Parasocial Relationships: Definition, Examples, and Key Studies

The psychology of imagined bonds with celebrities and media figures

Woman watching TV
Michael H / Getty Images.

Have you ever wondered what a movie character, a celebrity, or a TV personality would do, even when you’re not watching them on-screen? Have you felt close to a character or celebrity even though you’ve never met them in real life? If you've had one of these common experiences, you've experienced a parasocial relationship.

Donald Horton and Richard Wohl first introduced the concept of parasocial relationships, along with the related idea of parasocial interaction, in the 1950s. A parasocial relationship is an enduring relationship that a media consumer imagines with a media figure. Although the relationship is one-sided, it is psychologically similar to a real-life social relationship.

Origins

In their 1956 article, “Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a distance,” Horton and Wohl described both parasocial relationships and parasocial interaction for the first time. They used the terms somewhat interchangeably, but mostly focused their exploration on the illusion of conversational give-and-take a media consumer experiences with a media figure while watching a TV show or listening to a radio program.

This led to some conceptual confusion. Although a great deal of research has been done on parasocial phenomena, especially since the 1970s and 1980s, the most widely utilized scale in that research, the Parasocial Interaction Scale, combines questions about parasocial interactions and parasocial relationships. However, today, scholars generally agree the two concepts are related but different.

Defining Parasocial Interactions and Relationships

When a media consumer feels like they are interacting with a media figure—a celebrity, fictional character, radio host, or even a puppet—during a discrete viewing or listening scenario, they are experiencing a parasocial interaction. For example, if a viewer feels like they are hanging out at the Dunder-Mifflin office while watching the TV comedy The Office, they are engaging in a parasocial interaction.

On the other hand, if the media user imagines a long-term bond with a media figure that extends outside the viewing or listening situation, it is considered a parasocial relationship. The bond can be either positive or negative. For instance, if an individual adores the host of their local morning program and often thinks about and discusses the host as if he is one of their friends, that individual has a parasocial relationship with the host.

Scholars have observed that parasocial interactions can lead to parasocial relationships, and parasocial relationships can strengthen parasocial interactions. This process resembles the way that spending time with a person in real-life can result in a friendship that then gets deeper and more committed when the individuals spend additional time together.

Parasocial vs. Interpersonal Relationships

Although the idea of parasocial relationships may seem unusual at first, it’s important to remember that for most media consumers, this is a perfectly normal and psychologically healthy reaction to encounters with on-screen individuals.

Humans are wired to make social connections. Media did not exist through a majority of human evolution, and so when consumers are presented with a person or person-like individual via video or audio media, their brains respond as if they were engaging in a real-life social situation. This response does not mean that the individuals believe the interaction is real. Despite media consumers’ knowledge that the interaction is an illusion, however, their perception will cause them to react to the situation as if it were real.

In fact, research has shown that the development, maintenance, and dissolution of a parasocial relationship is similar in many ways to real-life interpersonal relationships. For example, one study found that when television viewers perceive a favorite television performer as having an attractive personality and as being competent in their abilities, a parasocial relationship will develop. Surprisingly, physical attraction was found to be less important to the development of parasocial relationships, leading the researchers to conclude that television viewers prefer to develop relationships with television personalities they find socially attractive and who are attractive for their capabilities.  

Another investigation assessed the way psychological commitments to a media figure led to the maintenance of parasocial relationships. Two different studies showed that for both fictional television characters, like Homer Simpson, and non-fictional television personas, like Oprah Winfrey, people were more committed to their parasocial relationship when (1) they felt satisfied watching the figure, (2) felt committed to continue watching the figure, and (3) felt that they didn't have good alternatives to the media figure. The researchers used a scale originally developed to assess interpersonal relationships to measure commitment to parasocial relationships, demonstrating that theories and measures of interpersonal relationships can be successfully applied to parasocial relationships.

Finally, research has demonstrated that media consumers can experience parasocial breakups when a parasocial relationship ends. This can happen for a number of reasons, such as a television or movie series coming to an end, a character leaving a show, or a media consumer deciding to no longer watch or listen to a show where a character or personality appears. For example, a 2006 study examined how viewers reacted when the popular TV sitcom Friends ended its broadcast run. The researchers found that the more intense the viewers’ parasocial relationships with the characters, the greater the viewers’ distress when the show ended. The pattern of loss Friends fans exhibited was similar to that displayed by those who have lost a real-life relationship, although the emotions were less intense overall.

Of course, while this research demonstrates the similarities between parasocial and interpersonal relationships, there are also important distinctions. A parasocial relationship is always mediated and one-sided, with no opportunity for mutual give-and-take. People can engage in as many parasocial relationships as they want and and can break them off whenever they choose without consequence. In addition, parasocial relationships can be shared with family members and friends without jealousy. In fact, discussing a mutual parasocial relationship can actually strengthen the bond in a real-life social relationship.

Parasocial Bonds in the Digital Age

While much of work involving parasocial phenomena has centered on parasocial bonds with radio, movie, and especially television characters and personalities, digital technology has introduced a new medium through which parasocial relationships can be developed, maintained, and even strengthened.

For example, a researcher examined the way fans of the boy band New Kids on the Block maintained their parasocial relationships with the band members by posting to the band’s website. The analysis was conducted following the announcement of the band’s reunion after a 14-year break. On the website, fans expressed their continued devotion to the band, their affection towards its members, and their desire to see the band again. They also shared stories about how the band had helped them in their own lives. Thus, computer-mediated communication assisted fans in their parasocial relationship maintenance. Before the dawn of the internet, people could write fan letters to achieve a similar experience, but the researcher observed that online communication appeared to make fans feel closer to media figures, and that this could make the disclosure of personal feelings and anecdotes more likely.  

It stands to reason, then, that social networks like Facebook and Twitter would make an even more substantial contribution to the maintenance of parasocial relationships. Celebrities appear to write and share their own messages with fans on these sites, and fans can respond to their messages, creating the potential for fans to develop even greater feelings of intimacy with media figures. So far, minimal research has been conducted on the way these technological developments impact parasocial relationships, but the topic is ripe for future research.

Parasocial Relationship Key Takeaways

  • Horton and Wohl first introduced the concept of parasocial relationships and parasocial interaction in 1956.
  • A parasocial relationship is an ongoing, one-sided bond with a media figure. The media figure may be a celebrity, fictional character, television personality, and even a puppet or animated character.
  • A parasocial interaction is an imagined interaction with a media figure during a discrete viewing situation.
  • Studies have shown that the development, maintenance, and dissolution of parasocial relationships are similar in many ways to interpersonal relationships.

Sources

  • Branch, Sara E., Kari M. Wilson, and Christopher R. Agnew. “Committed to Oprah, Homer, and House: Using the Investment Model to Understand Parasocial Relationships.” Psychology of Popular Media Culture, vol. 2, no. 2, 2013, pp. 96-109, http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0030938
  • Dibble, Jayson L., Tilo Hartmann, and Sarah F. Rosaen. “Parasocial interaction and Parasocial Relationship: Conceptual Clarification and a Critical Assessment of Measures.” Human Communication Research, vol. 42, no. 1, 2016, pp. 21-44, https://doi.org/10.1111/hcre.12063 
  • Eyal, Keren, and Jonathan Cohen. “When Good Friends Say Goodbye: A Parasocial Breakup Study.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, vol. 50, no. 3, 2006, pp. 502-523, https://doi.org/10.1207/s15506878jobem5003_9
  • Giles, David, C. “Parasocial Interaction: A Review of the Literature and a Model for Future Research.” Media Psychology, vol. 4, no. 3., 2002, pp. 279-305, https://doi.org/10.1207/S1532785XMEP0403_04
  • Horton, Donald, and R. Richard Wohl. “Mass Communication and Parasocial Interaction: Observation of Intimacy at a Distance.” Psychiatry, vol. 19, no. 3, 1956, pp. 215-229, https://doi.org/10.1080/00332747.1956.11023049
  • Hu, Mu. “The influence of a scandal on parasocial relationship, parasocial interaction, and parsocial breakup.” Psychology of Popular Media Culture, vol. 5, no. 3, 2016, pp. 217-231, http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/ppm0000068
  • Rubin, Alan M., Elizabeth M. Perse, and Robert A. Powell. “Loneliness, parasocial interaction, and local television news viewing.” Human Communication Research, vol. 12, no. 2, 1985, pp. 155-180, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2958.1985.tb00071.x
  • Rubin, Rebecca B., and Michael P. McHugh. “Development of Parasocial Interaction Relationships.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, vol. 31, no. 3, 1987, pp. 279-292, https://doi.org/10.1080/08838158709386664
  • Sanderson, James. “’You Are All Loved So Much:’ Exploring Relational Maintenance Within the Context of Parasocial Relationships.” Journal of Media Psychology, vol. 21, no. 4, 2009, pp. 171-182, https://doi.org/10.1027/1864-1105.21.4.171