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June 1, 2012 at 5:37 PMComments: 3 Faves: 1

Science Shows: The Bonds We Build With TV Characters are Very Much Real

By Erin Froehlich More Blogs by This AuthorFrom the Id and Ego Blog Series

I just got back from lunch with a friend at work. We discussed the normal things work friends talk about over lunch - how the day is going, what our plans are for the day ahead, and what note-worthy things had happened to each of us the night before. In my case, I regretted staying up late to finish up season one of Game of Thrones. (Yeah, I know, Im behind. I live in the boons where TV and internet are ridiculously expensive, so I dont have them. Instead, I watch DVDs.) It was more than just the lack of sleep though.

Its really kind of sad. I said. I had been watching an episode a night. I was just starting to get used to seeing the characters every day, catching up with them in much the same way I do with my lunch buddy. They had shared so much with me! I had been there with them through their struggles, when they made life-changing decisions, when they formed romances, when they lost their heads both literally and figuratively. And now, that's over. I'm going to have to wait a good long time before I'll see them again.

Sadness, indeed.

It feels a little silly describing my sense of loss at the end of a TV series. For one, the characters arent real, and the attachment is purely on my part for another. But then, my work friend in fact, did not laugh, but instead agreed whole-heartedly. I know! I get the same way!

Parasocial Relationships

Curious to understand why we both had this same strange reaction, I decided to do a little research and as it turns out, we're far from alone. Theres actually a scientific term that explains the complex bond we felt with the characters in our favorite shows. Where traditional give-and-take relationships involve two parties sharing moments and truths and doing their best to coexist, parasocial relationships as theyve been coined, are defined as being one-sided affairs. (And with the spread of mass media, these arrangements have become increasingly part of our culture.)

While watching a TV series does seem to be one of the easiest ways to produce these sort of bonds (after all, as I pointed out, you do see and catch up with these people on a regular basis), people often bond these parasocial relationships with favorite movie characters, favorite bands and musicians or favorite actors or actresses as well.

It's a true bond, quite similar to traditional relationships, and as with more traditional relationship models, parasocial relationships can be both healthy and unhealthy, and can produce both pleasant and unpleasant emotional states.

The Good

An article in Scientific American titled Imaginary Friends beautifully illustrates the positive side of parasocial bonds. First, they describe studies which have shown that watching a favorite TV show satiates our need to connect and helps us overcome feelings of loneliness when that pain strikes. authors theorized that loneliness motivates individuals to seek out relationships, even if those relationships are not real. Participants were more likely to watch a favorite show when they were feeling lonely and less likely to feel lonely after they had.

Another study they discuss showed that our parasocial relationships with TV characters work as a band-aid and preventative to wounds of the ego. People were more likely to watch a favorite TV show after a fight a time where their sense of belonging has been threatened, their self-esteem is lowered and feelings of rejection surface.

As they point out, relationships with TV characters are about as safe as they come. There is no fear of rejection with them. There is also no need for upkeep. We might miss them, but we dont need to worry that theyll be upset with us if we get busy and neglect the connection.

The Bad

Unfortunately, as simple and safe as they might be, parasocial relationships can also hurt us. For starts, time spent on these one-sided connections may mean we dont make the effort we otherwise would have in our real life relationships. For another, as I pointed out at the beginning of this blog, there comes a time when the series ends and when that happens, psychologists say the pain can be akin to the pain of a breakup.

Another study, this one not actually focused on a television show, but on the Harry Potter series, found that fans with strong negative reactions to the dissolution managed grief as they would at the end of a real life relationship. They feel angry, they feel lonely, and they go looking for a "rebound" - another set of characters they can fall in love with, another parasocial relationship.

Attachment Styles Role in Parasocial Relationships

Of course, it's important a distinction be made - there are fans and then there are fanatics. According to psychologists, this distinction, the strength of the bond and the sense of loss at its end have much to do with our personal attachment style a pattern we develop in early childhood based on our first relationship experiences, such as those with our parents. They break these patterns down into four major types:

Secure Attachment Model tend to feel accepted, worthy of affection, confident, comfortable in close relationships.

  • Sees Themselves: in a positive light.
  • Sees Others: in a positive light.
  • Low Avoidance, Low Anxiety.

Pre-occupied Attachment Model - tend to feel disregarded or unimportant, always feel they must earn and seek approval from others.

  • Sees Themselves: in a negative light.
  • Sees Others: in a positive light.
  • Low Avoidance, High Anxiety.

Dismissing Attachment Model tend to feel over-important, they tend to push people away or remain emotionally distant in order to maintain their self-image.

  • Sees Themselves: in a positive light.
  • Sees Others: in a negative light.
  • High Avoidance, Low Anxiety.

Fearful Attachment Model tend to distrust others, they fear being hurt and rejected, but desperately crave affection and comforting.

  • Sees Themselves: in a negative light.
  • Sees Others: in a negative light.
  • High Avoidance, High Anxiety.

According to studies, dismissives were the least likely to form a strong parasocial bond, fearfuls were the most likely, with pre-occupieds coming in second and secures coming in third. As those most prone to developing intense parasocial relationships, fearfuls must take special care to ensure their attachment does not move to an unhealthy level. While there's no harm in spending a little time with your favorite parasocial relationship, and maybe even some good, we need the feedback and reciprocity our real world relationships offer.

What are your favorite TV shows?

Do you have any comfort shows or movies you like to watch when youre feeling down?

Have you experienced the strange sense of loss described here after a favorite TV show ended?

Please Share!

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

Journal of Consumer Research: The Consumption of Television Programming:Development and Validation of the Connectedness Scale

MediaLife: Why Folks Love the TV Shows They Do

Sage Journals: Attachment Styles and Intimate Television Viewing: Insecurely Forming Relationships in a Parasocial Way


Sage Journals: Parasocial Break-Up from Favorite Television Characters: The Role of Attachment Styles and Relationship Intensity

All Academic: Goodbye, Harry? Audience Reactions to the End of Parasocial Relationships: The Case of "Harry Potter"

Scientific American: Imaginary Friends: Television programs can fend off loneliness

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  • Oh my goodness, I completely understand this feeling. I'd say that the strongest case for me was watching Lost. I started watching when it first aired, but then I couldn't keep up with the second season due to a busy schedule, so I just promised myself I would watch it all when it finished. So I did, two summers ago. Even though I hadn't technically kept up with it in the intervening years, I still felt like I knew those characters (for me, that's what the show was really about - not the sci-fi stuff - which is also why I was okay with the ending). That show made me cry on a consistent basis, more than any other show had or has since. It was definitely an emotional investment - 121 hour-long episodes! It was hard, because I felt like I had gone on a journey with them - and then they were just gone. It's a very weird feeling.

    As for other TV shows - I've also experienced this (to a lesser extent) with Scrubs, I'd say. When Arrested Development ended, I was just ANGRY, haha.

    I've had this experience with books and movies, too: the Harry Potter series (of course) and the Hunger Games come to mind. Also, the move The Fall.

    Great blog, Erin!

  • Amazing blog, Erin! :)

    One of my favorite tv shows in Mad Men :) Like you, I watch shows on DVDs or netflix (we even have cable right now, but I just don't like it the commercials)

    Luke and I got into the habit of watching an episode of Mad Men each night and when we finished all the seasons...I did feel distraught. I was remember thinking "what do I do now?" And the next day when there was no Mad Men to was saddening.

  • This happens to me all the time, it's especially hard when it happens with a show that was cancelled, like Firefly, Dollhouse and many others. I've done it a few times where I don't watch the last two episodes of a series because I don't want it to end, I did that too Eureka and Sanctuary (Syfy channel shows).

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