What is a parasocial relationship

Parasocial refers to a special type of unequal relationship in which arises a feeling of connection with figures from movies, books and the media – famous people or characters. In this case, only viewers, listeners or readers are active participants in such relations.

Eagerly waiting for a new episode of your favorite sitcom, watching your favorite movie, following YouTube vlogs, reposting entries on Twitter without a response to the author, hair like your favorite singer – these are just some examples of parasocial relationships.

For the first time they started talking about back in the 50s of the last century. Then the American scientists Donald Horton and Richard Wall introduced in scientific circulation the term “parasocial ties”. It denoted the attachment of the public to media people discovered by the researchers, as well as a sense of belonging with them.

The objects of parasocial relations can be not only actors, musicians and TV presenters. Often people have feelings for fictional characters. Although the differences between the image created by a public person and the hero of a work of art are so great is a big question.

Parasocial relationship:
Pygmalion and Galatea, painting by Jean-Léon Gérôme, 1890. According to the myth, the sculptor Pygmalion fell in love with the statue he created, and Aphrodite, who took pity on him, revived the creation. Image: The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Wikimedia Commons

With the popularization of digital technologies, parasocial relationships not only did not disappear, but also become much stronger, spread more widely. Today, a person can literally broadcast his life to other people, and social networks form a kind of parallel reality. Another type of parasocial relationship has also appeared, when a person follows the updates of the Internet pages of those people with whom he does not communicate in real life or even does not know him at all.

How parasocial relationships arise and manifest

A number of factors strengthen the emotional attachment of a person to his virtual “interlocutor”.

Exists Addiction: The more screen time a user spends, the more prone they are to parasocial relationships. Gradually, the emotional connection with the object intensifies.

Another important factor in strengthening such relationships is that “communication” is increasingly taking place in a warm, even intimate atmosphere: for example, when a star shoots vlogs, room tours, and so on.

Media personalities themselves are also dependent on parasocial relationships. They are are listening to the requests of the public and, if necessary, change the line of conduct. At the same time, they cannot fully become participants in communication, despite the fact that today’s media are interactive – for example, they offer the opportunity to comment. The public person is often not physically capable reply to all messages. More often than not, she doesn’t knows about the existence of his “interlocutor”.

Film actors and presenters, bloggers and even characters in books or films become part of our life. The actions of strangers can occupy our thoughts, and tracking them can take time.

Feelings associated with an idol are as strong as in a real relationship. We really we deeply empathize with the characters from the screen or book pages that evoke an emotional response in us.

What are the consequences of parasocial relationships?

On the one hand, parasocial relationships create a false sense of intimacy. Such “communication”, at least outwardly, is very similar with the real, because many formal signs of live communication are observed. We listen to the stories of the parasocial “interlocutor”, we follow his voice, gestures and emotions, we perceive his advice.

This can lead to different consequences. We discuss the personal life of a public person and his actions as if we live in the same family, we see in him our friend or enemy, lover or object of worship. But in fact, all this is just phantoms and illusionsthat exist only in our head.

The situation may aggravatewhen a person experiences problems with live communication. Parasocial relationships are seductive because they give a sense of control: they arise at the request of the viewer and in the same way stop. This is not possible with real people.

A person who is deeply immersed in a “relationship” with an idol may eventually feel that he knows him better than others, understands him like no one else. Indeed, on the other side, he most often sees the ideal, and the stars themselves try to show only their best qualities.

It can be extremely painful for a real person to not match her image in the eyes of a fan. Frustration can turn into persecution and take a tragic turn.

So, in 1996, the singer Björk tried to kill a fan of Ricardo Lopez – after he found out that she has a beloved man. Prior to this, Lopez spent eight months “corresponding” with the performer in his diary.

In 2014 a certain man penetrated to Sandra Bullock’s house because he considered himself her husband. And five years later, a crazed fan with a knife attacked on Japanese singer Ena Matsuoka and inflicted facial injuries on her. To find out where she lives, a 26-year-old man carefully studied the girl’s selfies and compared the reflections in her pupils with panoramas in Google Maps.

However, parasocial relationships do not always mean a broken connection with reality. They can even help expand your social circle and make new friends with similar interests. The phenomenon of fandoms is based on this – communities of fans of something or someone.

Idols also often inspire fans to create their own art. And it can be not only fan fiction (compositions based on existing books, songs, films, and so on), but also original works.

What to do if you are in a parasocial relationship

Probably the emergence of parasocial relationships related with a decrease in social contacts in modern society. This lack of communication people try to compensate in different ways. And the easiest way to do this is without looking up from the screen.

When you find yourself prone to parasocial relationships, the first thing to ask yourself is: what do you need them for? Maybe they just make up for the lack of communication create feeling of friendship. In this case, there is nothing wrong with them, as long as they do not turn into a manic obsession.

The same YouTube video can teach something useful or just cheer you up. Moreover, parasocial relationships may partly mitigate the negative effects of lack of communication and lack of attachment – and this is good for mental and physical health.

But you need to understand that parasocial relationships can ultimately oust real ones, or even completely form false ones, as in the examples with Björk and Sandra Bullock. It can also cause feelings of worthlessness and self-doubt.

If you feel that parasocial relationships have begun to take an excessively long time, you are absorbed by an idol and you no longer have enough of such mediated “communication”, it may be worth going to a psychologist or psychotherapist.