Understanding the Oscar Obsession

In between the popcorn and the snark lies something more…

Posted Feb 24, 2014

The 86th annual Oscar Awards will be broadcast on Sunday, March 2, and if the ratings are anything like last year’s, approximately 40 million people will be tuning in. There are many explanations for this large viewing audience, some of which may be primarily social (as people gather for Oscar viewing parties) or primarily cynical (as people roll their eyes at over-the-top outfits or overly emotional acceptance speeches). However, somewhere between social and cynical lies the parasocial: the seeming face-to-face rapport we develop with favorite characters and personalities, the imagined bonds that motivate us to cheer for our “friends,” to watch for flashes of candor amid the canned introductions and speeches, to laugh with Ellen, to feel solemn during the in memoriam tributes, and to generally contemplate the impact that this year’s movies and performances may have had on us.

The term “parasocial interaction” was originally coined by interdisciplinary sociologists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl in 1956. Their focus was on personalities from radio and TV talk shows, performers who directly engaged the home viewing audience through eye contact, verbal address, and humorous personal asides (think Jon Stewart). However, scholars in communication and psychology have expanded this concept to include various forms of imagined intimacy with media figures, most of which are premised on the idea that a media figure feels like a friend. One of the key contributions of this body of work is that it defined a phenomenon that might otherwise have sounded surreal or ditzy as entirely within the bounds of basic, even primitive, psychological motives and processes.  (As in: your Oscar obsession is perfectly understandable!). The way we come to know and feel attached to media characters and personalities is not as distinct from the way we come know and feel attached to each other in our real lives as you might think.

Consider a friend’s recent Facebook post on the tragic death of Philip Seymour Hoffman: “A truly great actor; one of the best. I find myself alternating between sadness…and being mad that he did this. I didn't know the man, but I feel like I did.” Media figures and the characters they play can take three-dimensional shape in our personal lives. This helps explain why even those of us who should “know better” may end up, say, babbling away to a favorite comedian who happened to be hanging out in a Brooklyn bar after a live performance as if he were an old college pal (thank you, Mike Birbiglia, for being polite before backing slowly and appropriately away). Even celebrities themselves, human beings after all, can fall prey to the illusion of intimacy that parasocial interaction encourages (speaking of Ellen).

Okay, so the general principle seems intuitive and we can all draw on various anecdotes, but is there actual research to back this up? Yes, indeed. Forty years after Horton and Wohl’s (1956) paper, Reeves and Nass (1996) wrote a book reviewing research on this and related concepts, noting, “Modern media now engages old brains…There is no switch in the brain that can be thrown to distinguish between the real and mediated worlds. People respond to simulations of social actors and natural objects as if they were in fact social, and in fact, natural” (p. 12, emphasis mine). Put differently, the suspension of disbelief required to become transported into a movie or television show may actually be our initial impulse, and our intellectual understanding that what we see on the screen is a highly produced and cultivated performance may be second. This goes a long way to explaining why, when catching bits of Titanic for the umpteenth time on TV, and knowing the actual history of the event, I still lean forward in my seat, thinking, maybe this time they won’t hit the iceberg (just me?).

Beyond basic emotional processes, our specific relational needs and circumstances also predict the intensity of our affinity for favorite media figures. For example, research suggests that individuals with an anxious attachment style (who tend to be preoccupied with their social relationships) are more likely to develop emotional connections with favorite media figures and report more anticipated distress at the imagined loss of their favorite character. Conversely, those with a more avoidant relational style (who prefer, perhaps defensively, to be self-sufficient) report lower levels of parasocial interaction. Further, research I have done with my collaborator Chris Long shows that being single and having heightened relational needs predicts increased imagined intimacy with an opposite gender media figure (for a heterosexual sample). Our parasocial experiences appear to both complement and compensate for our lived emotional experiences; the lines are blurry at best. And, although parasocial interactions are by no means exclusively born of social deprivation and longing (they can appeal to secure and sociable folk as well!), we should not feel too self-conscious about our more needy motivations: “Nothing could be more reasonable or natural than that people who are isolated and lonely should seek sociability and love wherever they think they can find it” (Horton & Wohl, 1956, p. 223).

Now, you may be asking, what about the more bizarre and disturbing cases of celebrity stalking, in which individuals seek to transform a parasocial reality into an actual reality? Although these scenarios are very unfortunate, even delusional encounters can be explained by more normative psychological processes (mixed in with already unstable individual tendencies and motives). Media characters and personalities are accessible and alluring by design. They are only as successful as they are able to draw us in and to convince us that they are, at least on some level, appealing and authentic. This is not to excuse inappropriate behavior (by way of a “Brad Pitt made me do it” defense), but to note that this form of fanship may be a logical, if dysfunctional, extreme on a psychological spectrum that includes both sides of the media equation: a compelling psychological motive on the part of the audience and a compelling media persona. And, beyond a desire to be literally seen by a media figure with whom one already feels a close if imagined bond, individuals may be motivated by a desire for the vicarious status and value that associating with a media figure confers (think about how many of your friends gleefully post "selfies" with a famous other when they have had a brush with fame). The presence of celebrities on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook adds yet another layer of perceived intimacy and interactivity to the mix (but I will save that for another entry!).

What about the impact of our emotional connections to media figures. Just as real life peers and partners can influence our emotions, attitudes and behaviors, so too can fictional or media-derived peers—for better AND worse. In fact, although once removed from our immediate social environments, media figures may be particularly attractive and hence powerful as role models of social behavior. In some cases, this may be a good thing. Thinking of a favorite media figure has been found to help those with lower self-esteem move closer to an ideal version of self (what would Amy Poehler do?) and we may feel transformed or inspired by specific people and performances. Of course, sometimes media ideals are out of reach (why aren’t I as perky and wide-eyed as Zooey Deschanel?), and sometimes the behaviors enacted by favorite characters are unhealthy (chain-smoking Mad Men) or violent (see: any Quentin Tarantino movie). There is actually research that shows that identifying with a smoking character in a movie (in this case, Bruce Willis in Die Hard) increases an unconscious association between the self and smoking, measured by a computerized reaction time task. Importantly, this effect emerges for both smokers *and* non-smokers. For smokers, this unconscious link is also related to future smoking intentions (Dal Cin et al., 2007). Identification is a closely related phenomenon to parasocial interaction, but is defined in this case as the ability to take a character's perspective. Thus, although movie characters and media personalities are alluring for any number of reasons, we should also be a bit cautious, as a film colleague of mine once said, about the “company we keep.”

What kinds of parasocial interactions will you experience this Sunday night? Who will you laugh with? Cry for? Who will, as Joaquin Phoenix’s heartbroken character in the movie Her says to Scarlett Johanssen’s inviting, albeit computer-generated voice, feel real to you? And what will those feelings say about what you care about, what you need, who you are, and who you aspire to be?

 Further reading:

 • Cohen, J. (2004). Parasocial break-up from favorite television characters: The role of attachment styles and relationship intensity. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 21, 187-202.

• Dal Cin, S., Gibson, B., Zanna, M. P., Shumate, R., & Fong, G. T. (2007). Smoking in movies, implicit associations of smoking with the self, and intentions to smoke. Psychological Science, 18, 559-563.

• Derrick, J. L., Gabriel, S. & Tippin, B. (2008). Parasocial relationships and self-discrepancies: Faux relationships have benefits for low self esteem individuals. Personal Relationships, 15, 261-280.

• Greenwood, D., Pietromonaco, P. R., & Long, C. R. (2008).Young women’s attachment style and interpersonal engagement with female TV stars. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 25, 387-407.

• Greenwood, D. N., & Long, C. R. (2011). Attachment style, the need to belong and relationship status predict imagined intimacy with media figures. Communication Research, 38, 278-297.

• Horton, D., & Wohl, R. R. (1956). Mass communication and para-social interaction: Observations of intimacy at a distance. Psychiatry, 19, 215-229.

• Reeves, B., & Nass, C. (1996). The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television, and New Media Like Real People and Places. Cambridge University Press.