An important communication-scientific approach that offers both theoretical ideas and empirical
insights into how mediated others may affect people’s well-being deals with parasocial interac-
tion and relationships (Cohen, 2009; Dibble, Hartmann, & Rosaen, 2016; Giles, 2002; Horton
& Wohl, 1956; Tsao, 2004). This approach focuses on the way users seemingly interact with and
develop personal relationships with others that they only encounter in the media. Because a paraso-
cial interaction, in a nutshell, is about users’ illusionary feeling of being in a mutual social interaction
with another character while actually being in a one-sided non-reciprocal situation, the approach
traditionally focuses on non-interactive media like television (see, for a conceptual adaptation to
interactive media, Hartmann, 2008). A typical example of a parasocial interaction would be if a user
intuitively feels a sense of mutual awareness and attention towards the host of a TV news show who
looks into the camera to greet the audience. A typical example of a (positive) parasocial relationship
would be if users, through repeated exposure, develop a long-lasting social bond and sense of inti-
macy and proximity towards TV hosts, almost as if they were real friends. Based on a more detailed
conceptualization of parasocial phenomena, the present chapter will highlight theoretical discussions
and empirical findings from the literature that illuminate how people’s encounters with mediated
others may impact their well-being.
Conceptualization of Parasocial Phenomena and Well-Being
Since Horton and Wohl (1956) first addressed parasocial interaction and parasocial relationships, the
two concepts have represented the core of research on parasocial phenomena, i.e., on users’ social
responses to mediated others (for overviews, see Cohen, 2009; Giles, 2002; Dibble et al., 2016;
Tsao, 2004; for closely related approaches, see “media equation,” Reeves & Nass, 1996, and “social
presence” or “copresence,” e.g., Campos-Castillo & Hitlin, 2013; Schroeder, 2002). A parasocial
interaction can be understood as a “simulacrum of conversational give-and-take” (Horton & Wohl,
1956; p. 215) that takes place during a media-exposure situation between users and a media char-
acter, e.g., a TV host (Horton & Strauss, 1957). It is important to note that a parasocial interaction
is not identical to merely observing a character on a screen (Horton & Wohl, 1956, p. 215). Rather,
as the name suggests, a parasocial interaction deals with users’ immediate illusionary feeling of being
in a real social interaction with a media character, despite knowing that they are not (Hartmann &
Goldhoorn, 2011; Dibble etal., 2016; Horton & Wohl, 1956; Horton & Strauss, 1957). Despite the
fact that in a parasocial encounter communicational roles do not change because the mediated other
always maintains the role of the addresser and users always the role of the addressee, users nevertheless
experience the encounter as “immediate, personal, and reciprocal” (Horton & Strauss, 1957, p. 580).
From a psychological perspective, parasocial interaction is not very different from other illusion-
ary experiences, including optical illusions, in which, despite better knowledge, observers intuitively
sense something that is not objectively true. A parasocial interaction actually builds on two different
illusionary experiences (Hartmann, 2008). The first illusion is about social cognition. Users intui-
tively experience physical stimuli – pixels on a screen (or any other technology-generated physical
stimulation) – as a social being to which they, in turn, respond socially (e.g., “mind-perception,”
Epley & Waytz, 2010). Whether the represented other actually exists (like a camera-recorded TV
host or a Vlogger on YouTube) or not (like a computer-generated TV host or fictional creature) does
not seem to profoundly influence this illusionary experience and related social responses (Reeves &
Nass, 1996). Accordingly, in a parasocial interaction, users mindlessly and immediately perceive
“pixels on the screen” as a social or living being, irrespective of whether the other actually exists
or not. The second illusion that defines a parasocial interaction builds on a sense of copresence and
mutual awareness (Campos-Castillo & Hitlin, 2013). In a parasocial interaction, users intuitively feel
personally addressed by the other (although they are not, because the other addresses a mass audi-
ence), and they experience the seemingly social encounter as reciprocal (although it is not, because
it is one-sided or non-interactive). An indication of this illusionary experience is that users feel a
sense of mutual awareness, attention, and behavioral adaptation towards the other – although these
reciprocal qualities do actually not exist (Hartmann & Goldhoorn, 2011).
Parasocial relationships conceptually differ from parasocial interaction. Closely resembling ortho-
social social relationships, a parasocial relationship can be understood as any social relationship users
develop towards characters they only know from the media. Accordingly, parasocial relationships
can take various forms, reaching from extreme worshipping, to normal romantic relationships and
friendships, to more negative relationships qualified by indifference or even antipathy towards the
mediated other. The formation of parasocial relationships benefits from the often regular, reliable,
and stereotypical appearance of mediated others. For example, in contrast to potentially more unreli-
able and multi-layered real friends, users may reliably encounter their favorite TV news host, who
always plays the same communicational role, at the same time of the day. Studies suggest that para-
social relationships develop in similar ways to relationships with non-mediated others (e.g., Branch,
Wilson, & Agnew, 2013; Lakey, Cooper, Cronin, & Whitaker, 2014). For example, greater exposure
leads to more intense relationships (Bond & Calvert, 2014; Schiappa, Allen, & Gregg, 2007). Further,
knowledge about the other increases with relationship length (Rubin & McHugh, 1987). Likewise,
as in non-mediated relationships, the involuntarily break-up of parasocial relationships can be dis-
tressful (Eyal & Cohen, 2006). Accordingly, parasocial relationships with mediated others have much
in common with orthogonal relationships resulting from face-to-face encounters in real-life settings.
To avoid confusion, it is important to note that a couple of scholars have proposed a different
conceptualization of parasocial interaction and parasocial relationships in the past than the one sug-
gested here. These scholars have argued that both parasocial interaction and relationships refer to
an identical concept, namely to a (short- or long-term) social bond that users develop towards a
media character. From this perspective, both terms can be used interchangeably (e.g., Brown, 2015;
Rubin & McHugh, 1987). On an operational level, this view has resulted in the popular Parasocial
Interaction Scale (Rubin, Perse, & Powell, 1985) that, if viewed from the perspective suggested in
this chapter, despite its name, measures a positive relationship rather than users’ illusion of being in
a reciprocal interaction (Dibble etal., 2016).
In line with the conceptualization suggested in the present chapter, an increasing number of
scholars have called for parasocial interaction and relationships to be distinguished from each other
(Auter & Palmgreen, 2000; Cohen, 2009; Cummins & Cui, 2014; Dibble & Rosaen, 2011; Dibble
etal., 2016; Giles, 2002; Hartmann & Goldhoorn, 2011; Klimmt, Schramm, & Hartmann, 2006;
Parasocial Interaction and Relationships
Schramm & Hartmann, 2008; Tukachinsky, 2010). Indeed, it can be argued that parasocial inter-
action and relationships differ in many aspects. A parasocial interaction can be understood as the
illusion of being in a reciprocal social interaction (although one is not), whereas it is not necessary
to qualify the social relationships users develop towards media characters as illusionary (users may be
fully aware of their one-sided nature). Furthermore, a parasocial interaction is initiated by and, thus,
requires the presence of a mediated other, whereas a parasocial relationship can be experienced and
also continues to exist even if the mediated other is not present. Furthermore, a parasocial interac-
tion is neither inherently positive nor negative and it can be equally felt towards mediated others one
likes or dislikes. In contrast, parasocial relationships can be defined and distinguished by their valence
(e.g., friendship versus antipathy). A parasocial interaction and a parasocial relationship are triggered
by different factors – e.g., a parasocial interaction by forms of addressing like eye-gazing, a positive
parasocial relationship by the mediated other displaying attractive traits or behavior that instigate
liking. Furthermore, encounters triggering parasocial interaction may contribute to parasocial rela-
tionships, but intense parasocial relationships can be formed without any parasocial interaction ever
taking place. A typical and common example is if users develop parasocial relationships after only
observing rather than “seemingly interacting with” characters (Horton & Strauss, 1957), e.g., as in
most movies, TV series, or fictional formats in which characters do not “break the fourth wall.”
Clearly, parasocial interaction and relationships can be meaningfully distinguished.
Next to the two classic concepts, parasocial interaction and parasocial relationships, a third impor-
tant parasocial phenomenon is parasocial processing (Schramm & Hartmann, 2008; Klimmt et al.,
2006), which refers to users’ general cognitive, affective, and behavioral involvement with a media
character during an exposure situation. The concept differs from parasocial interaction as an illusion
of conversational give-and-take, because it:
captures all kinds of users’ responses towards personae, regardless of whether users have
or do not have the feeling that the personae adjust their behavior towards their presence.
Thus, parasocial processes may still occur if users do not feel like being part of a reciprocal
encounter. (Schramm & Hartmann, 2008, p. 387)
In addition and in contrast to parasocial interaction, as Schramm and Hartmann further explicate,
parasocial processing is best understood as a “meta-concept that is composed of some narrower con-
cepts, such as: attention, comprehension, knowledge activation, evaluation, social comparison,
sympathy, empathy, emotional contagion, or physical activity” (p. 387). Accordingly, parasocial
processing captures all (social) responses of users that set in as soon as they perceive a mediated other,
even if they just observe the other but do not feel observed by the other.
Although related research is relatively scarce, parasocial phenomena may be linked to well-being
in multiple ways (e.g., see a related discussion in the context of children’s well-being, Calvert &
Richards, 2014). Of all potential links that may be discussed, the present chapter focuses on the link
between parasocial phenomena and people’s need to belong, which plays a crucial role in well-being.
Parasocial Phenomena and Well-Being: The Need to Belong
The need to belong, i.e., the “need for frequent, nonaversive interactions within an ongoing rela-
tional bond” (Baumeister & Leary, 1995, p. 497), is one of the strongest and most fundamental
human needs. Baumeister and Leary argue that to satisfy the need to belong, two conditions must
be met. First, the social interactions an individual engages in should ideally be pleasant, but should
definitely be devoid of conflict or negative affect. Second, these social interactions should take place
in a relational context, characterized by an existing interpersonal bond or relationship with the other
that is “marked by stability, [mutual] affective concern, and continuation into the foreseeable future”
(Baumeister & Leary, 1995, p. 500). Human beings flourish if they establish such meaningful bonds
with others and feel socially supported. And it is painful if the need to belong is thwarted. If the
need remains chronically unfulfilled, human beings suffer and feel lonely, particularly if they desire
to establish meaningful interactions and relationships. And individuals who are socially excluded,
i.e., being cut off, rejected, or ignored by others, feel a sharp and immediate pain in the moment of
exclusion (Williams & Zadro, 2005). The need to belong is a fundamental pervasive human desire,
and a thwarted sense of belonging causes distress, if not pain. Accordingly, the need to belong is
evidently very closely tied to the well-being of individuals.
A satisfied need to belong promotes both objective and subjective well-being. The maintenance
of meaningful relationships, for example, influences health (see, for overviews, Gardner, Pickett, &
Knowles, 2005; Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010). Socially integrated people are healthier, whereas social
isolation or lack of satisfying relationships is a risk factor for mortality (House, Landis, & Umberson,
1988). Furthermore, a fulfilled need to belong has been considered an important dimension (Ryff &
Keyes, 1995) or determinant (Deci & Ryan, 2008) of subjective well-being. In summary, the extent
to which people can satisfy their need to belong, i.e., maintain frequent, nonaversive interactions
within an ongoing relational bond (Baumeister & Leary, 1995), substantially affects their well-being.
People may satisfy the need to belong by seeking and engaging in interactions and fulfilling rela-
tionships in the real world – but they may also do so by turning to the media (Gardner etal., 2005).
Media representations of existing or fictional others are ubiquitously available and often easily and
reliably accessible, ranging from celebrities portrayed in advertisements; to actors or characters starring
in entertainment formats like films or series, hosts of TV shows, agents in video games or virtual envi-
ronments; to pictures of others on social media sites. Many of these “mediated others” are only known
from the media, either because they are completely fictional or because they are, like celebrities, TV
hosts, or actors, simply not part of people’s “ordinary” face-to-face networks.
Nevertheless, “mediated others” may be accepted as social partners (e.g., Gardner & Knowles,
2008; Giles, 2002). The reason for this is that people often respond to a mediated other in almost
the same way as they would if they encountered the other in a face-to-face setting. People tend to
respond automatically and intuitively to media portrayals of existing others in a social way, no matter
whether the others are existing persons displayed on a TV screen or fictional characters appearing in a
cartoon-like video game (Reeves & Nass, 1996; Rutherford & Kuhlmeier, 2013). And, surprisingly,
most people do not seem to substantially revise their initial impressions and established social bonds
upon later reflection that the other actually does not really exist. Accordingly, because mediated rep-
resentations of social others trigger immediate social responses in users, they may hold the potential
to satisfy the need to belong.
The Compensation Hypothesis
The question of whether parasocial relationships towards mediated others may satisfy the need to
belong, diminish loneliness, and eventually compensate for a lack of social benefits acquired in real-
world relationships has inspired a number of studies in the field. Related research was initiated by
Horton and Wohl (1956), who assumed that “the para-social . . . can properly be called compensa-
tory, inasmuch as it provides the socially and psychologically isolated with a chance to enjoy the elixir
of sociability” (p. 223). Since then, a number of studies have examined this compensation hypothesis,
albeit in different ways (Tsao, 1996; 2004). The compensation hypothesis has not been examined as
implying that parasocial relationships, over time, actually replace (or substitute) existing orthogonal
relationships. Rather, some scholars have examined a “skill-deficit compensation”, i.e., whether
parasocial relationships are more intense among people possessing disadvantageous social personality
characteristics (e.g., shyness, social anxiety, low empathy, introversion), while others have examined
whether loneliness is related to parasocial relationship intensity (“loneliness compensation”).
Parasocial Interaction and Relationships
A meta-analysis across 10 studies by Schiappa et al. (2007) concludes that the compensation
hypothesis cannot be confirmed. Indeed, most studies did not find simple and direct links between
either chronic loneliness or potential social deficits of users and parasocial relationship intensity
(Chory-Assad & Yanen, 2005; Eyal & Cohen, 2006; Levy, 1979; Vorderer & Knobloch, 1996;
Rosengren & Windahl, 1972; Rubin etal., 1985; Wang, Fink, & Cai, 2008). However, if one takes
a closer look at the research findings and distinguishes different interpretations of the compensation
hypothesis, the picture seems less clear-cut.
At first glance, research findings appear to clearly contradict the skill-deficit version of the com-
pensation hypothesis (Ashe & McCutcheon, 2001). As Cohen (2004, p. 192) concludes in his
overview about the field, “those who have difficulties with social relationships because they lack
either the ability to relate to the feelings of others or are extremely shy also have trouble developing
relationships with television characters.” Contrary to the skill-deficit compensation idea, research
has found that people who are both motivated and able to develop social relationships, e.g., extro-
verted individuals, may develop both more intense real and parasocial relationships. For example, in
a study by Vorderer and Knobloch (1996), individuals who were not very motivated to mix with
other people, but also were not shy, maintained the strongest parasocial relationships. Likewise, Tsao
(1996) found that socially skilled people, i.e., individuals with higher cognitive and affective trait
empathy, maintained the strongest parasocial relationships. In addition, in his study, trait extraversion
was positively related to parasocial relationship intensity, whereas trait introversion was unrelated.
Taken together these findings suggest that, contrary to the skill-deficit compensation hypothesis,
people with greater – not weaker – interpersonal skills develop more intense parasocial relationships.
However, some interpersonal personality characteristics may affect parasocial relationship intensity
in ways congruent with the skill-deficit compensation hypothesis. More specifically, individuals who
are both motivated to develop intimate relationships, but also anxious or skeptical if they succeed
in doing so, may be particularly attracted to parasocial relationships. This conclusion can be drawn
from research that has examined people’s attachment styles as a determinant of parasocial relation-
ships (e.g., Cole & Leets, 1999; Cohen, 2004; Greenwood & Long, 2011). An attachment style is an
important personality characteristic rooted in individuals’ early life experiences with their caregivers
(Bowlby, 1973). An attachment style defines how individuals feel about depending on others in
close relationships (e.g., Hazan & Shaver, 1987). Three attachment styles can be distinguished, based
on the degree to which people respond with anxiety or avoidance to close relationships. A secure
attachment style is typical for individuals who are optimistic about close relationships and neither
fear nor avoid them. Individuals with an avoidant attachment style tend to avoid intimate relation-
ships, either because they value independence or because they feel uncomfortable about intimacy.
An anxious-ambivalent attachment style (or preoccupied attachment style) is characterized by low
avoidance (i.e., individuals are motivated to engage in close relationships) but high anxiety (e.g., fear
of being abandoned or hurt).
Cole and Leets (1999) examined the influence of attachment styles on parasocial relationship
intensity. In their study, participants with an anxious-ambivalent attachment style yielded the
strongest parasocial relationships, and participants with an avoidant attachment style the weakest.
Cohen (2004) replicated this finding. Furthermore, in his study, individuals with an anxious-
ambivalent attachment style had stronger parasocial relationships than individuals with a secure
attachment style. In addition, his study showed that people with an anxious-ambivalent attachment
style anticipated the greatest parasocial break-up distress if their favorite television character were
to be taken off air. In another study, Greenwood and Long (2011) examined potential interactions
between relationship status (single or partnered), the need to belong, and attachment styles. They
found that singles with an anxious attachment style and a stronger need to belong reported the
strongest imagined intimacy towards favorite media characters. In summary, these findings may
be interpreted as supporting the skill-deficit compensation hypothesis: Those with an anxious-
ambivalent attachment style, i.e. people who are motivated to engage in intimate relationships but
are also anxious about their success, report the strongest parasocial bonds. A plausible reason is that
these individuals find the level of intimacy in parasocial relationships that they desire but fear to
realize in real-world relationships.
Evidence regarding the loneliness version of the compensation hypothesis, i.e., that lonelier people
may maintain stronger parasocial relationships, is ambivalent. As noted, many studies found no such
relationship. However, other studies did. For example, in a study by Jennings, Hunt, Altenau, and
Linebarger (2008), lonely children maintained stronger parasocial relationships to a character in The
Lion King than non-lonely children. Greenwood and Long (2009) found that the experience of
solitude as the “absence of valued others” (rather than, e.g., a time for self-expansion) particularly
predicted parasocial relationship intensity. Furthermore, in same study, the need to belong affected
parasocial relationship intensity, and this effect was mediated by the perception of solitude as marking
“the absence of valued others.” Wang, Fink, and Cai (2008) distinguished different types of loneli-
ness and found that greater family loneliness and romantic loneliness resulted in stronger parasocial
relationships among women (but not men). And Baek, Bae, and Jang (2013) found that loneliness
was related positively to the number of one-sided bonds people established with celebrities on social
network sites, but negatively to the number of mutual or interactive bonds that people established.
Social Snacking, Social Shielding, and Social Support
Further support for the idea that loneliness and parasocial relationships may be meaningfully linked
stems from social-psychological studies that have examined whether parasocial bonds bolster against
the effects of loneliness or social exclusion. Gardner, Pickett, and Knowles (2005) showed that to
regulate immediate belongingness needs (e.g., if feeling lonely or excluded), people engage in “social
snacking” (p. 232) by turning to tangible reminders of being connected and accepted (like a photo or
an email of a liked person). Furthermore, to bolster themselves against the painful experience of social
exclusion, people may engage in preventive “social shielding” processes. Gardner etal. (2005) argue
that parasocial relationships, too, may provide such a social snacking and social shielding function.
Experimental studies by Derrick, Gabriel, and Hugenberg (2009) support this assumption. They
asked participants to either describe a fight with a close other (relationship threat condition) or list
the contents of their residence (control condition). Participants in the relationship threat condi-
tion spent more time thinking about their favorite television program afterwards (and presumably
also a liked media character) than control participants. Whereas this finding relates more to social
snacking as a coping mechanism, another study by the same authors showed that thinking about
a favorite television program also buffered against feelings of rejection and self-esteem and mood
effects that arose from the applied relationship threat manipulation. Furthermore, as another study
by the authors showed, thinking about a favorite television program (compared to control) reduced
the cognitive accessibility of exclusion-related words (e.g., “reject,” “hate”), but did not improve
accessibility of words related to positive moods. Accordingly, thinking of one’s favorite television
program (and, thus, probably also a liked media character) may provide the experience of belonging
and buffer against social exclusion (see also Twenge etal., 2007). In summary, these studies suggest
that parasocial relationships may help in coping with threats to the need to belong. Accordingly, they
provide a particularly attractive social function for lonely people.
Parasocial Interaction and Relationships
Studies by Lakey etal. (2014) shed further light on this social function of parasocial relationships.
Their approach builds on relational regulation theory (Lakey & Orehek, 2011). This theory builds
on two arguments. First, social support providers primarily trigger positive affect. Second, they do
so because they offer ordinary conversations or shared activities rather than focused conversations
about stress and how to cope with problems. Lakey etal. (2014) extend this logic by arguing that also
simply observing other people’s conversations and activities, including those of mediated others, may
elicit positive affect and perceived support. Across three studies, Lakey etal. (2014) provide evidence
for this argument and show that the social support experienced by watching symbolic providers is
remarkably similar to that obtained from real providers.
In summary, these findings suggest that parasocial relationships can provide social support, and,
thus, shield against or diminish the effects of social exclusion and loneliness. Clearly, parasocial rela-
tionships appear to be able to at least partly satisfy a thwarted need to belong. From this perspective,
the “loneliness compensation hypothesis” seems correct.
The Enjoyment of Encountering Mediated Others
Maybe mediated others simply provide social support (and, thus, affect well-being) because people
enjoy their company (Lakey etal., 2014). Accordingly, a simple explanation of why parasocial
phenomena may trigger social support is that their presence fosters enjoyment. Indeed, many
studies have found that parasocial phenomena induce enjoyment in users (Klimmt etal., 2006).
A number of studies conducted in the wake of the uses-and-gratifications approach suggest that
parasocial gratifications are closely tied to users’ entertainment motivation (e.g., Levy & Windahl,
1984). But more direct evidence for the assumption that parasocial interaction fosters enjoyment
comes from experimental studies. For example, a study by Auter and Davis (1991) found that par-
ticipants who watched film clips of a comedy show in which they were directly addressed by the
protagonist (and, thus, presumably experienced stronger parasocial interaction) enjoyed these clips
more than participants who watched the same clips without being addressed. In addition, addressed
participants found the clips to be more sophisticated (deeper, more complex, etc.) than did non-
addressed participants. Similarly, Hartmann and Goldhoorn (2011) manipulated both the bodily and
verbal addressing style of a presenter in a short video clip. They found that both forms of addressing
triggered stronger parasocial interaction, while parasocial interaction, in turn, resulted in greater
enjoyment of the film clip. Converging evidence stems from a non-experimental post-exposure
study examining parasocial processing. Hartmann and Klimmt (2005) found that both cognitive and
affective forms of parasocial processing positively predicted users’ evaluation of a popular German
TV show. In summary, these findings suggest that stronger parasocial interaction and parasocial pro-
cessing result in greater enjoyment.
In addition, parasocial relationships may influence users’ enjoyment, too. For example, Perse and
Rubin (1989) found that the stronger users’ parasocial relationship towards a liked character of their
favorite TV soap opera, the more they were satisfied with watching the show. Hartmann, Stuke,
and Daschmann (2008) found that parasocial relationships determined what driver users rooted for
(or against) in a racing competition. Users’ hope for good outcomes and fear of bad outcomes, in
turn, predicted their level of thrill and suspense while watching the competition. Accordingly, para-
social relationships seem capable of intensifying users’ enjoyment (Klimmt etal., 2006).
Taken together, these findings imply that parasocial phenomena affect well-being, simply by
providing “a good time” and turning media exposure into an enjoyable experience. Because
parasocial phenomena are inherently bound to media characters, their effect on enjoyment is
inherently social too. Accordingly, the presented findings provide indirect evidence for Lakey
etal.’s (2014) assumption, according to which users may receive social support simply by watch-
ing symbolic providers in the media. Social support, in turn, improves well-being. As the previous
section has shown, this may be particularly true for individuals who feel temporarily lonely; these
individuals may remind themselves of an existing intimate parasocial relationship or they may
actively turn to the media to encounter their favorite character in order to satisfy their thwarted
Beyond Well-Being: Extreme Parasocial Relationships
and Celebrity Worshipping
Parasocial phenomena are a common and almost inevitable social response of users to the presence
of mediated others (Giles, 2002), but in rare circumstances they may take extreme forms that may be
considered detrimental to the long-term social adaptation of a user. Extreme and delusionary forms
of parasocial relationship and celebrity worshipping may diminish rather than improve personal well-
being. Similarly, Horton and Wohl (1956) argued that “it is only when the para-social relationship
becomes a substitute for autonomous social participation, [or] when it proceeds in absolute defiance
of objective reality, that it can be regarded as pathological” (p. 223). The question is, of course, at
what point do parasocial relationships become a dysfunctional substitute for the real life, or proceed
in defiance of objective reality?
This problem is not easy to solve, but a general answer could be that, first, parasocial rela-
tionships turn dysfunctional if their maintenance results, on average, in exclusion (rather than
inclusion) of the individual from existing social groups. In other words, if individuals become
more alienated and estranged from their peers as a result of their obsessive maintenance of a
parasocial relationship, potential short-term positive effects on personal well-being (e.g., induced
by the perceived social support they obtain from the media character) may be outweighed by
the more detrimental long-term negative effects resulting from the alienation among really-
existing peers. Second, parasocial relationships may turn dysfunctional if they become delusional,
i.e., if individuals become ignorant towards or start forgetting about their one-sided character
and increasingly desire or even expect reciprocity. Both arguments follow the same underlying
logic, namely that extreme parasocial relationships may be harmful to an individual’s well-being,
because – in the long run – they may hamper an individual’s healthy adjustment to and inclusion
in relevant real-world social settings.
It is important to note that results showing that parasocial phenomena are more pronounced
among “needy” individuals do not suggest that real-world relationships are, therefore, substi-
tuted. For example, the above sections already revealed that, to a small but measurable extent,
parasocial relationships are more pronounced among individuals who desire intimate real rela-
tionships but are anxious about their realization. However, related studies do not provide direct
evidence for a substitution effect. A similar example is provided by research that examined
how parasocial relationships affect self-perceptions among individuals with low self-esteem. In
several experiments, Derrick, Gabriel, and Tippin (2008) showed that parasocial relationships –
but not real relationships – helped low self-esteem individuals to perceive themselves closer to
their ideal self. For example, in one study, either their favorite celebrity or a close relationship
partner was primed among low self-esteem college students. Cognitive salience of the celebrity,
but not of the close relationship partner, induced a self-perception shift towards the ideal self
among participants. Apparently, low self-esteem individuals get a benefit from one-sided paraso-
cial relationships that they rarely acquire in reciprocal real-world relationships, namely that the
relationship helps them to perceive themselves in a more positive way. While these examples
suggest that parasocial relationships provide social benefits to some individuals that reciprocal
relationships do not offer, they do not show that, as a consequence, real-world relationships are
actually substituted, to either a mild or an extreme extent.
Parasocial Interaction and Relationships
In contrast, extreme and even compulsive forms of celebrity worshipping (e.g., McCutcheon,
Lange, & Houran, 2002) have been discussed as parasocial relationships that may be detrimental to
the social adaptation of an individual. Devoted fans of celebrities may show similar behavior and
engage in similar rituals to those known from religious worshipping (Giles, 2000). According to
the theoretical approach of McCutcheon etal. (2002), low levels of celebrity worshipping are most
common, and also functional, because they focus on the celebrity’s ability to entertain and on the
social community-building implications of being a fan (see also Stever, 2011). However, moder-
ate forms of celebrity worshipping are considered problematic, partly, because they seem to appeal
particularly to individuals with a compromised identity structure. Moderate forms are characterized
by intense and somewhat compulsive feelings towards and a mental preoccupation with a celebrity
(e.g., “I consider my favorite celebrity to be my soulmate.” Maltby, Giles, Barber, & McCutcheon,
2005; p. 23). They result if the celebrity provides a strong sense of fulfillment and potential distrac-
tion from a person’s own problems. Intense forms of celebrity worshipping, in turn, are addressed as
borderline-pathological, because they are characterized by exaggerated devotion (“If someone gave
me several thousand dollars to do with as I please, I would consider spending it on a personal posses-
sion (like a napkin or paper plate) once used by my favourite celebrity.” Maltby etal., 2005, p. 25) as
well as compulsive and potentially delusional qualities (e.g., erotomania, stalking, intense devotion).
Extreme celebrity worshipping may result in maladaptive social behavior, and, as a consequence,
negatively affect the well-being of an individual.
Building on an explication of parasocial phenomena, the present chapter reviewed empirical evidence
to illuminate the role of these phenomena, particularly parasocial interaction and relationships, in foster-
ing well-being. The chapter focused on links between parasocial phenomena and the need to belong,
a crucial factor in the formation of well-being. Based on the reviewed insights, a tentative overarching
interpretation of the reviewed evidence can be offered that deserves, however, further empirical scrutiny.
Parasocial Interaction Contributes to Well-Being
Baumeister and Leary (1995) argue that social interaction satisfies the need to belong and fosters well-
being only if it is both pleasant, and embedded in a relational structure. Parasocial interaction may
meet these conditions. First, the reviewed literature shows that parasocial interaction is correlated
with users’ satisfaction and enjoyment, which may suggest that users often experience parasocial
interaction as pleasant. Second, parasocial interaction and parasocial relationships may mutually rein-
force each other, e.g., if users maintain a positive relationship towards a mediated other, they may
experience stronger parasocial interaction if encountering the other in the media. From this perspec-
tive, parasocial interaction may typically be embedded in the structure of a parasocial relationship.
Accordingly, the experience of parasocial interaction (Hartmann & Goldhoorn, 2011) may trig-
ger personal well-being, because it commonly meets the two conditions identified by Baumeister
and Leary (1995). This assumption also strongly overlaps with the argument of Lakey etal. (2014)
that merely observing mediated others may provide social support by inducing positive affect, with
the caveat that parasocial interaction requires “something more than mere running observation”
(Horton & Wohl, 1956, p. 215). Future research may test this partly speculative summary of the
reviewed evidence. Related efforts should also look into potential specifications, e.g., to what extent
the well-being-inducing effect of encountering mediated others depends on individuals’ thwarted
need to belong (or loneliness) versus disadvantageous social skills, and whether simply observing
mediated others versus experiencing a parasocial interaction matters.
Parasocial Relationships Contribute to Well-Being
Most research reviewed in this chapter directly or indirectly examined links between the need
to belong and parasocial relationships. Research in the context of the compensation hypotheses,
including studies on attachment styles, and social snacking and shielding, provides converging evi-
dence that parasocial relationships may contribute to well-being. Although the socially more skilled
(and, therefore, maybe less lonely) individuals seem to maintain the most intense parasocial rela-
tionships, mediated others may contribute to the well-being of (temporarily) lonely individuals,
because their actual presence, or simply bringing them to mind, may provide social support and
shelter. Furthermore, converging evidence exists that individuals with conflicting social tenden-
cies, namely an anxious-ambivalent attachment style, maintain stronger parasocial relationships. A
plausible explanation is that these people particularly appreciate the reliable, predictable, and safe
relationship offered by a mediated other.
One question that remains is whether or not parasocial relationships contribute to the well-being
of chronically lonely people, because “for as many as 15–30% of the general population . . . lone-
liness is a chronic state” (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2010, p. 2). However, the literature provides
an ambivalent picture regarding this question. For example, as the literature suggests, chronically
lonely people do not seem to maintain more, or more intense, parasocial relationships. Accordingly,
only a speculative conclusion can be offered that tries to integrate some of the reviewed findings.
Individuals with a chronically unfulfilled need to belong are more likely to turn to the media
(e.g., Perse & Rubin, 1989). However, they may primarily do so to fill their idle time, whereas it
seems less clear whether they do so to deliberately seek social company. Nevertheless, as a conse-
quence, they may encounter mediated others more frequently than individuals who use the media
less frequently. But only for some chronically lonely people will this result in more and stronger
parasocial relationships. The reason may be that the factors that determine a person’s loneliness can
differ, but these factors may also influence how people respond to mediated others. Some people
may be lonely because they lack certain social skills, e.g., the capability to empathetically under-
stand others. These people may, despite their frequent encounters, also struggle to develop intense
parasocial relationships. Others may be socially intelligent, but may be too anxious to approach
others, may be stigmatized by others, or may simply lack the means (e.g., time or mobility) to main-
tain sufficient meaningful orthogonal relationships. It may be particularly this group of chronically
lonely individuals among whom frequent encounters with mediated others could turn into fulfilling
parasocial relationships that either partly satisfy their need to belong (i.e., feeling less lonely), or at
least promote well-being by partly diminishing the painful effects of a chronically thwarted need to
belong (i.e., feeling as lonely, but less sad).
In addition, the exact type of chronic loneliness may matter too (for a good example, see
Wang etal., 2008). Parasocial relationships may have different effects on well-being depend-
ing on whether people are emotionally lonely (lack of intimate attachment) or socially lonely
(lack of membership in desired groups; Ernst & Cacioppo, 1999). For example, Greenwood and
Long (2011) found that single as compared to partnered participants maintained more intense
parasocial relationships towards a character of the opposite gender. This finding may suggest that
mediated others may particularly satisfy the need to belong among emotionally lonely people
(Wang etal., 2008). Maybe romantic relationships’ qualities are particularly important in that
regard (Tukachinsky, 2010).
Of course, this summary of the reviewed evidence is interpretative, but the assumptions can be
empirically tested. Future research should take several factors (determinants and type of chronic
loneliness, frequency of media use) and their potential interactions into account to provide a more
comprehensive understanding of the breadth (e.g., number and type) and intensity of people’s para-
social relationships and their potential effects on well-being.
Parasocial Interaction and Relationships
New Interactive Technologies
Another challenge for future research about parasocial phenomena and well-being arises from the wide-
spread use of interactive media technologies. The challenge already is of a conceptual nature. Unless
one would fall back on a very broad definition and consider any mediated social encounter as parasocial
(e.g., even a video-chat between two persons), it is questionable whether interactive media provide
parasocial illusions at all. The reason is that interactive media – including the Internet, video games,
or virtual reality applications – provide actual reciprocal encounters with mediated others rather than
only illusions of reciprocity. Hartmann (2008) suggests that interactive encounters may still be called
parasocial, for example, if the other is an artificial agent that is perceived as an (existing) social being.
In this case, the parasocial illusion is not that the encounter is reciprocal, but that it is social (i.e., that
the other is an authentic being). But in this case, would parasocial interaction still differ from related
concepts? Scholars should carefully compare parasocial interaction theory with related approaches like
social presence or believable agents (e.g., Schroeder, 2002) to further clarify these conceptual questions.
Apart from these conceptual problems, a lot of non-interactive and truly parasocial encounters
may still take place in seemingly interactive environments (e.g., Baek etal., 2013). Twitter provides
an example. Many users may follow the tweets of others without ever replying to these tweets. They
may feel like they are encountering the other if reading a tweet and, over time, develop a parasocial
relationship towards the other. Video-blogs (Vlogs) – often established as YouTube channels – are
person-centered, informal, and regular formats that provide another typical opportunity for para-
social encounters. These and other new media applications may trigger parasocial phenomena and
affect people’s wellbeing in exactly the same way as their more traditional counterparts did before.
But they may also differ. For example, users could experience encounters on Twitter or YouTube
as more informal and intimate than encounters on television, which may positively affect social sup-
port. Furthermore, users may perceive it as easier to respond to and get in contact with the other in
interactive media settings (e.g., as compared to writing a letter to a TV personality). This perception
may intensify their parasocial encounters and relationship formation. In summary, it seems impor-
tant to examine the potential of new media applications to affect people’s well-being by fostering
parasocial phenomena. Related research should identify the aspects in which new media applications
systematically differ from traditional non-interactive formats, and should illuminate how these dif-
ferences affect both parasocial phenomena and well-being.
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