Stomach growling, but have no time for a meal? A snack will do. Drowsy and unable to concentrate? A short nap can be reviving when a good night’s rest is unavailable. But what should you do when you are alone and feeling lonely?
New psychological research suggests that loneliness can be alleviated by simply turning on your favorite TV show. In the same way that a snack can satiate hunger in lieu of a meal, it seems that watching favorite TV shows can provide the experience of belonging without a true interpersonal interaction.
For decades, psychologists have been interested in understanding how individuals achieve and maintain social relationships in order to ward off social isolation and loneliness. The vast majority of this research has focused on relationships between real individuals interacting face-to-face. Recent research has widened this focus from real relationships to faux, “parasocial” relationships. Parasocial relationships are the kind of one sided pseudo-relationships we develop over time with people or characters we might see on TV or in the movies. So, just as a friendship evolves through spending time together and sharing personal thoughts and opinions, parasocial relationships evolve by watching characters on our favorite TV shows, and becoming involved with their personal lives, idiosyncrasies, and experiences as if they were those of a friend.
In a recent article published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Jaye Derrick and Shira Gabriel of the University of Buffalo and Kurt Hugenberg of Miami University test what they call the “Social Surrogacy Hypothesis.”
The authors theorized that loneliness motivates individuals to seek out relationships, even if those relationships are not real. In a series of experiments, the authors demonstrated that participants were more likely to report watching a favorite TV show when they were feeling lonely and reported being less likely to feel lonely while watching. This preliminary evidence suggests that people spontaneously seek out social surrogates when real interactions are unavailable. The authors also found that participants who recalled a fight with a close person in their lives wrote for significantly longer about their favorite TV show than a non-favored TV show. It appears that experiencing a lack of belonging actually caused people to revel in their favorite TV shows, as though the parasocial relationships with TV characters replaced the flawed relationships that had been recalled.
A common experience following a threat to interpersonal relationships, such as a fight, or social rejection, is lowered self-esteem and negative mood. However, the researchers found that those participants who experienced a relationship threat and then watched their favorite TV show were buffered against the blow to self-esteem, negative mood, and feelings of rejection.
This research contributes to a broader literature regarding the fundamental nature of the need to belong. As social animals, humans are driven by an inherent need to win acceptance, and to form and maintain relationships with others. When the desire for connection is met with consistent, meaningful interactions, the craving subsides, but when it goes unmet, it intensifies like a hunger, forcing action.