocial relationships are seen frequently with post-retirement aged media users due to high television consumption and loss of social contacts or activities. However, adolescents also are also prone to form parasocial relationships. This is attributed to puberty, the discovery of sexuality and identity, and the idolization of media stars. Due to women’s generally greater empathic capacity , they are more prone than men to form parasocial relationships.
Some results indicate that parasocial relationships with media personas increase because the media user is lonely, dissatisfied, emotionally unstable, and/or has unattractive relationship alternatives. Some can use these parasocial relationships as a substitute for real social contact. A media users personality affects how they use social media and may also vary an individual’s pursuit of intimacy and approach to relationships i.e. extroverts may prefer to seek social gratification through face-to-face interactions as opposed to mediated ones.
Media users use mediated communication to gratify their personal needs, such as to relax, seek pleasure, boredom, or out of habit. In this era of social media and the internet media users have constant access to on demand viewing, constant interactions on hand held mobile devices, and widespread Internet access.
Experiencing negative emotional responses as a result of an ending parasocial relationship, i.e. death of a television persona in a series, is known as a parasocial breakup. More intense levels of parasocial breakup could be predicted by loneliness and observing media for companionship. To help cope with a parasocial breakup, media users can re-explore their personas by watching their television series or reading their books as often as they choose.
Parasocial relationships with fictional characters are more intensive than with nonfictional characters, because of the feeling of being completely present in a fictional world. There is a desire for comradery that can be built through bonding over a fictional persona.
Due to the span and breadth of the Harry Potter, Disney, and Star Wars series, consumers are able to engage more deeply and form strong parasocial relationships. These fictional parasocial relationships can extend further than watching the movies or reading the books into official and fan fiction websites, social media, and even extend beyond media to have an in-person experience at national and international theme park attractions.
Theoretical connections and measurement instruments
Rubin analyzed the process of parasocial relationship development by applying principles of uncertainty reduction theory, which states that uncertainty about others is reduced over time through communication, allowing for increased attraction and relationship growth. Other theories that apply to parasocial relationships are Social penetration theory, which is based on the premise that positive, intimate interactions produce further rewards in the relationship and the uses and gratifications theory, which states that media users are goal driven and want media to gratify their needs.
In 1956, T.M. Newcomb's (1956) reinforcement theory explained that following a rewarding interaction an attraction is formed. A gratifying relationship is formed as a result of social attraction and interactive environments created by the media persona.
The most used measurement instrument for parasocial phenomena is the Parasocial Interaction Scale (PSI Scale), which was developed by Rubin, Perse, and Powell in 1985 to assess interpersonal relationships with media personalities.
Mina Tsay and Brianna Bodine developed a revised version of Rubin’s scale by addressing that parasocial relationship engagement is dictated by a media users personality and motivations. They identified four distinct dimensions that address engagement with media personas from affective, cognitive, and behavioral perspectives. The dimensions assessed how people see media personas as role models, how peopledesire to communicate with them and learn more about them, and how familiar they are to the individuals. Tsay and Bodine noticed how greater levels of interaction can be formed between the media user and the media persona because of the shift of media and mass communication in recent years. Media users are now able to choose how they want to interact with and initiate in their own media experiences online, such as fan groups, Twitter, and character blogs.
- Chung, S.; Cho, H. (2017). "Fostering Parasocial Relationships with Celebrities on Social Media: Implications for Celebrity Endorsement". Psychology & Marketing. 34 (4): 481–495.
- Liebers, N.; Schramm, H. (2019). "Parasocial Interactions and Relationships with Media Characters-An Inventory of 60 Years of Research". Communication Research Trends. 38 (2): 4–31.
- Rubin, Rebecca; McHugh, Michael (1987). "Development of Parasocial Interaction Relationships". Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media. 31 (3): 279–292.
- Horton, Donald; Wohl, Richard (1956). "Mass communication and para-social interaction: Observations on intimacy at a distance". Psychiatry. 19 (3): 215–229.
- Ingram, J.; Luckett, Z. (2019). "My friend Harry's a wizard: Predicting parasocial interaction with characters from fiction". Psychology of Popular Media Culture. 8 (2): 148–158.