Parasocial relationships: Delusion or human instinct? 

 

Words by Mallory Pace

 

As human beings, we are hardwired to seek and desire connections with others, whether that be through relationships, friendships, family, pets or even as children with inanimate objects such as stuffed animals and blankets. We are inherently social beings who need emotional connection, one way or another. But what about relationships where the other person doesn’t know we exist? Like, at all? Do those meet the criteria to be considered a connection, or is our lack of existence to them a deal-breaker? 

 

I listen to a lot of podcasts, probably more than I do music. The weekly episodes have become a part of my routine, and something I have begun to look forward to. I know the days each one drops a new episode and when in my routine I’ll have the chance to listen or watch. I especially like to listen to podcasts while I’m running around cleaning my apartment or when I’m out for a long walk. I hadn’t pondered why I’m so drawn to podcasts until I started researching parasocial relationships. Listening to other people talk or converse makes me feel, in the least sad way possible, like I’m a part of their conversation. It’s like I’m chatting with friends, except I’m not actually saying anything, and they couldn’t hear me even if I were. I know I’m not actually involved in the conversation, but this twisted sense of connection appeals to something in my brain, something that is subconsciously desiring social interaction. It doesn’t mean it’s better than or replacing any human interaction in my real life, but in those times of quietness, like on a walk or driving to work, I’m partaking in a parasocial interaction, and consequently, developing a parasocial relationship relationship with my favorite podcasters. 

 

Parasocial relationships are one-sided connections where one person extends emotional energy, interest and time, and the other party or persona is completely unaware of the other’s existence, according to an article on Find A Psychologist (not joking). These relationships are most common with celebrities, musicians, social media personalities, even sports teams. Even though you’ve never met this person in real life, you feel as if you have an actual relationship or connection to them, which might sound somewhat absurd, but nearly everyone experiences it to some extent. 

 

The term was first coined in 1956 by sociologists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl to describe a sense of false intimacy with others as a result of the emerging radio, television and movie industry. The illusion of a face-to-face interaction, especially when continuously repeated, instills in the observer a false sense of intimacy, friendship, attraction or, perhaps, hatred. The article mentioned that parasocial relationships expand one’s social network in a way that negates the chance of rejection and allows them to model and identify with individuals of their choosing. Parasocial relationships don’t have to be with mega-celebrities or even real people. They can be with a lesser known podcaster, streamer, author, content creator, artist, etc., or even with fictional characters from books, TV shows, movies or games. They also don’t have to be some sort of obsession or involve excessive, needy behavior. It can be as simple as being fond of someone who doesn’t know you exist, and when you put it that way, it’s something every one resonates with. 

 

There are different levels to parasocial relationships. In a simple form, parasocial interactions refer to “conversation give and take” between a media user and persona, like I described with podcasts. This takes place exclusively while interacting with a piece of media and psychologically resembles face-to-face interactions or conversations, according to an article on VeryWell Mind. During a parasocial interaction, the user feels as if they are a part of the conversation or dialogue being had through the screen. On the other end of the spectrum, parasocial attachments occur when a media persona becomes a source of comfort, security or escape. The term was coined by professor Gayle Stever and is based on the theory of attachment, which describes the deep bonds between children and caregivers — and romantic partners. This level of attachment is more deeply rooted in emotional needs and is achieved through mediated acts of exposure to a media persona. Stever has been studying parasocial relationships for over 35 years, during which she wrote three books on the topic. While the term “attachment” may feel derogatory, that’s not necessarily the case. Parasocial attachments don’t always mean an unhealthy or overly dependent connection to a media persona, instead, it refers to feeling a sense of safety and security within the remote presence of someone.

 

Of course, we all have celebrity crushes and icons we look up to, but where’s the line between being a fan and having a parasocial relationship or attachment? An article from ImPossible Psychological Services stated that a fan is someone who admires or is interested in somebody or something, may show devotion or enthusiasm to a person and their work, and may feel inspired by them. Someone in a parasocial relationship, on the other hand, believes they have, to some extent, a personal connection to a media persona for any number of reasons. There are several causes for why this might occur, according to Forbes Health. It could be to satisfy the need for interaction or be a form of escapism where the act of imagining a relationship with a public figure may bring a sense of comfort and support to someone. A 2021 study from the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that the COVID-19 pandemic increased people’s developments of parasocial connections, suggesting that media personas became “more meaningful” as participants engaged in social distancing. During the pandemic, Stever explained, parasocial relationships ameliorated — to a larger extent — our sense of isolation.  

 

“Parasocial relationships are the natural and expected result of a mediated culture, one that was accelerated by the pandemic and our dependence on mediated interaction during that time,” Stever said.

 

Having aspirational role models is proven to be beneficial, especially for those in earlier developing stages of life, to connect with someone and experiment with their identity. Among youth, it’s especially common to develop these attachments as they look to their idols for a big sibling or role model connection, or as a means to express romantic crushes while avoiding any fear of rejection. Even in adults, these relationships can serve a valuable purpose as a means of increasing social networks and satisfying an emotional need for human connection, even if it’s one-sided. People can find a sense of comfort and belonging by engaging with a media persona that they look up to or identity with in some way. These feelings are also beneficial to those with avoidant attachment styles to be able to form a connection without rejection or shame. 

 

“When we get to know a person and develop an affection for that person as a result, this is part of this natural proclivity for this kind of social connection,” Stever said. “Sometimes a ‘crush’ can be more intense and harder to handle for an individual, but most usually, people get over those and move on. Or they write fan fiction!” 

 

The role of social media

 

Having 24/7 access to the internet has increasingly blurred the line between performer and spectator, and though that’s not necessarily a bad thing, it merely goes to show the rapid pace of digital media and mass communication. Before social media was what it is now, “famous people” existed in carefully curated spaces in the media and therefore in our minds. In other words, we saw what we were intended to see and knew these people in ways that were crafted for us. But social media has changed in dramatic ways. On one hand, we have seen an overwhelming influx of social media personalities and content creators for observers to attach to. On the other, the new-found casualness of social media has given observers a two-way mirror into the lives of seemingly sacred, untouchable celebrities. Meaning, we can now see much more into their lives, strengthening that false sense of intimacy, while the other person still has no idea of our existence. Before, A-list celebrities existed primarily in the realm of their art, only giving the audience a taste of their personalities through interviews or behind-the-scenes. Now, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson posts his leg day routine and Reese Witherspoon shares what she’s currently obsessed with on TikTok. Sally Theran, a professor of psychology at Wellesley College, said that when viewing celebrities on social media, it’s important to maintain a critical lens. Though there will always be a distinction between performers and spectators, the moving age of para-communication is breaking down certain barriers, allowing the audience to interact with their idols in new and raw ways, paving the path for parasocial relationships. Theran is a clinical psychologist, and her research involves examining authenticity and relationships in adolescence as well as parasocial relationships.

 

“It’s important for people to remember that when they are interacting with someone on social media, that person is not representing their ‘real self,’ she said. “Social media exists as a form of publicity, and while people strive to be authentic, it is very unlikely that celebrities are representing their true authentic self on social media.” 

 

On TikTok especially, an app of constant content production, users having the ability to directly interact with media personas through video feeds into a false sense of genuine connection and friendship. Something I’ve seen recently are social media users almost “living through” their favorite content creators as they share milestones and experiences that many people don’t get the chance to. Creators will push out video after video of their experience and hundreds of people will flood their comments as if they really know the person. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing — social media is great in that it allows users to feel involved and belonging to a community, but when I see a comment that says, “I’ve been refreshing your page all day to see your Coachella vlogs!” I get a bit of a weird feeling. There’s a key difference, or at least should be, between consuming content for entertainment purposes and being internet-dependent on a media persona as a form of social interaction and experiencing life. It’s easy to get wrapped up in other people’s lives, especially as it’s being fed to us 24 hours a day, that we can forget to make our own memories in real life. When it’s used appropriately and consciously, social media can be great for entertainment, connection or inspiration. But it can also feed into feelings of low self-esteem, jealousy or isolation. We are inherently social creatures, sure, but I’m not sure how much we were made to know so much about so many people’s lives that we don’t already know. 

 

Historically, parasocial relationships have been viewed as a symptom of loneliness and isolation, but both sides are widely argued. Some research literature suggests that sometimes parasocial relationships “can be used as a crutch and reinforce unrealistic expectations about relationships, such that young people may be rehearsing scripts through [parasocial interactions] that would not realistically occur,” according to a study called “Parasocial Interaction, the COVID-19 Quarantine, and the Digital Age Media.” While this may not be a common occurrence, it’s something to consider when viewing mass amounts of social media. Most times, it’s just for fun, but too much of anything can be a bad thing. Living through online personalities holds the opportunity to take away from real life experiences and may give us unrealistic standards as to how we should be living our own lives. What may start out as inspiration can quickly turn into jealousy and insecurity. 

 

However, other studies have found that para-relationships help decrease loneliness among some people, as they’re exposed to emotional connection and belonging, even if the dialogue or feelings are not reciprocated. It can be an outlet for people struggling with loss and grief as a means of feeling less alone. According to the study, the research supports the idea that para-communication can be used to compensate for internal social deficits, essentially providing real psychological benefits from parasocial behaviors: “Though not conclusive, some findings have yielded support for this concept. For instance, for those who had social challenges such as factors related to cognition, anxiety, introversion, fear of rejection, loneliness or self-esteem, engaging in parasocial behaviors significantly aided some measures of well-being.” 

 

Theran explained that “it’s important to remember that parasocial relationships can be helpful and beneficial, but they are not a substitute for authentic in-person relationships. It is also critical to remember that when you consume social media, to view it critically.”

 

Cases where someone becomes dangerously dependent on their parasocial relationship are very rare and usually occur when a person already has some form of mental illness. The overwhelming majority of para-relationships remain at a healthy level of admiration and “obsession.” Stever said that in her 35 years of fieldwork, her observation is that mental illness precedes the problematic relationship. In most cases, she added, the effects of parasocial relationships are more healthy than they are harmful.

 

It’s good and normal to find comfort in other people, even if that peace is only found in you. It’s perfectly healthy to look up to people we see ourselves in or want to be more like; we should always be wanting to grow and better ourselves, so long as we don’t lose sight of who we are. In other words, as screenwriter Charlie Kaufman once said, “We are what we love, not what loves us.” 

 

About Mallory Pace

Friends and family knew Mallory Pace would become a writer when she wrote and illustrated a hand-made children’s book in the third grade for her class to read. It didn’t indicate a prodigy-in-the-making, but all the elements of a good storyline were there, waiting to be improved. Now, Mallory is about to graduate from the University of North Florida with a multimedia journalism degree and minors in political science and marketing, with which she hopes to continue storytelling and exploring avenues of multimedia journalism. In Mallory's free time, you’ll either find her taking her cat, Peter, on a walk via stroller, or galavanting around the beaches.