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Parasocial Relationships

Reviewed by Psychology Today Staff

What Are Parasocial Relationships?

Parasocial relationships refer to one-sided relationships in which a person develops a strong sense of connection, intimacy, or familiarity with someone they don’t know, most often celebrities or media personalities. These relationships exist only in the mind of the individual, who experiences a bond despite the lack of reciprocity.

The term was coined by psychologists Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl in 1956 when televisions became widely available, they noted that TV viewers began to develop the “illusion of intimacy” with the characters on the screen.

Although parasocial relationships are inherently imaginary, they can feel real for the person experiencing them. An individual may see in, or project onto, a celebrity a range of emotions that mirror their feelings and challenges.

Why We Form Parasocial Relationships

There is no firm conclusion regarding why people develop parasocial relationships, but one is that the human brain developed to be social, and when so much of our time is spent online or watching TV or movies, we’re naturally inclined to recognize the faces we repeatedly see and develop warm feelings for them.

Another possible cause is loneliness. Some research suggests that the lonelier an individual feels, the more likely they are to engage in parasocial relationships, seeking a connection in some form, if not in real life. Other research contradicts the idea that these relationships are caused by loneliness. Instead, researchers including Rachel Forster have found that highly social individuals who are more likely to form friendships and relationships in real life are also more likely to form parasocial relationships.

Why are parasocial relationships so appealing?

There is also the belief that parasocial relationships can simply be less demanding and more fun than real-life relationships. There are no conflicts with a person we don’t know, no favors or maintenance that need to be attended to; plus the subjects of parasocial relationships are typically talented, beautiful, or funny.

Is the phenomenon of parasocial relationships age-old?

The matinee idols of early Hollywood may provide a good example of parasocial relationships. Psychologist Karen Dill-Shackleford says she has found evidence of celebrity crushes dating back to ancient Rome, in those cases with stage actors or famous speakers.

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Healthy and Unhealthy Parasocial Relationships

Originally believed to be unhealthy, contemporary research has mostly discarded this view, these relationships are typically harmless and, in fact, quite common. However, when parasocial relationships become consuming for an individual, they may be considered unhealthy—the individual ceases to maintain their real-life relationships or daily functioning becomes impaired. This can hinder personal growth and emotional fulfillment.

Research finds that parasocial relationships improve an individual’s well-being by providing a sense of companionship and someone with whom they can relate. In rare cases, these relationships may contribute to an individual losing touch with reality. One example of an unhealthy and delusional parasocial relationship is John Hinckley, Jr. who was infatuated with the actress Jodie Foster. Hinckley, who also suffered from psychiatric conditions, shot President Ronald Reagan in 1981 in an attempt to impress Foster.

What is an example of a positive parasocial relationship?

People from marginalized groups like LGBTQ youth may derive particular pleasure from parasocial relationships; the celebrity might look like them or share their identity. People feel less alone as a result. “LGBTQ youth, who may not have access to people like them, can turn to parasocial relationships because it’s something that can enrich their limited social world,” says researcher Rachel Forster.

Does a parasocial relationship have to be with a celebrity?

No, although celebrities are the most common subjects of these relationships. Individuals may develop parasocial relationships with anyone they are exposed to. A person could develop a parasocial relationship with a fictional character, barista, or college professor, for example.

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