Tuesday, April 19, 2016

P is for Parasocial Relationships

Human beings are social creatures; we seek out relationships with other people in a variety of capacities and to fulfill a variety of important needs. In fact, we are so hard-wired to build relationships with others, that we may even feel connected - in a social sense - to people we have never met, often people we encounter through the media. We call this phenomenon "parasocial relationships."

This behavior begins very early on in life. As children, we learn about social norms and how we should behave by watching others, including through television, movies, and video games. Because children have such active imaginations, and often do not yet know the difference between fantasy and reality, they may come to believe the characters they watch and even interact with are real. As we grow older, we (hopefully) learn that the characters aren't real...

But the feelings and connections continue to influence us and shape how we interact with others. Even as adults, we continue to feel connections to characters and media personalities, even when we recognize that those connections aren't real. You could argue that fandom, having favorite characters, and so on, are all extensions of our tendency to form parasocial relationships.

The concept of parasocial relationships plays an important part in a theory of media known as uses and gratifications (U&G) theory - essentially, people have different motivations for using media, and will select media that fulfills their needs. In this theory, rather than being passive recipients of media information, consumers play an active role in seeking out and integrating media into their lives. However, though U&G theory is relatively new (since the 1940s), the concept of parasocial relationships has been around much longer, and could encompass feelings of connectivity with story characters, or even gods and spirits.

While we all show this tendency, some people are more likely to form parasocial relationships or rather, more likely to form strong parasocial relationships, than others. People who do not have many opportunities for regular social interaction, for instance, tend to compensate for this deficit with parasocial relationships. I actually had the opportunity to witness this firsthand several years ago. My mom is visually impaired, and since I was in school, and my dad and brother worked full-time, she spent a lot of time at home with the dog and the TV. I introduced her to my all-time favorite show, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and got her hooked.

So hooked, in fact, that I noticed she started talking about the characters - especially Willow, her favorite character - as though they were real people.

Because, honestly, who doesn't love Willow?

At first, I was a bit concerned, until I started thinking back to the concept of parasocial relationships. I realized that what she was doing was actually quite normal, maybe even healthy. And though somewhat more intense, her connection to the characters was not altogether different from mine - considering that show can make me laugh or cry, regardless of how many times I've seen a particular episode, I likely also feel some strong social connections to the characters of Buffy.

And though I've focused the post so far on characters, we can also form parasocial relationships with real people, like celebrities. For instance, I know a lot about some of my favorite authors - I've read about them, even met a few of them, and can talk about them almost as though I know them. While at the logical level I know I don't actually KNOW them, it's completely normal to still feel a social connection to them.

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