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Attachment, Belongingness Needs, and Relationship Status Predict Imagined Intimacy With Media Figures

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The present study uses an interpersonal relationships measure (Relationship Rating Form [RRF], Fraley & Davis, 1997) to assess both imagined intimacy with a favorite media figure and real intimacy with close others among 173 undergraduates. We examine how relational tendencies (attachment style, need to belong) and relationship status (single or partnered) interact to predict degree of imagined intimacy with same and opposite gender media figures. Results indicate that intimacy reported with a same gender friend is positively correlated with imagined intimacy for a same gender media figure. However, a compensatory pattern emerged with romantic relationships: single individuals reported greater imagined intimacy with opposite gender media figures than those in a relationship. Attachment anxiety and the need to belong (NTB) were positively predictive of imagined intimacy with opposite gender media figures for single individuals only. Social psychological motivations for media attachments are discussed.
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Communication Research
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DOI: 10.1177/0093650210362687
2011 38: 278 originally published online 4 October 2010Communication Research
Dara N. Greenwood and Christopher R. Long
Imagined Intimacy With Media Figures
Attachment, Belongingness Needs, and Relationship Status Predict
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DOI: 10.1177/0093650210362687
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Attachment, Belongingness
Needs, and Relationship
Status Predict Imagined
Intimacy With Media Figures
Dara N. Greenwood
1
and Christopher R. Long
2
Abstract
The present study uses an interpersonal relationships measure (Relationship Rating
Form [RRF], Fraley & Davis, 1997) to assess both imagined intimacy with a favorite media
figure and real intimacy with close others among 173 undergraduates. We examine how
relational tendencies (attachment style, need to belong) and relationship status (single
or partnered) interact to predict degree of imagined intimacy with same and opposite
gender media figures. Results indicate that intimacy reported with a same gender friend
is positively correlated with imagined intimacy for a same gender media figure. However,
a compensatory pattern emerged with romantic relationships: single individuals reported
greater imagined intimacy with opposite gender media figures than those in a relationship.
Attachment anxiety and the need to belong (NTB) were positively predictive of imagined
intimacy with opposite gender media figures for single individuals only. Social psychological
motivations for media attachments are discussed.
Keywords
attachment style, need to belong, intimacy, parasocial, relationships
Although researchers continue to evaluate, refine, and standardize operational definitions
of imagined intimacy or, the more discipline-specific term, “parasocial interaction” with
media figures (see Giles, 2002; Klimmt, Hartmann, & Schramm, 2006), there is little
ambiguity as to the psychological reality of this phenomenon: individuals, to varying
degrees, experience media figures as emotionally compelling relational targets. Over half
CRX362687
CRX
1
Vassar College, Poughkeepsie, NY
2
Ouachita Baptist University, Arkadelphia, AR
Corresponding Author:
Dara N. Greenwood, Vassar College, Department of Psychology, 124 Raymond Ave., Box 49,
Poughkeepsie, NY 12604
Email: dagreenwood@vassar.edu
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Greenwood and Long 279
a century ago, Horton and Wohl (1956) described listener responses to The Lonely Girl
radio persona, who received “thousands of letters tendering proposals of marriage, the
writers respectfully assuring her that she was indeed the woman for whom they had been
vainly searching all their lives” (p. 224), as a prime example of how media personas have
the power to tap into and elicit genuine and, in this case, romantic motivations. Caughey
(1984) has also documented a rich variety of intensive fan relationships that took both
romantic and platonic forms, noting that media figures may offer individuals an “emo-
tional attachment [that] is not complicated by the ambivalence that characterizes actual
relationships; admiration is unchecked by the recognition of faults and limitations” (p. 61).
Further, the ubiquity and accessibility of media personas in American culture makes it
almost impossible to escape such parasocial connections, particularly of the romantic vari-
ety, as Caughey (1984) explained,
The individual is regularly transported into the midst of dramatic social situations
involving intimate face-to-face contact with the most glamorous people of his [or
her] time . . . . Given their intimate, seductive appearance, it would be peculiar if
the audience did not respond in kind. (p. 57)
Thus, despite the inclination to characterize such imagined intimacy with media
figures as pathological and extreme (as in male stalkers who take aim at a sitting Presi-
dent to impress a female celebrity), researchers have cautioned against this kind of
reductionism (see Giles, 2002). By conceptualizing imagined intimacy within the
bounds of normative interpersonal interaction, we can fully appreciate both the mass
appeal of the media culture and the specific social psychological uses and gratifica-
tions that motivate engagement with mass media figures. And, by examining interper-
sonal engagement with media figures in the context of existing interpersonal tendencies
and circumstances, we can clarify the powerful role that media figures stand to play in
individuals’ social and emotional well-being.
The primary aim of the present study was to contribute to the existing literature by
examining whether imagined intimacy with media figures appears to compensate for
unmet social needs and/or to complement existing social tendencies. More specifically, the
present study was designed to investigate (a) the degree to which real-life platonic and
romantic intimacy with close others is meaningfully connected to platonic and romantic
imagined intimacy with media figures and (b) whether chronic relational orientations
(adult attachment style, the need to belong) and/or current relational circumstances (single
or partnered) are meaningfully connected to platonic or romantic imagined intimacy with
favorite media figures.
Importantly, we break new ground in the research and theorizing of imagined intimacy
by broadening the semantic, conceptual and operational boundaries of this phenomenon.
Previous work has utilized media-specific scales aimed to measure the extent to which
individuals experience a favorite media character as a pseudofriend or role model (e.g.,
Rubin, Perse, & Powell’s [1985] Parasocial Interaction Scale; Auter & Palmgreen’s [2000]
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280 Communication Research 38(2)
Audience-Persona Interaction Scale), a romantic infatuation (e.g., Engle & Kassers [2005]
Celebrity Idolization Scale), or a range of affinities from more casual and entertainment
oriented to more intense/pathological (e.g., McCutcheon et al.’s [2002] Celebrity Attitude
Scale). We opted to borrow a scale from the interpersonal relationships literature that was
developed to tap actual (vs. imagined) intimacy within the context of both platonic and
romantic relationships, the Relationship Rating Form (RRF; Fraley & Davis, 1997). By
adapting a measure that was devised with the emotional architecture of actual relationships
in mind, we are better positioned to conceptualize imagined intimacy as emotionally
authentic and to determine whether theoretically meaningful patterns emerge with regard
to real-life relational circumstances. Ultimately, this line of inquiry has important implica-
tions for understanding the psychological impact that imagined intimacy may have, for
better or worse, on individuals’ emotional health and well-being.
Attachment Style and Imagined Intimacy
Adult attachment styles, theorized to have roots in early life experiences with caregivers,
capture how we feel or expect to feel about ourselves in the context of close relationships
(Brennan, Clark, & Shaver, 1998; Hazan & Shaver, 1987). Do we feel comfortable depend-
ing on close others? Do we harbor anxieties about whether close others will be available
and supportive? Research has shown that our relational expectations play a pivotal role in
how we feel and behave in the context of our close relationships (Pietromonaco & Feldman
Barrett, 2000). Individuals who anticipate that close relationship partners will abandon
them, for example, tend to experience increased negative emotion and interpersonal con-
flict, compared to individuals who trust that close others will be available and responsive
to their needs. Media figures may function as nonthreatening, accessible, idealized surro-
gate attachment figures that may be particularly alluring to individuals with chronically
activated attachment needs (e.g., those with anxious attachment styles).
A small but compelling body of literature suggests that, indeed, individuals report
imagined intimacy with media figures in ways that parallel how they respond to real-life
relationships (Cohen, 1997; Cole & Leets, 1999; Engle & Kasser, 2005; Giles & Maltby,
2004; Greenwood, Pietromonaco, & Long, 2008). Specifically, individuals with an anx-
ious ambivalent attachment style, who tend to be emotionally preoccupied with their real-
life relationships and to idealize relationship partners, also report increased interpersonal
affinity with favorite characters (Cole & Leets, 1999; Greenwood et al., 2008). Cole and
Leets (1999) found that avoidant individuals (those who prefer not to depend on close oth-
ers) reported the least imagined friendship with media personas, while individuals with
anxious attachment style reported the most. The authors concluded that individuals with
relational anxiety may use characters in the service of (temporarily) obtaining the felt
security they crave and seek out, but that often eludes them in real life. We aimed to repli-
cate these findings utilizing a new measure of imagined intimacy as well as clarify the
moderating role that current relationship status may play when considering the link
between attachment style and imagined intimacy.
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Greenwood and Long 281
Relationship Status and Imagined Intimacy
If real-life relational orientations have some bearing on individuals’ tendency to form
imagined bonds with media figures, it is also plausible to imagine that one’s relationship
status should be relevant. Cohen (1997) theorized that dating but not single individuals
should be most likely to form attachments to media figures because their attachment needs
should be chronically activated in the context of an existing close relationship. In other
words, he posited a complementary relationship between relationship status and parasocial
engagement with media figures. He found some support for this hypothesis; attachment
styles predicted parasocial interaction with a favorite media figure for dating participants
only. However, women in relationships who were securely attached reported increased
parasocial interaction with a favorite media persona, whereas dating men who were inse-
curely attached reported increased parasocial interaction. Cohen’s study was limited in a
few important ways. First, analyses were conducted within groups (e.g., dating vs. nondat-
ing participants; women vs. men) and did not allow for relationship status by gender inter-
actions to be probed. Second, although basic information about character selections was
reported, only one character was selected by each participant, so no within-person charac-
ter gender analyses were performed.
Moreover, although close relationships are the context in which attachment behaviors
are most likely to be enacted—close others ideally serve as secure base in times of dis-
tress—being single may also function as a threatening scenario, particularly for those who
are preoccupied with and crave close relationships. Attachment behaviors are theoretically
activated under conditions of stress or threat, a phenomenon that is supported by the
research literature (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2004). Thus it is theoretically intuitive to predict
that single individuals who have an anxious attachment style would be the most motivated
to seek out imagined intimacy with ostensible romantic others as a proxy for actual rela-
tionship partners. The present study was designed to address this prediction.
Wang, Fink, and Cai (2008) also found evidence of gender difference with regard to the
ostensible compensatory function of imagined intimacy with media figures among lonely
individuals. Men who were romantically lonely (e.g., “I have an unmet need for a close
romantic relationship”) showed a decreased intensity of parasocial interaction, whereas
women who were romantically lonely showed a slight increased intensity of parasocial
interaction. However, this study did not describe the type of media persona reported on; as
such, we do not know whether character selection or magnitude of imagined intimacy
would have been greater for opposite gender versus same gender media persona as a func-
tion of gender and/or romantic loneliness.
A final notable study by Engle and Kasser (2005) focused exclusively on opposite gen-
der media personas and examined links between attachment to peers and idolization of
male celebrities among teenage girls (11-15 yrs). They hypothesized that girls who were
less experienced in dating and more insecure attachments to male peers would be more
likely to experience romantic crushes on male celebrities as a compensatory outlet. Inter-
estingly, they found that girls with more rather than less dating experience and with more
secure attachment to peers reported the most intensive romantic attachments to favorite
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282 Communication Research 38(2)
male media personas. They concluded that romantic idolization of male media personas
reflected, rather than compensated for, existing relational orientations.
Bearing in mind the inconsistent findings and measurement issues outlined above, the
present study will provide a more robust examination of the role that relationship status,
attachment style and gender play in the intensity of imagined intimacy with media figures.
The Need to Belong and Imagined Intimacies
The need to belong (Baumeister & Leary, 1995) has been identified as a basic human moti-
vation that underscores many of our social interactions and, when fulfilled, is associated
with multiple indices of emotional health and well-being. Although conceptually similar,
Baumeister and Leary distinguish belongingness needs from attachment style by noting
that belongingness is an overarching desire that is not necessarily targeted toward any
particular individual (or attachment figure). Indeed, they state, “the need to belong can, in
principle, be directed toward any other human being, and the loss of relationship with one
person can to some extent be replaced by any other” (p. 500). One important question to
consider is the range of such “replacements” that may ostensibly serve to assuage belong-
ingness needs.
A now classic exemplar of the fundamental human need for social affiliation is the
anthropomorphized volleyball, “Wilson”, who provides an emotional and conversational
companion for Tom Hanks’s profoundly isolated character in the 2000 movie Cast Away.
In addition to anthropomorphizing sporting equipment, however, lonely individuals have
also been found to ascribe more human-like qualities to pets, inanimate objects, and super-
natural agents (Epley, Akalis, Waytz, & Cacioppo, 2008). Familiar media figures (typically
of our own species) that we can see or hear through the mediation of a screen, page, or
audio speaker, may also be utilized to fulfill symbolic belongingness needs.
Just as attachment anxiety and avoidance have been conceptualized as dimensional
individual difference variables, so too has the need to belong (or NTB). Individuals with
higher belongingness needs also appear to experience increased parasocial interaction with
favorite media personas (Gardner, Pickett, & Knowles, 2005; Greenwood & Long, 2009).
Moreover, Derrick, Gabriel, and Tippin (2008) found that individuals with low self esteem
who had been asked to think about favorite same gender celebrities subsequently experi-
enced a reduction in discrepancies between their actual and ideal selves (presumably due
to feeling emotionally connected with an idealized persona). Derrick and colleagues pro-
posed that their findings offered indirect support for the function that media figures may
help individuals meet belongingness needs.
The present study will build on this literature as the first to examine whether the NTB
predicts same and/or opposite gender media intimacy, and whether relationship status
interacts with NTB to predict imagined intimacy. Understanding the potential for media
figures to play a powerful emotional role in individuals’ daily lives not only underscores
the porous boundaries between real and imagined intimacy but also suggests that how we
relate to media figures may be both a symptom and solution to the intensity of our belong-
ingness needs.
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Greenwood and Long 283
The Present Study
The present study broadens the psychological scope of research outlined above in a num-
ber of important ways. First, we investigated four different intimacy targets: same and
opposite gender actual others and same and opposite gender media figures. This allowed
us to directly assess the links between real and imagined intimacy and to determine whether
same versus opposite gender media targets fulfill different psychological roles for male
and female participants. Of particular interest is the question of whether and in what social
psychological circumstances individuals utilize media figures as surrogates for intimacy
that is missing in real life. Toward that end, we also examined the role that both relational
circumstance (single or partnered) and relational orientation (attachment style, NTB) play
with regard to the function of imagined intimacy across same and opposite gender media
targets. Finally, as noted earlier, we made use of a measure of intimacy, adapted from the
close relationships literature (Fraley & Davis, 1997), which has not yet been applied to the
realm of imagined intimacy. Not only did this enable us to test a new and psychologically
rich measure for assessing imagined intimacy but also it allowed for a more streamlined set
of comparisons among real and imagined intimacy than has previously been utilized.
Prior research by Greenwood (2009) found that young women report a high degree of
romantic attraction for favorite male media figures; male characters appear to elicit roman-
tic and/or sexual fantasies. Further, research by Knobloch and Zillmann (2003) found that
romantically discontent individuals were more likely to selectively tune into “love-lamenting”
songs by same gender others than romantically content individuals. Thus we predicted that
lower levels of reported intimacy within existing romantic relationships will be linked to
increased levels of imagined intimacies with opposite gender media figures, in favor of a
compensatory hypothesis (presuming, for the time being, a heterosexual sample; we return
to this issue in the discussion):
Hypothesis 1 (H1): For individuals in a current romantic relationship, real intimacy
with romantic others will be inversely associated with imagined intimacy with
opposite gender media figures.
The extent to which imagined intimacy with same gender others will reflect or compen-
sate for actual intimacy with same gender friends remains unclear. We left this question
open, as follows:
Research Question 1 (RQ1): How is real intimacy with same gender friends associ-
ated, if at all, with imagined intimacy with same gender media figures?
Next, we examined whether being in a romantic relationship per se has any impact on
imagined intimacies with media figures. Following from the logic and research outlined
above that opposite gender media figures may function as romantic surrogates, we expected
individuals not currently in a romantic relationship to experience stronger imagined inti-
macy with opposite gender media figures.
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284 Communication Research 38(2)
Hypothesis 2a (H2a): Imagined intimacy with opposite gender media personas will
differ as a function of relationship status; those who are not currently in a roman-
tic relationship will show greater imagined intimacy than those currently in a
romantic relationship.
A null effect of relationship status was predicted for same gender media intimacies:
Hypothesis 2b (H2b): Relationship status will not be relevant to and hence will not
differentiate degree of imagined intimacy with same gender media personas.
Women are socialized to be more relationally oriented and to seek out intimacy (and,
indeed, intimacy-centered media fare; Greenwood, 2010) more explicitly than men.
Although we might expect this tendency to translate to the realm of imagined intimacy,
findings in the research literature to date have been inconsistent. For example, relation-
ship status appears to interact with gender in determining degree of imagined intimacy;
Cohen (1997) finds that dating women who are securely attached show increased
parasocial tendencies, whereas Wang et al. (2008) find that lonely women compa-
red to lonely men show increased parasocial tendencies. Neither of the latter two
studies teased apart imagined intimacy for same gender versus opposite gender media
figures. Some research has focused exclusively on how young women relate to female
media icons (Greenwood et al., 2008) or on how young women relate to male media
icons (Engle & Kasser, 2005) and so neither permitted a direct gender comparison or a
comparison among same versus opposite gender media figures. We thus asked the
following:
Research Question 2 (RQ2): Will gender have an impact on imagined intimacy with
opposite or same gender media figures independent of, or in interaction with,
relationship status?
Finally, we turned to the question of whether individual differences in relational
needs are associated with imagined intimacy. First, keeping in mind prior research
on this topic, we aimed to replicate findings that both attachment anxiety and NTB will
be positively associated with imagined intimacy. Next, we predicted that individuals
with high levels of attachment anxiety and/or high belongingness needs who are not in
a romantic relationship should be particularly motivated to engage with media personas
as a compensatory means of obtaining symbolic attachment and/or belongingness.
Therefore,
Hypothesis 3a (H3a): Relationship status will moderate the association between
attachment/belongingness needs and imagined intimacy with opposite gender
media figures such that positive associations between attachment/belonging-
ness needs and imagined intimacy will be stronger for those not currently in a
romantic relationship.
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Greenwood and Long 285
Finally, once again, we predicted a null effect of relationship status on same gender
media figures:
Hypothesis 3b (H3b): Relationship status will not be relevant to and will hence not
moderate the association between attachment style/belongingness needs and
imagined intimacy with same gender media figures.
Method
Participants
Participants were 178 students from a small southern liberal arts college. They were
recruited from psychology courses and were given pen-and-paper versions of the question-
naire to complete in locations of their choosing. Participants returned their questionnaires
to the researchers within the next 48 hours and received course credit for completing the
questionnaire. Pilot testing suggested that most participants could complete the question-
naire in fewer than 30 minutes.
Because only 5 students did not report a heterosexual orientation, we could not perform
meaningful analyses across sexual orientation, and these students were excluded from
analyses. Of the remaining 173 participants, 71% were female, and 45% indicated that they
were currently involved in a romantic relationship.
Materials
The questionnaire packet comprised a series of measures administered in the order in
which they are described. We preserved one order in which targets were presented because
we (and our pilot participants) believed it would minimize confusion for participants to
respond to questions about familiar, real-life relationships before transitioning to questions
about the media figure relationships.
Relationship rating form. To assess specific qualities of relationships with romantic part-
ners, same gender friends, and favorite opposite and same gender media figures, we used
the short-form 12-item suggested version of the Relationship Rating Form (RRF; Fraley &
Davis, 1997). Each RRF item presents a particular relational characteristic (e.g., “Under-
standing”) followed by a few sentences illustrating how respondents should interpret that
descriptor (e.g., “In some relationships, we understand each other. In other words, we
know things about the other such as what is important to the other, and why the other does
the things that he or she does”). The RRF comprises three subscales on which higher scores
indicate that a particular relationship is characterized by greater passion, greater care, and
greater intimacy, respectively. Typical items included “sexual desire” and “exclusiveness”
for the passion subscale, “mutual support/assistance” and “mutual respect” for the care
subscale, and “mutual confiding (intimacy)” and “ability to be ourselves (authenticity)” for
the intimacy subscale, respectively. Responses were made on a 9-point scale, anchored
from absolutely uncharacteristic to absolutely characteristic.
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286 Communication Research 38(2)
Each participant completed the RRF four times, once for each relationship figure. To
ensure that participants selected relationship targets before they became aware of the spe-
cific relationship dimensions assessed by the RRF, the first page of the questionnaire
packet asked participants to list the initials of a current romantic partner and of a same
gender best friend as well as the name of their favorite same gender and opposite gender
media figures. (If participants had no current romantic partner, we instructed them to list
the initials of a past or hypothetical partner. However, these participants were excluded
from analyses involving the current partner target.) To maximize the likelihood that par-
ticipants felt free to select their most emotionally significant media figures, we asked them
to generate the “name of the media personality and/or character who serves as the best
answer for you. These can be TV or movie characters/stars, talk show hosts, comedians,
athletes, or musicians.”
Each of the four versions of the RRF asked participants to assess the relational charac-
teristics with respect to a specific one of the four targets (e.g., romantic partner). These
RRF versions were presented in the order in which participants had been asked to identify
their targets. To avoid confusion, we altered the instructions for the RRF versions targeted
at media figures so that participants were instructed to respond based on their “imagined
relationship” with the targets, as if they “interacted regularly” with the media figure. This
change necessitated slight changes in the wording of some of the item illustrations (e.g.,
“In this relationship, we would understand each other. In other words, we would know
things about the other such as what is important to the other, and why the other does the
things that he or she does”; italics for illustration only).
Even when the RRF items were considered without respect to subscale, reliabilities for
each target ran from adequate to high: same gender best friend target, α = .74; romantic
partner intimacy, α = .88; same gender media figure, α = .91; and the opposite gender
media figure, α = .94. Therefore—and because results of analyses using the subscales were
virtually analogous to results obtained with the entire scale—all analyses for all four tar-
gets utilized participants’ average responses across all 12 items. We will refer to this aggre-
gate measure as “intimacy” henceforth.
Attachment styles. To assess adult attachment styles, we utilized the 36-item Experiences
in Close Relationships scale (ECR; Brennan, Clark, & Shaver, 1998). The ECR is intended
to measure how people generally feel across “emotionally intimate” relationships as well
as how people feel in general in the context of romantic relationships (i.e., not specific to
one particular relationship partner). The ECR comprises two subscales on which higher
scores indicate greater attachment anxiety = .88) and greater attachment avoidance,
respectively = .89). Typical items include “I worry about being abandoned” from the
anxiety subscale and “Just when my partner starts to get close to me I find myself pulling
away” from the avoidance subscale. Responses were made on a 7-point scale, anchored
from strongly disagree to strongly agree.
Need to belong. To assess belongingness needs, we utilized the 10-item Need to Belong
scale (Leary, Kelly, Cottrell & Schriendorfer, 2007). Higher scores indicate increased
investment in being socially accepted and greater difficulty when without social contacts
= .78). Typical items include “I do not like being alone” and “If other people don’t seem
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Greenwood and Long 287
to accept me, I don’t let it bother me” (reverse scored). Responses were made on a 5-point
scale, anchored from not at all to extremely.
Results
For all variables in question t tests were conducted to determine whether gender differ-
ences emerged. Women scored higher than men on three of the four intimacy constructs:
opposite gender partner, same gender best friend, and same gender media figure. They also
scored higher than men on the NTB scale.
1
We therefore control for gender or use it as an interaction term in all analyses below.
Which Media Figures?
For female participants, the most popularly chosen same gender media figures were movie
stars: Reese Witherspoon (n = 15), followed by Kate Hudson (n = 10), and Sandra Bullock
(n = 9). The most popularly chosen opposite gender media figures by female participants
were also movie stars: Matthew McConaughey (n = 13), Johnny Depp (n = 12), and Brad
Pitt (n = 7). For male participants, the same gender media figures did not cluster beyond 2
to 3 participants. However, it is worth noting that comic actors (e.g., Will Ferrell, Robin
Williams) and athletes (e.g., Tiger Woods, Peyton Manning) were among those chosen
more than once. For male participants there was more agreement for only one opposite
gender media figure: Jessica Alba (n = 5).
The overwhelming majority of participants generated the names of movie or television
stars, followed by singers (e.g., Carrie Underwood) and media personalities (e.g., Oprah).
Only 5 participants named fictional characters (e.g., “Dr. House”; “Monica” from Friends)
as their favorite media figure. Means for intimacy were as follows: romantic partner (only
those in a current relationship, n = 77) M = 8.04 (SD = .71), opposite gender media figure,
M = 6.50 (SD = 1.72), same gender friend, M = 6.78 (SD = .80), same gender media figure,
M = 5.34 (SD = 1.56).
Relationships Between Actual and Imagined Intimacies
To determine whether intimacy experienced in a current romantic relationship was
inversely associated with the imagined intimacy experienced with an opposite gender
media figure (H1), we ran a partial correlation (controlling for gender) among these two
intimacy constructs that included only those participants in a current romantic relationship.
The correlation was not significant, r(71) = .09, ns; Hypothesis 1 was therefore not sup-
ported. To test whether intimacy within the context of a same gender friendship was posi-
tively or negatively associated with imagined intimacy with a same gender media figure,
we ran another partial correlation (controlling for gender) between the two intimacy con-
structs. This association was significant: r(160) = .39, p < .001.
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288 Communication Research 38(2)
Gender, Relationship Status, and Imagined Intimacy
To test our predictions regarding relationship status and imagined intimacies (H2a, H2b) as
well as our research question regarding the role of gender in imagined intimacies (RQ2),
we conducted a repeated measures ANOVA in which same and opposite gender media
figure intimacy (within-participant) were examined as a function of relationship status and
gender. No main effects of gender or relationship status emerged. However, a main effect
for intimacy target emerged, F(1, 159) = 119.30, p < .001, ηp
2
= .43, which was qualified
by an interaction between intimacy target and gender of participant, F (1, 159) = 5.45, p <
.05, ηp
2
= .03, as well as an interaction between intimacy target and relationship status,
F(1, 159) = 6.99, p < .01, ηp
2
= .04. Specifically, individuals reported significantly greater
intimacy for opposite gender media figures than same gender media figures, M = 6.46 > M =
5.23, 95% CIs (6.16, 6.76) and (4.96, 5.49), respectively. However, as shown in Figure 1,
women reported significantly greater intimacy with same gender media figures than men
did, F(1, 159) = 5.67, Bonferroni-adjusted p < .05, ηp
2
= .03. Further, in line with H2a and
H2b, individuals not currently in a romantic relationship reported significantly greater inti-
macy with an opposite gender media figure than individuals currently in a romantic rela-
tionship did, F(1, 159) = 4.02, Bonferroni-adjusted p < .05, ηp
2
= .03, while no significant
differences emerged for same gender media figures (Figure 2).
Does Relationship Status Moderate Between Relational Tendencies
and Imagined Intimacy?
To determine whether relationship status moderated the relationship between relational
tendencies and imagined intimacy with media figures, a series of regression analyses
were performed. For these analyses, the attachment and NTB variables were centered and
then used to create interaction terms with relationship status (see Aiken & West, 1991). In
Step 1, for each of the regression analyses, gender was entered as a control followed by
relationship status and one of the three psychological variables (attachment anxiety,
attachment avoidance, or NTB). In Step 2, the interaction term between relationship sta-
tus and the psychological variable used in Step 1 were entered. In total, six regressions
were performed: each of the three relational variables was used to predict first opposite
gender media figure intimacies and then same gender media figure intimacies.
2
For the regression predicting imagined intimacy with an opposite gender media figure
from attachment anxiety and relationship status, the second step in the model predicted
significant variance, F(4, 151) = 3.27, p < .05, and it significantly improved the predictive
utility of the model, F
change
(1, 151) = 7.12, p < .01. As shown in Table 1, a significant inter-
action emerged between attachment anxiety and relationship status. Specifically, in line
with H3a, the association between attachment anxiety and imagined intimacy is positive
for single participants, B = .59, t(151) = 2.90, p < .01, but not for participants in a romantic
relationship, B = –.23, t(151) = –1.00, ns, Figure 3.
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Greenwood and Long 289
Figure 1. Mean imagined intimacy scores with same and opposite gender media figures as a
function of participant gender.
Note: Bars attached to each column represent the 95% CI for the respective means.
Figure 2. Mean imagined intimacy scores with same and opposite gender media figures as a
function of participant relationship status.
Note: Bars attached to each column represent the 95% CI for the respective means.
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290 Communication Research 38(2)
When attachment anxiety was entered to predict imagined intimacy with same gender
media figures, both steps were significant, F(3, 159) = 3.79, p < .05; F(4, 158) = 2.89, p <
.05 respectively, although the addition of the interaction term in Step 2 did not significantly
improve the predictive utility of the model. A main effect of gender emerged in both steps
(b = .18, p < .05; b = .17, p < .05) showing, once again, that women reported increased
imagined intimacy with same gender media figures compared to men. A main effect of
attachment anxiety also emerged in Step 1 only (b = .17, p < .05), suggesting that individu-
als higher in attachment anxiety reported increased imagined intimacy with same gender
media figures. In line with H3b, no significant interaction between relationship status and
attachment anxiety emerged (b = –.05, p = .61).
When NTB was used to predict imagined intimacy with an opposite gender media
figure, only Step 2 predicted significant variance, F(4, 157) = 3.18, p < .05, and it contrib-
uted significant additional variance to the model, F
change
(1, 157) = 6.02, p < .05. As shown
in Table 2, the predicted interaction (H3a) between relationship status and NTB was
obtained. Specifically, as depicted in Figure 4, the relationship between NTB and imag-
ined intimacy with an opposite gender media figure was positive for single participants,
B = .87, t(157) = 2.97, p < .01, but not for participants in a romantic relationship,
B = –.23, t(157) = –.67, ns.
The remaining regressions did not predict significant variance. With regard to specific
predictors, for the regression model predicting same gender media figure intimacy from
NTB, the effect of NTB was not significant, b = .07, p = .48; nor was the interaction
between NTB and relationship status, b = –.02, p = .86. For the models predicting opposite
gender media figure intimacy from attachment avoidance, the effect of attachment avoid-
ance was not significant, b = .12, p = .34; nor was the interaction between attachment
Table 1. Hierarchical Regression Analysis Predicting Intimacy With Opposite Gender Media
Figures From Relationship Status and Attachment Anxiety (Controlling for Participant
Gender)
Variable B SEB β R
2
F for ΔR
2
Step 1 .04 1.91
Gender −.03 .31 −.01
Relationship status −.45 .29 −.13
Attachment anxiety .23 .15 .12
Step 2 .08 7.12**
Gender −.17 .31 −.04
Relationship status −.46 .28 −.13
Attachment anxiety .59 .20 .31**
Attachment anxiety ×
Relationship status
−.82 .31 −.28**
Note: Gender is coded such that males are the reference. Relationship status is dummy coded such that
those not in a relationship are the reference.
*p < .05. **p < .01.
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Greenwood and Long 291
avoidance and relationship status, b = –.07, p = .58. Finally, for the model predicting same
gender media intimacy from attachment avoidance, the effect of attachment avoidance was
not significant, b = .01, p = .93; nor was the interaction between attachment avoidance and
relationship status, b = –.03, p = .82.
Figure 3. Imagined intimacy with an opposite gender media figure as a function of
attachment anxiety and participant relationship status.
Note: Graphs were plotted by calculating predicted scores for 1 standard deviation above and below
the centered mean for attachment anxiety.
Table 2. Hierarchical Regression Analysis Predicting Intimacy With Opposite Gender Media
Figures From Relationship Status and Need to Belong (Controlling for Participant Gender)
Variable B SEB β R
2
F for ΔR
2
Step 1 .04 2.17
Gender −.05 .30 −.02
Relationship status −.50 .27 −.14
Need to belong .41 .23 .14
Step 2 .08 6.02*
Gender −.03 .30 −.01
Relationship status −.48 .27 −.14
Need to belong .87 .29 .30**
Need to belong × Relationship status –1.10 .45 −.25*
Note: Gender is coded such that males are the reference. Relationship status is dummy coded such that
those not in a relationship are the reference.
*p < .05. **p < .01.
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292 Communication Research 38(2)
Discussion
The above results contribute new insights regarding the psychological and social circum-
stances in which imagined intimacy with media figures may flourish. Specifically, findings
indicate that imagined intimacy with same gender media figures appear to complement
imagined intimacy with same gender friends, whereas imagined intimacy with opposite
gender media figures appear to provide compensatory intimacy for those not involved in a
current romantic partnership. That is, single individuals reported increased imagined inti-
macy with opposite gender media figures compared to partnered individuals, but this find-
ing did not emerge for same gender media figures. Beyond this, our study was also designed
to assess whether interactions between existing relational tendencies and current relation-
ship status predicted increased imagined intimacy with media figures. In keeping with our
predictions, we found that individuals who experience anxiety about and within the context
of their close relationships (those with attachment anxiety) as well as the extent to which
they are included in social life (those with a high need to belong) who were also not
involved in a current romantic relationship showed the greatest imagined intimacy with
opposite gender media figures. Importantly and in line with hypotheses, these interactions
did not emerge for same gender media figures; this suggests that imagined intimacies for
opposite gender media figures fulfill a distinct psychological role.
Women reported greater imagined intimacy for a same gender media figure than men
did. This may reflect socialization practices that inhibit heterosexual men’s willingness to
admit any degree of passionate interest in other men. Our preliminary analyses revealed
Figure 4. Imagined intimacy with an opposite gender media figure as a function of need to
belong (NTB) and participant relationship status.
Note: Graphs were plotted by calculating predicted scores for 1 standard deviation above and below the
centered mean for NTB.
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Greenwood and Long 293
that women, compared to men, also reported increased intimacy with same gender friends
and opposite gender relationship partners, which is also in step with gender socialization
practices. In all other analyses, however, relationship status trumped gender as a meaning-
ful predictor of opposite gender media figure intimacy.
Findings suggest that while same gender media figures may function in a complemen-
tary capacity to real-life friendships, opposite gender media figures may function in a
compensatory capacity, providing ersatz intimacy, care and/or passion for those with
unmet relational needs. These findings are consistent with some prior literature (Cole &
Leets, 1999; Greenwood et al., 2008) but contradict Cohen’s (1997) findings that only dat-
ing participants showed an association between attachment style and parasocial interaction
and that only dating men showed an association between attachment anxiety and paraso-
cial interaction. This may be in part because the present study allowed within-person com-
parisons between same and opposite gender media figure intimacies as a function of gender
and relationship status. Findings are also somewhat at odds with Engle and Kassers (2005)
study that found that it was the more securely attached young girls with dating experience
who idolized male celebrities. However, this may reflect a developmental bias; idolizing
male celebrities at the beginning of one’s dating experience may serve to complement and
reinforce romantic interests. Further, Engle and Kasser did not distinguish which girls were
in fact dating someone at the time of the study; they only determined who had already
dated and who had already had a boyfriend. In our college-aged sample, being involved in
a current romantic relationship may have offset the relational needs that imagined intimacy
with media figures may have reflected.
It is worth noting that the predicted inverse relationship between intimacy experienced
within existing romantic partnerships and imagined intimacy with opposite gender media
figures did not emerge. One explanation for this null finding is the diminished sample size
of partnered participants (n = 71). It is also possible that among college students, whose
relationships may be relatively short-lived, it is only the absence of a romantic partner all
together that renders an opposite gender media figure an appealing intimacy surrogate.
Future research should continue probing the psychosocial conditions in which imagined
intimacy may be most likely to occur.
Imagined intimacy may offer a benign and even adaptive means of obtaining felt secu-
rity for those whose relational needs are out of step with their social circumstances (rel-
evant to an approach orientation). However, such intimacies may also be symptomatic of
unease with close relationships and/or reinforce fears about the emotionally riskier terri-
tory of real relationships (relevant to an avoidance orientation). The robust findings
regarding the need to belong also suggest that media figures may provide some meaning-
ful affiliative balm for those with elevated inclusion needs. The idea that imagined
intimacy cuts across both approach and avoidance motivations in social life is also sup-
ported by prior research by the authors, which found that both positive (e.g., self-expansive,
creative) and negative (loneliness) experiences of solitude were predictive of imagined
intimacies with media figures (Greenwood & Long, 2009). To continue elaborating the
psychosocial function of imagined intimacy, experimental and longitudinal work is
needed.
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294 Communication Research 38(2)
The present study also suggests that it is valuable to adapt a scale originally designed to
capture actual intimate relationships for the purposes of assessing imagined relationships.
In addition to breaking new ground, our new measure replicated the basic associations
obtained in prior work between attachment anxiety and imagined intimacy. Thus, our study
reinforces the notion that imagined relationships with media figures may share interper-
sonal characteristics of our real-life, mutual relationships. Future work should directly test
the utility of this particular measure in the context of implicit or behavioral measures of
imagined intimacy as well as in the context of other self-report measures of interpersonal
engagement with media figures.
Finally, it bears mentioning that the most popularly generated media figures were the
actual names of movie and TV stars, followed by musicians and media personalities. A
strength of the current study is that we allowed individuals to choose a favorite media icon
from a diversity of entertainment media rather than constraining them to a particular TV
program as is often done in this line of work. Parasocial rapport has typically considered
strongest when individuals can “get to know” a character or persona over a period of time.
In addition to time, however, imagined intimacy may also be strengthened when media
figures may be “known” through a variety of different projects as well as through behind
the scenes interviews on entertainment programs and in magazines. Because individuals in
our study were overwhelmingly likely to choose actors, musicians, and personalities,
rather than fictional characters in one particular program, we believe we may have
increased the likelihood that they would have a well-elaborated interpersonal schema from
which to report imagined intimacy.
Limitations
This most obvious limitation of the present research is that we relied exclusively on self-
reports of real and imagined intimacies with media figures. We further relied on partici-
pants’ capacity to imagine “mutual” relationships with individuals they know full well they
do not in fact know in real life. However, mean scores above the midpoint for all four inti-
macy targets indicate that this task may not have seemed far-fetched to participants. Rather,
participants endorsed the relationship descriptors as relatively characteristic of these imag-
ined relationships. This is also in step with prior work on parasocial engagement in which
individuals are able to report fairly high levels of imagined friendship with favorite media
figures (Greenwood et al., 2008).
Another concern may be that single versus partnered individuals were primed with dif-
ferent relationship templates before answering the media figure intimacy questions. How-
ever, we believe this still has ecological validity; it may be that thinking about a past
relationship (which just about two thirds of the single participants reported doing) is part
of what inspires imagined intimacy with an idealized romantic media figure. Future
research is needed to continue probing the specific emotional conditions under which sin-
gle participants use media figures in the service of imagined intimacy. Other factors such
as the recency of a breakup or the nature of a breakup (amicable, one-sided, etc.) might
also influence the degree or type of imagined intimacy individuals subsequently seek out.
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Greenwood and Long 295
It was unfortunate that the number of participants who self-identified as gay was far too
small to include sexual preference as a variable in this study. However, future research
should certainly take into account the role of sexual preference when examining real and
imagined intimacies as a function of gender and relationship status. Finally, the sample is
limited in its generalizability due to a reliance on a college population. However, because
college students represent a highly “plugged in” culture with ubiquitous access to laptops,
iPods, and internet capable cell technology as well as a target demographic for many
primetime programs, blockbuster movies, or specialized networks (e.g., MTV, Comedy
Central), we believe this was an ideal population in which to test our hypotheses. Future
research should continue to examine questions regarding compensatory interpersonal
engagement with media figures among more diverse populations.
Conclusion
This study suggests that the boundaries between real and imagined intimacy are more perme-
able than we might assume. Specifically, mutual intimacy experienced in same gender friend-
ships appear to have a spillover effect when it comes to imagined intimacy with favorite same
gender media figures. However, it is an apparent lack of mutual intimacy in the realm of
romantic relationships, coupled with increased relational needs (in the form of both attach-
ment anxiety and belongingness) that motivate imagined intimacy with opposite gender
media figures. It is worth pointing out that the opposite gender celebrities listed by partici-
pants in this study tended toward the idealized romantic hero both with regard to their physi-
cal appearance and the roles they play (e.g., Matthew McConaughey for women and Jessica
Alba for men). This brings us back to our opening premise that the people who inhabit the
entertainment media environment are, by design, easy targets for projected intimacies. The
question is not do we think of these individuals as romantically relevant, but rather, for whom
are these romantically relevant figures particularly appealing? This raises additional ques-
tions about whether and for whom imagined intimacy with idealized figures may function to
skew perceptions of how a real world romantic relationship should feel. Such engagement
may ultimately contribute to relational anxieties even as they may also offer symbolic satis-
faction. Future work is needed to probe the short term and long term emotional, behavioral,
and cognitive impact of interpersonal engagement with media figures.
Authors’ Note
Both authors contributed equally to this manuscript; author names are listed alphabetically.
Acknowledgments
The authors thank Jade Jenkins, Brandi Post, and David Rivera for help with data collection.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The authors declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the authorship and/or
publication of this article.
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296 Communication Research 38(2)
Funding
The authors received no financial support for the research and/or authorship of this article.
Notes
1. Women scored higher on current partner intimacy, t(170) = –2.07, p < .05; same gender
friend intimacy, t(162) = –7.29, p < .001; same gender media figure intimacy, t(170) = –2.54,
p < .05; and NTB, t(169) = –2.21, p < .05.
2. We probed for higher order interactions with gender, relationship status, and relational orien-
tation (attachment anxiety, avoidance and NTB); however, no significant interactions were
obtained and so we present only the models for which gender is a control variable.
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Bios
Dara N. Greenwood (PhD, University of Massachusetts) is an assistant professor of psychol-
ogy at Vassar College. Her research interests focus on the intersection between individuals
emotional health and their engagement with entertainment media programs and characters. She
also studies gender roles and sexism.
Christopher R. Long (PhD, University of Massachusetts) is an assistant professor of psychol-
ogy at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, Arkansas. His research interests focus on
consumer-brand relationships, media involvement, and aloneness.
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... Egy má sik ku ta tás ban azok az egye dül álló szemé lyek, akik nek ma gas volt a va la ho vá tar to zás iránti igé nyük, gyak rab ban fan tá zi ál tak egy ellen ke zô ne mû sztár ral foly ta tott in tim kap csolat ról (85), míg pár kap cso lat ban élôk nél nem állt fenn ez az össze füg gés. Eh hez kap cso ló dóan Engle és Kasser (86) azt ta lál ták, hogy haj lamo sab bak a túl zott mér té kû ra jon gás ra azok a lá nyok, akik nek volt már pár kap cso la ta, mint azok, akik nek még nem volt pár juk. ...
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... Using a different measure of attraction to celebrities, Greene and Adams-Price (1990) found that adolescents generally preferred opposite-sex celebrities over same-sex celebrities, and that this was especially true for adolescent females. Greenwood and Long (2011) found that single, heterosexual persons reported strong imagined intimacies with different gender celebrities. ...
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