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Attachment to Media Characters - Theoretical Approaches, Components of Attraction, Parasocial Attachment, Audience Characteristics that Affect Parasocial Attachment

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The many forms of mass media that were developed during the twentieth century have challenged the assumption that relationships occur only between “real” people who know each other personally. Mass media creators, as well as researchers, have long recognized that media consumers are drawn to compelling media characters and personalities. In 1956, Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl wrote a seminal article entitled “Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction.” They coined the term “parasocial interaction” to describe the imaginary interactions between television variety show hosts and their home audiences, as well as the “seeming face-to-face relationship” that viewers developed with these personalities. Horton and Wohl argued that a sense of “interaction” was conveyed to viewers because hosts appeared as themselves and often directly addressed the audience. In fictional programming, performers rarely “break the fourth wall” and speak directly to the audience. Yet viewers still typically feel as though they are involved to some extent in fictional events that are depicted on screen, and they sometimes have the sense that they are participating in imaginary interactions with the characters.

Horton and Wohl’s article did not stimulate much research until the late 1970s and early 1980s, when media scholars showed renewed interest in the topic. In 1985, Alan Rubin, Elizabeth Perse, and Robert Powell developed a self-report parasocial interaction scale to measure the perceived bond that viewers have with local television news personalities. Many researchers now use the term “parasocial relationship” to describe the affective bond that individuals develop with characters and personalities in a variety of media genres, including news programs, talk shows, soap operas, dramas, and situation comedies.

Theoretical Approaches

Parasocial relationships have often been examined from the perspective of motivations. The “uses and gratifications” perspective contends that people are not passive recipients of media messages; rather, they seek out particular media content because they are motivated by goals, needs, desires, and/or preferences. Parasocial relationships have been conceptualized as a form of audience involvement that provides social and emotional gratifications, motivates further viewing, and may help to satisfy the affiliative needs of audience members.

The study of parasocial relationships has also been guided by efforts to explore the “interface” between mass communication and interpersonal communication. Early research on parasocial relationships recognized that these relational bonds were similar in many ways to the social relationships that people develop through face-to-face contact with others. Calls to synthesize theory in mass and interpersonal communication escalated in the 1980s, motivated in part by changing communication technologies that markedly altered the nature of mediated communication. For example, Robert Hawkins, John Wiemann, and Suzanne Pingree edited a volume in 1988 that was entitled Advancing Communication Science: Merging Mass and Interpersonal Processes. Individual chapters in this book addressed such issues as the similarities and differences between face-to-face and mediated communication, the activity and interactivity of media audiences, and the role of mass media in interpersonal relationships. Consistent with these efforts toward creating a synthesis, theoretical approaches from interpersonal communication and psychology (e.g., implicit personality theory, theories of interpersonal attraction, attribution theory, uncertainty reduction theory, attachment theory, and social cognitive theory) have been applied to the understanding of parasocial relationships. Consequently, much of the research on parasocial relationships has used terms and concepts that have traditionally been associated with interpersonal relationships, and it has furthered researcher’s understanding of the nature of the psychological bonds that individuals form with others.

Components of Attraction

In the initial stages of any relationship, including parasocial relationships, individuals engage in the process of impression formation. In forming impressions of others, people use a wide range of observable information, including physical appearance, behaviors, and emotional reactions. Media creators often rely on particular physical attributes, such as attractiveness, physique, or manner of dress, to convey certain impressions quickly. Impressions also develop over time, as audience members learn more about the background, personality, behavioral tendencies, and emotional makeup of media characters and personalities. Although all individuals are responsive to physical appearance cues, the weight that is given to these cues in relation to other information changes developmentally. Young children rely heavily on appearance when they are evaluating others, but older viewers rely to a greater extent on less visually salient cues such as personality and behavior.

As a function of forming impressions of others, viewers are attracted to media characters and personalities to varying degrees. Research confirms that media characters and personalities whose personal attributes and behaviors are perceived favorably are generally liked more. Viewers also tend to be more attracted to characters and personalities who (they perceive) are similar to themselves. Perception of similarity is enhanced by shared characteristics such as sex, ethnicity, social class, and age, but it may also be influenced by other factors such as personality traits, feelings, beliefs, and experiences.

Many media characters and personalities, however, are extremely good-looking, unusually talented, or highly successful in their endeavors, and they are undoubtedly dissimilar in important ways to most audience members. Viewers are attracted to such individuals, but rather than feeling similar, they often view them as being role models—people they want to be like. The desire to be like another individual has been referred to as “wishful identification.” This process is promoted during media exposure by the tendency to identify with or share the perspective of a media character and by vicariously participating in his or her experiences.

Most of the research that is related to wishful identification has been conducted with children. It is not surprising that the television characters children want to be like possess a variety of desirable attributes. Children often wish to be like successful characters, regardless of whether they approve of the behaviors of the characters. On television, good characters are not necessarily popular or successful, and violence is often used successfully or for prosocial ends. In general, the positive or negative consequences that are experienced by the characters may be more important than their social behavior per se in determining wishful identification. There is also evidence that a certain subgroup (mostly males) identifies strongly with violent characters.

The character attributes that are associated with wishful identification vary based on both the sex of the viewer and the sex of the character. Although there are some differences across studies, boys tend to prefer same-sex role models that are perceived as being strong, active, and intelligent. In contrast, girls choose role models of both sexes, but the traits that influence their choices differ for male and female characters. Girls choose male role models that they regard as being intelligent and funny, whereas their choice of female role models is based primarily on the physical attractiveness of the characters. These results may reflect both gender-role stereotypes in society and the nature of male and female portrayals on television.

Parasocial Attachment

There is much evidence that audience members form strong affective attachments to mass media characters and personalities and that these relationships tend to be stronger for individuals who are active, involved viewers. Researchers have used the term “parasocial relationship” to describe this type of affective bond, which develops over time. While viewing a media presentation, audience members often feel as though they are involved in the events, and they respond in some ways as if they were witnessing or participating in real interactions with people they know. Over time, they may come to feel that they know these individuals as well as they know their real-world friends or neighbors. This type of involvement and familiarity leads to the formation of emotional attachments or parasocial bonds. Many viewers become so emotionally tied to fictional characters in television series that the disappearance of these characters—either through the plot of the program or because the series ends—is emotionally upsetting. Audience members also develop close emotional ties to real people who appear in the mass media, such as actors, talk show hosts, and other celebrities. The death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1997 provided a vivid example of the power of parasocial bonds. Millions of people whose only contact with the princess had been through the mass media apparently had felt a deep emotional attachment to her, as exemplified by worldwide public displays of mourning.

Researchers have likened the development of parasocial relationships to the process by which people form interpersonal relationships. Communication to reduce uncertainty and to increase knowledge of another person has been shown to play an important role in this process. In parasocial relationships, uncertainty may be reduced through passive strategies, such as observing media characters or personalities in a variety of situations, and through active strategies, such as talking with others about the characters. Studies suggest that initial attraction to media characters motivates further efforts to “get to know” them, leading to increased confidence in predicting their behaviors, greater intimacy or parasocial attachment, and an increased sense of relationship importance. Although most research on parasocial relationships has been done with adults, there is evidence that children and adolescents also develop affective attachments to characters.

Audience Characteristics that Affect Parasocial Attachment

The social relationships and personal characteristics of audience members have been examined in relation to their parasocial attachments. Initially, it was believed that parasocial relationships compensated for a lack of social connections. Jan-Erik Norlund, for example, advanced this argument in 1978. However, evidence regarding this hypothesis has been mixed. Some research suggests that individuals who have less social involvement are more likely to use television for companionship and parasocial relations. Several other studies, however, have found no association between chronic loneliness and the tendency to form parasocial relationships. However, evidence does indicate that the interpersonal attachment style of an individual influences his or her formation of parasocial relationships. A study by Tim Cole and Laura Leets (1999), for example, found that individuals who had an anxious-ambivalent attachment style were most likely to form parasocial bonds, possibly as a way of fulfilling their unmet emotional needs. Individuals who had an avoidant attachment style were least likely to form parasocial bonds, and those who had secure interpersonal attachments fell in the middle.

Individual differences in empathy are also important. Although there are many definitions of empathy, it has been defined broadly as an individual’s responses to the observed experiences of another person. Empathy plays an important role in interpersonal relations and contributes to short-term emotional responses to media characters. There is some evidence that empathy also facilitates the development of long-term affective attachments to characters. Empathy increases a viewer’s tendency to recognize and share a character’s perspective and emotional experiences, which in turn should facilitate knowledge and understanding of the character and lead, over time, to the sense of a close parasocial bond. A study by John Turner (1993) has found that self-esteem was related to the development of parasocial relationships, but the nature of this association depended on the role of the media performer. For example, individuals who had difficulty communicating with others because of low self-esteem formed strong parasocial bonds with soap opera characters, but not with real media personalities. Finally, many studies have found that females tend to develop stronger parasocial attachments than do males.

Media Characteristics that Affect Parasocial Attachment

As Joshua Meyrowitz argued in 1979, formal aspects of television and film productions can shape the viewers’ responses and their tendency to develop parasocial relationships with media characters or personalities. Camera angles, close-ups, and editing techniques influence the viewers’ selection and interpretation of information, and they may affect the sense of closeness between the viewer and a character or performer, in much the same way as spatial distance affects interpersonal relations. Several studies indicate that parasocial relationships are enhanced when media characters or performers directly address the audience, thereby simulating the process of face-to-face interaction.

The content of media presentations may contribute to uncertainty reduction, and in some cases, it may resemble the process of self-disclo-sure. For example, the information that viewers receive about a fictional character is scripted and designed to reveal quickly the key aspects of the character’s background and personality. Programs depict characters’ interactions with others in a variety of contexts, their solitary activities, and even their innermost thoughts and feelings (e.g., via dream sequences). This type of information permits viewers to know more about media characters than they may know about the people with whom they have close interpersonal relationships. Similarly, celebrities, such as the hosts and guests on talk shows, often reveal personal information about themselves and share emotional experiences. Perhaps one of the factors that contributes to people’s intense attachments to celebrities such as Princess Diana or Oprah Winfrey is the public’s access to their so-called backstage behaviors— behaviors that reveal how these individuals act in their private lives. Furthermore, audience members can obtain extensive information about media personalities and fictional characters from many sources, including print and television interviews, magazines that are devoted to particular series or genres (e.g., soap operas), and Internet chat rooms and message boards.

Long-Term Consequences of Parasocial Attachment

Parasocial relationships can be emotionally gratifying, they can provide viewers with a sense of companionship and pseudo-friendship, and they may enable viewers to participate vicariously in relationships as preparation for real-life social roles. Research also shows that parasocial relationships foster reliance on media characters and personalities for personally relevant information such as how to behave or how to cope with problems. Dependence on individuals who are known only through the media for behavioral guidance has the potential to affect people’s lives positively or negatively, depending on the nature of the media portrayals. For example, fictional characters and celebrities who successfully confront personal problems may encourage safe and socially appropriate behaviors, but those who act antisocially, with few sanctions or adverse effects, may promote the acceptance of such behaviors.

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over 6 years ago

I really get this when I watch that old CGI television series Reboot. The level of attachment I feel is much stronger because I watched this show when I was a kid and formed emotional attachments to the characters then. So going back to watch ReBoot episodes 17 years later feels like going to visit good old friends that never let me down, ever. This is really interesting.

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over 7 years ago

Attachment to Media Characters - Theoretical Approaches, Components of Attraction, Parasocial Attachment, Audience Characteristics that Affect Parasocial Attachment