Parasocial Relationship Theory

Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl published their article Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a Distance in the journal Psychiatry in 1956, in which the concept of para-social relationships was first introduced. They referred to parasocial relationships to characterize the more enduring, long-term, and usually positive, one-sided intimacy at a distance that users develop towards media performers, based on repeated encounters and defined it as "a seeming face-to-face relationship between spectator and performer" (Horton & Wohl, 1956). It laid the foundation for one of the most popular research fields in media reception and effects research (Liebers & Schramm, 2019).

Since the terms parasocial relationships and parasocial interactions are used interchangeably and somewhat ambiguous (Dibble et al., 2015) in Donald Horton and Richard Wohl’s article, even in the 1970s and 1980s, a lot of research on parasocial relationships still used the Parasocial Interaction Scale and combined questions about parasocial interactions and parasocial relationships. Currently, scholars agree that the two concepts are related but different. A series of concepts related to parasocial will be briefly described here.

By definition, the term “parasocial interaction” describes a onesided mediated form of social interaction between the audience and media characters (Horton & Wohl, 1956). It limits itself to the interaction between a media character and the audience and can therefore only take place during media reception, parasocial relationships exceeds this limit and leads to or encompasses cross-situational relationships between the audience and media characters (Liebers & Schramm, 2019). This relationship between a media character and a media user in turn can end, for example, when the media character of a TV series suddenly dies; researchers call this “parasocial breakup” (Cohen, 2003). Media psychologist Gayle Stever (2009) expands on the concept of parasocial relationships and argues that this encompasses parasocial attraction and parasocial attachments. Whereas, with the use of new technologies in social relation building, Researchers extend the concept of parasocial relationship into trans-parasocial relation theory. This influencer–follower relation lies at the intersection of parasocial relation and interpersonal relation, combines both one-to-one and one-to-many interactions, and facilitates collective reciprocity, synchronous interactivity, and co-created social relations between social media influencers and their followers (Lou, 2022).

Parasocial relationships can have positive or negative effects on people. On a more optimistic note, parasocial relationships can increase personal self-confidence and reduce individual loneliness by creating a stronger sense of belonging to the parasocial persona. Especially during COVID-19, the social agency of media figures had a stronger impact on the general public than on normal days. In times of quarantine, people are forced to turn to TV, movie, or social media personalities as a way to satisfy their need for social interaction and connection; for some actors or internet celebrities, fans create online or personal communities for them, and parasocial relationships can also be a catalyst for real-life relationships with like-minded people (Sanderson, 2009). On the negative side, a feeling that one does not belong leads to loneliness (Peplau & Perlman, 1981; Williams & Sommers, 1997) and other powerful negative consequences, such as anxiety, anger, and antisocial and self-defeating behaviours (Pickett et al., 2004).

Research has shown that parasocial relationships can influence media users in a variety of ways. Liebers and Schramm (2019) found that if a person has a parasocial relationship with a media persona, that persona can influence their political views, consumer behaviour, and attitudes toward gender stereotypes. Moreover, this theory offers a foundation on which new communicative and advertising theories can be developed to explicate new forms of social interactions and consumer behaviour. Firstly, social media fosters connections with a novel breed of 'digital companions': these connections encompass social media personalities such as influencers—bloggers, YouTubers, and Instagram or TikTok figures (Berryman & Kavka, 2017) —who are often regarded as intimate confidants or even kin by their followers (Reinikainen et al., 2020). Additionally, brands have the power to evoke robust self-associations (Tan et al., 2018) or even stir feelings of affection (Batra et al., 2012) in dedicated individuals. This influence is particularly pronounced among the youth, captivated by prevalent brands (Dhir et al., 2016). These digital intimacies have intermingled, with brands seeking endorsements from ‘trendy’ influencers to secure the trust and notice of the influencers’ devotees. Such partnerships yield favourable outcomes, leading to heightened purchase intentions for brands (Lee & Watkins, 2016) and allowing influencers to deepen connections with their followers (Reinikainen et al., 2020). However, it is notable that mismanagement of these relationships can provoke negative sentiments; closeness can swiftly transform into betrayal if moral expectations are breached or integrity is compromised (Tan et al., 2021). Additionally, adverse experiences in online communities might transcend to other realms, dissuading participation due to online remorse (Kaur et al., 2016). Consequently, influencers are increasingly cautious when partnering with brands, meticulously choosing allies aligned with their brands to preserve their credibility and allure in the eyes of their followers (Yuan & Lou, 2020). Similarly, brands are wary of tarnishing their reputation by engaging with influencers displaying questionable conduct on social platforms.


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