What Are Parasocial Relationships And How To Know If You Are In One?

by Ravi Teja Tadimalla

Celebrities like actors and singers can have a significant impact on the lives of their fans. They can influence the way fans dress up, wear their hair, and even the lifestyle they choose. At times, fans can become so enamored that they start imagining a relationship with celebrities.

This, though surprising, is a well-observed and documented behavior trait in psychology. Such media-induced imaginary relationships are termed parasocial relationships.

Do you think you are in a parasocial relationship? Keep reading to know more.

What Are Parasocial Relationships And Interactions?

Have you ever experienced a strong connection with your favorite on-screen celebrity, even though you have never met them? Do you ever wonder what they must be like in their off-screen lives? Do you sometimes wish they would become a part of your life? These experiences are common and are termed as parasocial relationships. Here, an individual starts feeling a long-term connection with celebrities. It is a one-sided relationship, where one person gets emotionally invested and gives time and the other person is completely unaware of their existence. Such bonds can be positive or negative.

Let us try to understand these concepts with an example. Suppose you are watching an episode of Friends. You imagine having a conversation with Phoebe while watching the episode. However, if you like her so much that you think about her even when you are not watching TV, you have a parasocial relationship.

The more interactions one imagines to have with their favorite celebrity, the stronger this relationship becomes. It is similar to how your relationship develops and becomes strong with your friends when you spend more time with them.

The concept of parasocial relationships and interactions was first introduced by Donald Horton and Richard Wohl in the 1950s. It was the time when TV sets started entering the living rooms of the public (1). However, they were also observed in the 1800s and early 1900s where people formed a one-sided relationship with protagonists in books.

You may now wonder if parasocial relationships are healthy and how they differ from interpersonal relationships. Let us understand more in the following section.

Parasocial Vs. Interpersonal Relationships

There is nothing unhealthy about parasocial relationships. If you are an avid consumer of movies, sports, podcasts, radio, and TV shows, experiencing such bonds or parasocial relationships is absolutely normal.

In fact, they are an important part of adolescent life. Such bonds come without any conditions, anxieties, and fears of rejection.

Yes, such relationships don’t have enough dialogue around them and that may make you uncomfortable. However, you may also want to note that humans are social beings. We thrive on relationships and seek comfort in the company of others. In many ways, parasocial relationships are similar to interpersonal relationships.

When a person sees or hears another person through media, the reaction in the brain is similar to that of a real-time situation. However, this does not mean that the person is not aware that such interactions are not real. In fact, they may be well aware that such interactions are illusions.

Parasocial relationships tend to be similar to interpersonal relationships in several more ways. Individuals who develop these relationships spend time and effort strengthening and maintaining them, as they would with an interpersonal relationship.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that the capabilities of the celebrity rank higher than their physical attraction. Fans do not form such relationships purely because they find their celebrities physically attractive.

For instance, a study showed how the viewers were more committed to TV characters Homer Simpson (fictional) and Oprah Winfrey (non-fictional). The study concluded that viewers were more committed to their parasocial relationship with such fictional and non-fictional characters when they felt satisfied watching them (2).

During this study, the researchers demonstrated that the theories and measures meant for interpersonal relationships also held true for parasocial relationships (2).

Interestingly, viewers also break up from their parasocial relationships. This can happen when the movie or show ends. In other scenarios, the viewer can discontinue relating with the celebrity and decide to no longer watch or listen to their shows. Such reactions in parasocial bonds could be less intense than those in intersocial relationships.

Apart from these similarities, there are a few differences between parasocial and interpersonal relationships. For instance, there is no mutual give-take in parasocial relationships. It is purely one-sided, and the individual can decide to break off anytime without any consequences.

Internet and social media have further expanded the territory of parasocial relationships. Let us understand this further in the next section.

Parasocial Relationships And The Digital Age

While most of the work in the field of parasocial relationships has been for media and sports celebrities, the digital age has further added to its realm. Social media gives a new medium to develop and maintain these relationships.

As social media allows the fans a free window to communicate with their idols, they feel much closer to them. They can read and see what their favorite celebrities are up to. There is a constant stream of communication that helps in strengthening these relationships.

Additionally, parasocial relationships also help fans form social relationships. It is always easier to connect with other people you have something in common. This is the reason fan clubs exist and are so popular, as they help fans feel less lonely.

There are instances when real socialization is not possible. The perfect example is the ongoing pandemic where people had to limit their social relationships and contact. While they quarantined in their homes, most of them turned to online-streaming platforms and binge-watched TV shows and series to overcome the loneliness.

Parasocial relationships help celebrities too. Their popularity depends on how much they are liked. These relationships, in a way, make their new releases a hit.

Although such bonds are always one-sided, social media platforms allow celebrities to contribute more to these relationships. For instance, they can go Live on Instagram or Facebook, read the messages from their fans aloud during such sessions, and share about their new releases or ask for advice.

At this point, you could be wondering if parasocial relationships can have any limitations. Let us find out in the next section.

Are There Any Limitations To Parasocial Relationships?

Although parasocial relationships are healthy in most cases, they can have a few downsides as well.

  • Holding A Celebrity On A Pedestal

As parasocial relationships are one-sided, individuals can form a wrong sense of reality. They end up forming bonds with celebrities and can put them on a high pedestal. As the non-celebrities are in charge of steering these relationships, they can get influenced by these illusions.

When left unchecked, these non-celebrities can make wrong impressions of how real-life relationship is. For instance, they may end up putting their own needs above everyone else or may not want to compromise in their social interactions.

  • Forgetting That These Relationships Are One-Sided

At times, the non-celebrities can get so consumed in these bonds that they may forget these relationships are one-sided. They could forget that the celebrity does not know them and can start having unhealthy expectations.

Moreover, giving excessive amounts of time and effort to such relationships can take a toll on their mental health.

  • Aggression

Fans have been aggressive with their favorite personality. This could be because their celebrity was in a relationship with someone else or they did something that let their fans down.

Even more common are the personal attacks on Twitter and Instagram, where fans of two celebrities get into verbal attacks because the celebrities had a disagreement.

  • Body Image And Self-Esteem Issues

Parasocial relationships may give a person a false sense of reality. They often affect adolescent girls the most as they end up becoming soft targets of social comparison. People use their own perception to decide what is good and try to measure up to it. There is no objective definition of what is good or bad.

Apart from this, the current stream of influencers gives a false sense of reality to people. Their picture-perfect lives with envious lifestyles make people question their own. Earlier, people could differentiate fiction from reality. But they lose their power of discretion when they see embellished (and often paid) pictures of influencers.

Parasocial relationships are widespread despite their negative impacts. Are they essential in the current age of social media.

Are Parasocial Relationships Essential In The Age Of Social Media?

Before social media, fans would write letters to express their feelings to their beloved celebrities. They never knew if the people they held in such high regard would ever read their letters. They wrote in the hope of receiving a reply and felt it may help strengthen their bond.

In the present times, nobody writes letters anymore. Social media has given them free access to these celebrities they adore and have parasocial relationships with.

In fact, social media has brought new kinds of stars to our lives – the influencers. From styling clothes to the way one can shop to decorating one’s house, these influencers can have a serious impact on the lives of their followers. Their following that runs from a few hundred thousand to even a million is a testament to the fact that individuals are making more parasocial bonds than ever.

Social media is a platform that allows followers to be in touch with these influencers at all times. Bloggers and gamers openly share the details of their lives. In most cases, it happens on a daily basis. This 24-hour access to social media stars gives a sense of intimacy, making them believe that their bond is special and strong. Over time, the followers get to know so much about these social media stars that they start believing they know and understand them.

Social media is an excellent platform for stars who want to build their brand. It allows them to be more present in the lives of their fans. They can share more and connect through different media and build a narrative that suits their interests. Parasocial relationships are more essential to the influencers in this digital age, as they have the power to impact their fans in positive ways.

Conclusion

Parasocial relationships are nothing new. Psychologists consider them perfectly normal where an individual likes a media personality. They are healthy and can help an individual develop more meaningful bonds with real people in their lives. As long as they don’t have a negative impact, an individual can get influenced in the right way.

2 sources

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Ravi Teja Tadimalla is an editor and a published author. He graduated from SRM University, Chennai, and has been in the digital media field for over six years. He has a Professional Certificate in Food, Nutrition & Research from Wageningen University. He considers himself a sculptor born to chip away at content and reveal its dormant splendor. He started his career as a research writer, primarily focusing on health and wellness, and has over 250 articles to his credit. Ravi believes in the great possibilities of abundant health with natural foods and organic supplements. Reading and theater are his other interests.
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