Research has demonstrated that threats to belonging elicit a wide array of cognitions and behaviors directed at maintaining social connections. One particularly intriguing finding is that people appear to become highly sensitive to social cues following social rejection or when lonely. For example, individuals with a heightened need to belong are better at decoding emotional facial expressions and exhibit an enhanced memory for socially relevant information compared to their less socially-needy counterparts.
So, in much the same way as a person on a restrictive diet may salivate while poring over the buttery flakes of a warm croissant, a person who has few or fragile relationships experiences a similar perceptual shift which enhances their sensitivity to interpersonal cues. It follows that such a perceptual shift might cause a parasocial relationship to feel even more “real” or satisfying to a lonely person than to someone who is not lonely.
Unfortunately, the main advantage of a parasocial relationship is also its greatest drawback: its one sidedness. Social surrogates are the safest of social connections insofar as they can provide the psychological experience of a connection with none of the painful slights, time consuming maintenance, or personal sacrifice of a real relationship. A social surrogate is consistently available, at the same time, on the same channel, from week to week. As people’s time becomes more limited by work and obligations, it seems much easier to flip on the TV than to spend time cultivating new friendships and risk rejection by doing so. Seeming to support this is the fact that the average American home has more TVs than people, and the average American watches more than four and a half hours of TV a day. Thus, our ability to satisfying our need to belong through television may ultimately come at the expense of real relationships where the risks are greater, but the potential rewards are greater as well.
It is also the case that even very popular TV shows eventually get taken off the air. In a study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships,Jonathan Cohen, of the Department of Communication at the University of Haifa in Israel, examined the responses of television viewers to the potential loss of their favorite television characters. Cohen found that viewers anticipated experiencing the same negative reactions to parasocial breakups as they experience when their real social relationships dissolve. Even though parasocial relationships may offer a quick and easy fix for unmet belonging needs, individuals within these relationships may not be spared the pain and anguish of relationship dissolution.
It remains to be seen whether social surrogacy is like a candy bar in the vending machine, which briefly satiates the hunger of real belonging but is ultimately unsatisfying, or whether it serves as a meal, replacing real relationships in some lasting way.
Are you a scientist? Have you recently read a peer-reviewed paper that you want to write about? Then contact Mind Matters co-editor Gareth Cook, a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist at the Boston Globe, where he edits the Sunday Ideas section.