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Study notes

Relationships: Parasocial Relationships

  • Levels: AS, A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA

Parasocial relationships refer to one-sided relationships with celebrity, a prominent person in the community or a fictional character, when a fan knows everything about the subject of their adoration and feels very close to them, but there is no chance of reciprocity.

Explanations of Parasocial Relationships

Absorption Addiction Model

Giles and Maltby (2006) identified three levels of celebrity worship, using the Celebrity Attitude Scale in a large-scale survey.

Stage 1 Entertain – Social: Giles and Maltby suggest that most people engage in parasocial relationships at some point in their lives, but most stay at the first level (Entertainment – Social), where celebrities are seen as a source of entertainment and as a topic for lighthearted gossips with friends. This is the least intense level of celebrity worship.

Stage 2 Intense – Personal: This is a deeper level of parasocial relationships. At this level a person has a more intense relationship with a celebrity. For example, they may see them as a soulmate and they have an intense interest in the celebrity’s personal life, such as their dress sense, food they like and entertainment in which they take part. This type of parasocial relationship is typical for teenagers who seem to be obsessed with every little detail of their favourite celebrity’s lifestyle.

Stage 3 Borderline pathological: This is the most intense level of parasocial relationships. At this level, a person takes celebrity worship to an extreme, has obsessive fantasies about the celebrity, spends large sums of money to obtain memorabilia and may engage in illegal activities such as stalking. At this level, it is also usual for people to believe that if only they were given a chance to meet their favourite celebrity in person, their feelings would be reciprocated.

McCutcheon (2002) proposed the Absorption-Addiction Model to explain parasocial relationships. She suggests that people engage in celebrity worship to compensate for some deficiencies in their life, such as difficulty forming intimate relationships, poor psychological adjustment and lack of identity. Forming parasocial relationships with a celebrity allows them to achieve the fulfilment they lack in everyday life and adds a sense of purpose and excitement.

McCutcheon explains that looking for satisfaction in celebrity worship makes a person focus intensively on parasocial relationships and achieving a sense of fulfilment motivates them to become even more intensely attached to the celebrity. This is the first stage of the model, absorption.

This sense of fulfilment then becomes addictive for the person, leading them to engage in more risky behaviour such as stalking, in order to get mentally, and sometimes physically, closer to the celebrity they worship.

Attachment Theory Explanation

Other psychologists use Bowlby’s attachment theory and Ainsworth’s types of attachment to explain celebrity worship. Bowlby’s theory predicts that individuals who didn’t form a strong bond with a primary caregiver in early childhood will try to find an attachment substitute as adults, and engaging in parasocial relationships allows them to do so.

Moreover, according to the description of attachment types described by Ainsworth suggest that individuals who formed insecure-resistant relationships with their caregiver in early childhood will be more likely to form parasocial relationships, as they are too afraid of the criticism and rejection that are a part of real life relationships. As was demonstrated by Ainsworth’s findings in Strange Situation study, insecure-resistant children were very clingy to their mothers, showed less explorative behaviour than children of other types, as they didn’t feel safe enough to leave a parent, and showed great distress when their mother left the room.

According to Hazan and Shaver, this behaviour translates into clingy and jealous behaviour in adulthood, making it difficult for such people to developed committed and lasting romantic relationships. Intensive celebrity worship allows them to engage in fantasy about the perfect relationship, without heartbreak and rejection.

Research Examining Celebrity Wors

Psychological research offers some support for absorption-addiction model. Maltby et al. (2005) measured the relation between celebrity worship and body image in teenagers. They found that teenage girls who were at the intense-personal level of celebrity worship tended to have a poor body image, especially if they particularly admired a celebrity’s physical appearance.

Schiappa et al. (2007) found a significant positive correlation between the amount of TV participants watched, the degree to which they perceived a TV character as ‘real’ and the level of their parasocial relationship.

Research also supports a link between loneliness and engaging in parasocial relationships. For example, Greenwood and Long (2009) found some evidence that people may develop celebrity worships as a way of dealing with a recent loss or loneliness. However, other research (e.g. Chory-Assad and Yanen, 2005) failed to find any significant correlation between intensity of loneliness and intensity of a parasocial relationship, so the evidence is not conclusive.

Attachment theory explanation is also supported by research studies. Kienlen et al. (1997) supported the idea that disturbed attachment in childhood may lead to the development of borderline-pathological level of parasocial relationships. They investigated the experiences of stalkers and found that 63% of their participants experienced a loss of a caregiver in early childhood while 50% experienced emotional and physical abuse.

Cole and Leets (1999) investigated parasocial relationships that adolescents developed with TV personalities, and found that teenagers with insecure-resistant attachment types were more likely to develop

Evaluating Parasocial Relationships

Research into parasocial relationships has useful applications. Maltby (2003) linked types of personality (extravert, psychotic and neurotic) to levels of parasocial relationships. He found that extraverts were more likely to be at the entertainment-social level, neurotics at the intense-personal level and psychotics at the borderline-pathological level, supporting the absorption-addiction model. This suggests that research into parasocial relationships can be used to improve professionals' understanding of psychological disorders and help people struggling with psychological disorders.

There is a lack of support for attachment theory explanations. McCutcheon et al. (2006) examined the correlation between attachment type and celebrity worship levels using 229 participants, and found no link between insecure-resistant attachment and more intense levels of parasocial relationships. This contradicts the claim made by attachment theory explanations and suggests that there is no link between attachment type and parasocial relationships.

However, most research into celebrity worship/parasocial relationships is correlational. This means that cause and effect cannot be clearly established, lowering the scientific explanatory power. For example, while a significant correlation was found between poor body image and intensive celebrity worship in teenage girls (Maltby et al., 2005), this does not mean, however, that intense celebrity worship causes poor body image. It may as well be that girls who already have a poor body image tend to engage in a more intensive level of parasocial relationships to enhance their self-esteem.

Another weakness of studies into parasocial relationships is that they rely heavily on self-report methods, such as interviews and questionnaires. These methods may not reflect the true picture, as participants may want to answer in a way that reflects them in better light (social desirability bias) and may not respond truthfully to the questions. This means that the reasons for developing parasocial relationships may be different from the ones uncovered by research, which lowers the validity of these explanations, making them less applicable to real life.

Issues & Debates: Parasocial Relationships

The Absorption-Addiction Model is better suited to describing levels of celebrity worship that explain how people develop these attitudes. This model attempts to establish universal principles of behaviour (nomothetic approach) and as such misses out on deep insight into the reasons for behaviour. An idiographic approach, looking into particular instances of parasocial relationships, may be better suited to the reasons for why people develop them.

Despite some weaknesses, research into celebrity worship seems to be describing a universal phenomenon. For example, Schmid and Klimmt (2011) studied levels of parasocial relationships with characters from the Harry Potter books in different cultures, and found similar levels of worship in Germany (individualist culture) and Mexico (collectivist culture). This suggests that the absorption-addiction model is universally applicable.

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