Mediated vs. Parasocial Relationships: An Attachment Perspective

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Nov 16, 2013 (4 years and 7 months ago)


Attachment Theory


Mediated vs. Parasocial Relationships:

An Attachment Perspective

Gayle S. Stever, Ph.D.

Empire State College/SUNY

Online Publication Date:
, 201

Journal of Media Psychology
, Volume 17, No.
3, Winter
, 201


This article delineates the
distinctions between mediated and parasocial relationships
before outlining the key aspects of parasocial theory and suggesting that the theory be
expanded to consistently include parasocial attachment as a category distinct from
parasocial relationships.
Parasocial theory involves interactions, relationships and
attachments between people of differing status such that one person is well known to the
other but that knowing is not reciprocated.

As media become more pervasive in the day
day lives of indivi
duals, it becomes more and more important to understand the
mechanisms whereby parasocial interaction, relationships, and attachments function in
both development and social life.

This paper proposed an integrated theory of parasocial
dynamics, drawing pri
ncipally from communications studies and psychology, while also
recognizing the contributions of sociology and anthropology.
Parasocial attachment is

proposed to be

a form of classical human attachment as defined by Bowlby (1969) and
Ainsworth (1978), and
the qualities and characteristics that define the other two identified
forms of attachment, infant
caregiver and adult romantic, apply equally well to parasocial

Keywords: Parasocial, Attachment, Romantic Attachment, Fan Studies, Media

Attachment Theory



Interest in the influence of mass media has continued to grow across all of the
social sciences beginning in the twentieth and continuing into the twenty
first century. A
number of these disciplines have published extensive research rela
ted to mass media and
these include psychology, sociology, communications, and anthropology. Because
academic research tends to be written for an audience in only one of these disciplines,
finding a way to integrate areas of research among the social scien
ces and also
standardize the terminology used is a problem. Such has been the case in the area of
parasocial theory, the theory of parasocial interaction proposed by Horton and Wohl
(1956) wherein unreciprocated relationships were developing between media
figures and
audience members. While extensive research has been done in the area of parasocial
interaction, particularly by communication scholars, scholars in the other social sciences
have had minimal exposure to parasocial theory and how it differs from

theories about
other mediated relationships.

While research on relationships of all types has traditionally been the purview of
social psychology and social development, communications researchers (Levy, 1979;
Rubin & McHugh, 1987; Rubin, Perse & Powell,

1985) have taken the lead in this area of
parasocial relationships. In order to have a complete understanding of these phenomena,
terminologies used in mass communications research need to be integrated more into the
psychology literature. To do this is o
ne of the purposes of this article. Specifically, a
distinction needs to be made between a mediated relationship and a parasocial
relationship as these terms are easy to confuse. The other task of this article is to propose
the marriage of parasocial theor
y with classical attachment theory into a recognized
category of parasocial attachment, a term that has been used in the literature (Cohen,

Attachment Theory


2004; Stever, 2009) but is not universally recognized as having a theoretical grounding in
the classical attachment
literature (described later in this article). This lack of grounding
of parasocial theory in existing developmental theory on relationships has been
recognized as a weakness of the theory by communications scholars (Hataway, 2008) and
psychologists alike (
Giles, 2002).

Mediated relationships are communications and connections between individuals
that are transmitted through media rather than face
face (Hardey, 2004; Jiang et al,
2010; Yum and Hara, 2005). This includes computer mediated relationships, re
ferred to
in the literature as CMC. Anything from books and newspapers to television and the
Internet would fall into the category of a mediated communication. More recent research
has focused on other media such as cell phones, blackberries, and other fo
rms of personal
communication devices (Bergdall et al, 2012; Humble
Thaden, 2011; Naz et al, 2011).
The broad category of mediated relationships covers all relationships that are conducted
over media, but much of the focus in the literature has been on CMC

(Hu et al, 2004;
& Gojdycz
, 2000;

& Punyanunt
, 2007).

Parasocial Interaction (PSI) and Parasocial Relationships (PSR) first were
discussed by Horton and Wohl

(1956) who suggested that there was a very special type
of mediated relationship that had been made more prominent through the medium of
television. In a PSR, there are a number of defining characteristics (Giles, 2002; Giles,
2003; Hartmann & Goldhoorn,
2011; Horton & Wohl, 1956; Rubin and McHugh, 1987).

Most notably, a PSR lacks reciprocity (Schramm & Hartmann, 2008). An
individual consumes media about a particular individual or character in media,
but the communication is not reciprocated. In the case o
f fictional characters,

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this is because they are not real. In the case of celebrities, the reciprocity is
missing because the two individuals in the PSR don’t have access to one
another. Most PSR’s involve a status difference, with the parasocial object
ing a person of higher status, most often through wealth, fame or power,
than the viewer. Often referred to as a “fan,” originally short for “fanatic,” this
term has come to mean any devoted follower of a form of media or person in

Another defining

feature of PSR’s is that the object is known by the viewer
but the knowing is one
way, such that the celebrity object doesn’t know much,
if anything at all, about the viewer. The fan has access to public information
about the celebrity as that celebrity
chooses to reveal it, or in some cases as
those who know the celebrity

It is important to recognize that not all mediated relationships are parasocial, and
not all parasocial relationships are mediated. Many mediated relationships are betw
equals who reciprocate, are of equal status, and are known to each other in the face
face social world. Those on our Facebook pages, those with whom we text
message on
our phones, or those with whom we E
mail regularly can be counted among our media
relationships. It is perfectly plausible to know someone through media in a completely
reciprocated fashion.

Conversely, a parasocial relationship is possible in a situation where someone is
admired from afar, perhaps in a small town situation, where s
omeone in the community
has a public presence that allows him or her to be known by people that she or he doesn’t
know in return. For example, in a very large church, the congregation members all know

Attachment Theory


the pastor from weekly sermons, and public speaking, bu
t the pastor may not know all the
congregation members personally if there are thousands of them.

Parasocial Attachment and its P
lace in Parasocial Theory

This paper proposes that while most literature in parasocial theory discusses the
distinction betwee
n PSI and PSR, a third category, parasocial attachment (PSA) needs to
be included in discussions of parasocial theory. PSI, PSR, and PSA are progressive states
such that what begins as PSI has the potential to become a PSR (Schmid & Klimmt,
2011) and then
a PSA. The term attachment has been used to describe PSR’s in the
literature (Cohen, 2004; Stever, 1994, 2009) and it is proposed here that PSA is actually
an additional form of attachment that belongs next to infant/caregiver attachment and
adult romantic

attachment as a part of the developmental attachment literature.

Communications scholars have done much of the work in parasocial theory since
it was proposed by Horton & Wohl in 1956. As many studies have been done outside of
psychology, a solid connec
tion to psychological theory and developmental theory has
been missing (Hataway, 2008).

Attachment Theory

PSA is explained by classical attachment theory as defined by Bowlby (1969) and
Ainsworth (1978), with characteristics that define the other two iden
tified forms of
attachment, infant
caregiver and
adult romantic (Hazan & Shaver, 1987). Humans are
born with a biologically based instinct to be socially attracted to other humans (Bowlby,
1969, Muir, et al., 1994; Schore, 2000). Part of this instinct is t
o seek proximity to others
for safety as well as to meet social needs. Infants focus on caregivers to meet these needs.
Bowlby (1969) called this proximity seeking behavior “attachment.” He based the initial

Attachment Theory


on ethology, control systems theo
ry, and
psychoanalytic thinking (Bretherton,
1992). His early training as a psychiatrist had grounded him in the object
tradition of psychoanalysis. This became the basis for his emphasis on early relationships
as a basis of later development.


(1978) studied the quality of the infant’s relationship to a caregiver by
analyzing infant responses to “The Strange Situation,” a series of seven three
episodes measuring the infant’s reaction to a stranger, both in the presence and absence
of a c
aregiver. Three patterns of responses to this experiment were identified from her
work. The securely attached infant responded to the presence of a stranger and
subsequent absence of the mother with a balance of proximity seeking and also
exploration of th
e new environment. The anxious
avoidant infant responded very little to
the mother, exploring the toys throughout most parts of the experiment. The anxious
ambivalent infant became clingy with the mother at the first sign of social stress and
rarely re
aged the toys once upset. The quality of attachment is a characteristic of the
dyad. Infants can be securely attached to one caregiver while insecurely attached to
another. The attachment system itself is part of the behavioral system of the infant alone.
Sroufe (2005) looked at adolescents whose attachment style had been assessed multiple
times in infancy, and found a high correlation between earlier and later attachment styles
in the same individuals.

Later work on attachment extended the idea to includ
e adult romantic partners,
wherein the adults took turns being the caregiver and the care receiver, and adult sexual
behavior was affected by the quality of early infant attachment patterns. Infants who had

Attachment Theory


a pattern of secure attachments were more success
ful in their later social and intimate
relationships (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007; Hazan & Shaver, 1987, 1994).

To date the focus in the developmental attachment literature has been on these
two forms of attachment, infant
caregiver (Ainsworth, 1978; Bowlb
y, 1969) and adult
romantic (Hazan and Shaver, 1994).

Parasocial Theory

Social interaction was limited to persons known in real life to the individual until
the advent of visual media, television and movies meant that the images and voices of a
wide arra
y of other people known through media became available. In 1956, Horton and
Wohl described such interaction with the word “parasocial.” Their article dealt
principally with television, through which intimate personal information about other
people was tran
smitted, information previously available only through face
interaction. Viewers came to know the mannerisms, behaviors, sense
humor, facial
expressions and other personal details learned through this medium. They felt personally
connected to su
ch people, indeed if someone known only through media were to die, they
experienced profound grief as with the death of President John F. Kennedy in 1963.

Stever (2009, 1994) described levels of fandom, a concept clearly linked to PSI,
along with the i
ntensity of the attraction shown for a celebrity. The highest levels of
fandom were obsessive pathological (interferes with the ability to live a normal life), and
obsessive non
pathological (intense interest by a person with a normal life of work,
and other aspects). Beneath those two levels were people focused on a particular
celebrity such that it defined their entertainment life, and below that were several levels
of average interest in a celebrity. These levels were described based on 150 case v

Attachment Theory


written by fans and coded by five coders with a .92 level of inter
rater reliability. The
documents were also coded for fan motivations with the three most frequent categories
being 1) task attraction (I like the celebrity because (s)he is the bes
t at what they do), 2)
romantic attraction (I like the celebrity based on sexual/romantic feelings), and 3)
identification/social attraction (I like the celebrity because (s)he is like me or because I
want to be like him/her). Romantic attraction was the b
est predictor of the higher
intensity levels of fandom as documents were also rated as “high intensity” and “low
intensity” with intensity being defined as the degree of focus on and time spent engaging
parasocially with the celebrity (Stever, 1991, 1994).

The same or similar three categories
of attraction to celebrities have appeared elsewhere in the literature (Caughey, 1978;
Hoffner & Cantor, 1991; Rubin & McHugh, 1987).

Giles (2002), a social psychologist, described three categories of PSR, one with a
fictional character, a second with an actor as a fictional character, and a third with the
actual actor. His extensive and detailed review of the early communication literat
ure in
PSI affirms the point that psychologists had done little to that point to contribute to the
discussion. Communication scholars
did the first research using
PSI and
were the ones
who defined the term more completely. Use
s and Gratifications research,

from mass

caused PSI to resurface (McQuail, Blumler, & Brown, 1972). Uses and
Gratifications proposed that media users are goal directed and deliberate in their choice
of media consumption, contrary to earlier views that saw viewers as pas
sive consumers.
Early studies defined PSI/PSR (Levy, 1979; Rubin & McHugh, 1987; Rubin et al, 1985)
as “a one
sided interpersonal relationship that television viewers establish with media
characters” (Rubin & McHugh

1987, p. 280). The definition was later

elaborated on such

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that “parasocial interaction occurs when we respond to a media figure as if he/she/it were
a real person” (Giles, 2003, p. 188).

Giles (2003) proposed that we can form a PSR with a real celebrity, a fictional
character, or even a carto
on figure. It is important to note that PSR’s cover a range of
interactions that can be both real and imagined. For example I might have a PSR with the
president of the United States and know this person very well through media. While some
would argue that

all that is known is the public persona, Babcock (1989) has argued
persuasively that all people have public and private selves, and this is not something that
is unique to public figures. So it is a given, that when we say we “know” a person, what
we know

is that person’s public self, whether the relationship is parasocial or not. My
knowledge of President Obama’s public self is real and not imagined and whether or not I
choose to vote for him is based on that knowledge. The voting is a real behavior with
implications, so the argument that PSR’s are always imaginary misses this important
point. The “real” nature of PSR’s is not limited to politicians. I might know a public
figure through television, perhaps someone like Oprah Winfrey, and might be insp
ired in
some way by her example to be public minded and philanthropic. This results in real
behavior that has been influenced by the real life of a real person. However, if I feel a
connection with a television character, e.g. Special Agent Leroy Jethro Gi
bbs on NCIS
(CBS television series), and I “talk” to him during or after viewing as if he were a real
person, this relationship is imaginary and not possible in the real world. The actor who
plays Gibbs, Mark Harmon, is someone I could know in real life, b
ut such actual real
knowing is rare on the part of the average viewer. Actors commonly experience the
confusion viewers have between fantasy and reality when a fan approaches them on the

Attachment Theory


street and speaks to them as if they were they character they portray
. For example,
Alexander Siddig (personal interview), who played Dr. Bashir on
Star Trek: Deep Space
, recounted that people often wrote to him or asked him in person about things one
would ask a doctor, even though Siddig is an actor who only played a

doctor on
television. This is something that actors frequently report in interviews about fans.

PSA’s are formed by individuals at all stages of the life cycle from childhood
through later adulthood. There has been some literature focused on adolescent P
although sometimes the terminology used is varied such that theorists have talked about
Imaginary Social Relationships (Caughey, 1988
, 1984
) and Secondary Attachments
Price & Greene, 1990). Looking at how these terms are defined, clearly the
eories in those articles are very closely linked, if not identical, to PSA. Studies on
PSA’s in adolescence have recognized that such relationships with distant attachment
objects allow for the safe exploration of romantic feelings with a partner who will
place any demands on the young person (Theran et al, 2010). While such exploration is
within the realm of normal adolescent behavior, an adolescent having difficulty making
such a transition might become overly focused on one celebrity and have difficu
moving on to face
face relationships (Giles & Maltby, 2004). One consequence of
adolescents growing up in a media saturated culture where new forms of media dominate
the lives of young people is that values are affected by such saturation. One group

children ages 10
12 indicated that their highest aspiration

was fame
seeking and this
focus of
values was attributed to interactive communication technologies (Uhls &
Greenfield, 2012).

Morimoto and Friedland

(2011) found that media has become central
among the ways that adolescents form identity. Rapid change in media along with

Attachment Theory


enormous increases in use among adolescents has created a risk environment for youth.
As an example, by 2009 58% of 12 year olds and

83% of 18 year olds owned cell phones.
Increasing competency in technology may be at the expense of a loss of face
social skills with a resulting lack of success in career and school.

A key component of attachment theory is proximity seeking (Mik
ulincer &
Shaver, 2007) and fans exhibit many proximity seeking behaviors when acting on their
PSAs. Sometimes fans find ways to meet their favorite celebrities in real life, a quite
obvious form of proximity seeking. In addition, “secure base” and “safe h
aven” are
components of the attachment behavioral system (Hazan & Shaver, 1994) that can be
argued to have relevance in the parasocial realm as well.
s from previous
research (Stever, 2009
illustrated how this might work:

A Josh Groban fan in her
50’s reported that she was suffering from stage four
cancer. Josh Groban’s music, and later Josh Groban himself, had become a source of
tremendous comfort to her during her chemotherapy and radiation treatments. She used a
recording of his song,
, while receiving her treatments, and found herself
strengthened by the song and what it represented to her. In this case, the song created
proximity to Groban while the lyrics and meaning of the song contributed to both a
secure base and safe haven from
pain and discomfort.

In a second case, an eighteen year
old Michael Jackson fan reported that after her
father left her family (and went from being very close to this young woman to being
totally absent from her life according to her mother), Jackson beca
me a substitute source
of comfort for her and she recounted to her therapist, and again later to the researcher,
that ‘I love Michael Jackson and he can never leave me.’ In addition to using

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memorabilia and music to create proximity, this fan also found a
secure base and source
of personal comfort in Jackson and his music. This became a safe haven for her as she
dealt with the abandonment of her father.

In a third case, a Bruce Springsteen fan described her relationship with the fan
community, referring to

it as ‘our own small town’ and indicating that it was to
Springsteen and also his fans that she turned to in times of crisis, this matching almost
exactly the definition of safe haven (Hazan and Shaver, 1994). This last example,
wherein not only the celeb
rity but also the “community of fans” become

the source of
felt security, was commonly reported in every fan community studied. These fan
communities included Star Trek, Josh Groban, Bruce Springsteen, Michael

Jackson and
numerous others (Stever, 2009

ore recently, an interviewee gave this account of how watching television at the
end of a long day provided him with comfort and felt security:

The Andy Griffith Show always had a great lesson to teach, and I loved this show

as a child, and still do today
. I believe this is a wonderful show for kids, and more

importantly for adults because of our forgetfulness of the "golden rule

I wish I

could have turned my kids on to this show when they were young. The show's

s had a penchant for writing
aordinary and
timeless messages that

taught viewers a moral lesson, or helped to resolve an ethical dilemma. The

interesting thing too was that

it wasn't just the child character receiving a weekly

lesson, but every adult character who was a regular, or

guest on the show. Sooner

or later each received their very own homespun lesson each episode that anyone

could understand. Recently, as in the past month or so

I began to watch Griffith's

show on Youtube, I suppose as a result of boredom. What a joy i
t still is to watch.

The fascinating thing to me is that on occasion I find that it still provides a

psychological comfort to me, especially since I've been living alone for the past

few years. It's funny, I would almost equate Andy, Opie, Barney, Aunt
Bea, and

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the rest of the gang to being my surrogate family. I have a very palpable

awareness of feeling emotionally secure when I think of how I feel as I watch, and

learn. I imagine that the feelings I describe have their roots in my very young days

at home, and a sense of feeling safe. I still do have real family that I love, and

spend time with of course. However, now and then I've noticed of myself that,

during my dinner time, and it

s rare for me to dine with anyone because of my

schedule, I fi
nd myself watching the show frequently.

This participant’s experience illustrates the point that PSAs often get connected
with and related to real life attachments. He feels attached to the characters on the show,
in part because they elicit important

memories from his childhood and attachments he felt
to family members.

Another group of studies has sought to connect early attachment styles
(Ainsworth, 1978) with later parasocial relationships. Cohen (1997) identified “working
models of attachment” an
d related these to the likelihood that viewers would apply their
own model to a PSR with a television character. He found that these models of
attachment influenced the way we think about symbolic relationships. Cole and Leets
(1999) found that individuals

with an anxious
ambivalent style of attachment (Ainsworth,
1978) were the most likely viewers to form parasocial bonds with their favorite
celebrities, while anxious
avoidants were the least likely to form such bonds. This study
of 115 college undergradua
tes (median age of 21) suggested that attachments beliefs
appeared to be a reliable predictor for willingness to form bonds with parasocial figures.
Cohen (2004), in a follow
up study, also found that anxious
ambivalent viewers
anticipated more negative co
nsequences for the loss of a favorite television character, a
reflection of the intensity of those relationships, and that those anticipated responses
mirrored the loss of real relationships in their own lives. The anticipated loss for the

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anxious ambivale
nt viewer was greater than it was for individuals with other attachment
styles. This study showed “evidence of the similarity between parasocial relationships
and close social relationships” (p. 187). Greenwood and Long (2011), in their study of
173 colleg
e undergraduates, found that those with close real world friends were more
likely to feel close to parasocial figures in the media, while the opposite was true for
those with close real world romantic partners. The reported attraction to parasocial
c figures was greater for viewers who had no real life romantic partners. This
suggests that PSR's play differing roles in parasocial friendship compared to parasocial
romantic love. The link between PSR and attachment was theorized and believed to
ce the findings of this study. Tuvachinsky (2010) also found distinct differences in
the reporting of these two kinds of parasocial relationships in her series of three studies
on the subject. These studies suggest a clear difference between PSRs motivated

feelings of friendship compared to those motivated by feelings of romantic love. More
work is needed to further determine the links between quality of attachment in infancy
and the propensity for forming parasocial connections later as an adult.

(2001) presented the argument that identification with a character is
distinct from parasocial interaction with the character. “Identification with a television
character is based on a psychological attachment between the viewer and a character but
than leading to interaction with the character, it leads to imagining 'being like' the
character.” (p. 253). Stever (2009) found three primary motivations for attraction and
attachment to a celebrity and identification was one of these three. In the study,

attachment was measured via behavioral criteria that signaled proximity seeking to the
celebrity, for example, attending events where the celebrity would appear, joining the

Attachment Theory


celebrity's fan club, and collecting memorabilia related to the celebrity. In the

three types
of motivation: identification, task attraction, and hero/role model attraction

there was
significant overlap among these categories. This suggested that while identification is a
separate construct from other types of parasocial interaction,

it might also be a good
predictor for the other types, i.e. parasocial friendship and parasocial love, as well as hero
worship. Stever (1991, 2008) found that task attraction, role model attraction and
romantic attraction as measured by the Celebrity Appe
al Questionnaire, were all equally
good predictors of a self
report as to how big a fan the viewer perceived himself or
herself to be.

An important point is that while some psychologists emphasize fandom as
pathology (Dietz et al, 1991; Maltby et al, 2001
, 2003, 2004, 2005), the developmental
perspective on fans is more likely to see fandom/PSI as a normal part of development
throughout the life course (Stever, 2010, 2011). While developmentalists recognize that
fandom has the potential to bring out troubl
ing behaviors, they also see fandom as a
potentially legitimate expression of interests and feelings. Much is made in the fan
studies psychological literature of the concept of “obsession.” Fiction writer Penzler
(1999) made this relevant observation: “Whe
re is the line, that narrow border crossing
that separates the areas of normal drive, or desire, and obsession? My best answer is that
it is impossible to know. What seems entirely normal, planned, and reasonable to one
person seems obsessive to another” (
p. 2). This quote is relevant because it is exactly this
issue that seems to separate those who find most fan behavior to be normal and those who
find it to be strange. By showing how PSA is simply an extension of the attachment

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system that Bowlby (1969) a
nd Ainsworth (1978) identified as being common to all
human beings, a theoretical framework is offered for explaining attachment to celebrities.

Not all PSI involves attachment. Attachment theory addresses a very specific type
of relationship,
one in which individuals look to an attachment figure for “felt security”
(Mikulincer & Shaver, 2010). Individuals also look to attachment figures for a “safe
haven” and “secure base" (Hazan and Shaver, 1994). These researchers proposed that
while early re
search focused on parent
child attachment, it is now found in much broader
social situations and in relation to many more people than originally proposed
(Mikulincer & Shaver, 2010). Further they recognize that “…it can also include
activation of mental re
presentations of relationship partners who regularly provide care
and protection…the mental representations of attachment figures can become symbolic
sources of protection, and their activation can establish what might be called ‘symbolic
proximity’ to sup
portive others” (p. 13). While these authors are talking about real social
relationships between adults, it is proposed here that this idea would apply equally well to

Is the parasocial realm merely a fantasy, an imagined connection that only exists
in the mind of the viewer? If the viewer never meets the object (or celebrity), is the
relationship to that object “not real?” Examples illustrate that, at least in many case
s, PSIs
are very real in spite of the two people never meeting. A personal example might clarify
this: As an American citizen, John F. Kennedy was my president from 1960 when he was
elected until his death in 1963. The things he did as president had both d
irect and indirect
effects on me. When he died, the world I was living in changed. I was deeply saddened
by his passing. The effect he had on me was very real in spite of my never having met

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him. This is PSI at its most basic. At the age of nine, I didn't
have any kind of PSA or
PSR with JFK. I was most likely less affected by the loss than others who did have PSRs
or PSAs with him.

There are two patterns to be considered

here. Adams
Price and Greene


talked about secon
dary attachment, where the atta
is to the internal representation
the fan has created of some mediated person. The primary attachment object, the
celebrity, is not the true focus of attachment.
A person

antasizes about a celebrity,
idealizes them, and
finds comfort from
that idea
lized internal image
. However
, other
work has focused on primary PSAs where

it is just a
s possible
to focus attention on the
real person who is admired, to emulate and feel connected to them, and to make th
at real
person the object of

(Stever, 2

In another example, 1988 was the beginning of participant
observer work within
the Michael Jackson fan community. Interviews with over 1000 fans in that community
with data collected that included questionnaires, interviews, plus extended interactio
with a subsample showed that almost all fans had relationships with Jackson that
qualified as parasocial. None of them knew him in their daily lives or had regular access
to him. However, many of them had met him, many of them had spoken with him, and
uite a few of them were known to him. The PSA was based, at least in part, on a
relationship that involved encounters that were real and outside of the fan’s imagination
(Stever, 1994, 2011). When Michael Jackson died in 2009, thousands of his fans who
e attached to him exhibited their grief by attending gatherings and exchanging
condolences with other fans. I had not been active in the Jackson fandom for over 15

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years, but at least a dozen former contacts in that fandom found me on Facebook to share
ir grief. One participant said "I feel as if the sound track of my life is over."

In Josh Groban fandom, this popular singer was observed to be very “fan
friendly.” In November, 2011, a charity function was held to celebrate the raising of $1
million by t
he fans for Groban’s charity foundation. In a room of over 200 fans, most
were known to Groban, all by face, some by name, and most of them had met him
multiple times. Groban did many autograph sessions and he had a very good memory for
fans he had met bef
ore. On many occasions he answered “Do you remember me?” with
the name of the fan and where they had previously met (Stever, 2011).

Additionally it is important to recognize the role of the Internet and Social Media
in the reinforcement of these attachmen
ts. Groban, a 31 year old popular singer, has lived
in the public eye as a celebrity for over 10 years. He is best known for his song “You
Raise Me Up” and for various high profile appearances in places like the Olympics, the
World Series, the Super Bowl,
the Nobel Peace Prize ceremonies, as well as hundreds of
hours of various televised specials. In 2009, Groban opened a Twitter account and since
then has Tweeted to his fans an average of 2
3 times per day. A study of Twitter
fan/celebrity interaction has
shown that Groban frequently Tweeted to individual fans,
and on several occasions has recognized fans in autograph lines as “frequent posters” to
Twitter (Stever, 2012). One very active fan was recognized by name in an autograph line
following an airing of

Jimmy Kimmel

in late 2010. Another fan mentioned her Twitter
handle to Groban in an autograph line and was greeted with a big smile and a hug. These
observations suggest the question: When does the parasocial cross over to being social?
Does any reciproca
tion at all qualify? Or does the continued status differential, lack of

Attachment Theory


access, and the return to lack of reciprocity after a reciprocal encounter mean that the
relation continues to be a PSR?

While the qualitative data presented here is preliminary, it
points to the need for
further study of parasocial interaction, parasocial relationships and parasocial attachment.
To really understand these phenomena, samples of convenience (i.e. surveys of college
students!) do not yield the necessary data. Celebritie
s are a vast array of unique
individuals, and each of them has a unique relationship to a fan base (if they choose to
have one at all; some don’t). Observing and interviewing behaviorally identified fans
(Stever, 2009) about their encounters, both real and

imagined, with a diversity of
celebrities is foundational to understanding the nature of parasocial dynamics.

An important part of any discussion on this topic includes the viewer's ability to
distinguish fantasy from reality and to recognize the role tha
t fantasy relationships are
playing in his or her social life. Interview data from a previous study (Stever, 2009)
showed that many fans are well able to distinguish between what is real and what is not
real in their media lives. However, it is also true t
hat the lines between fantasy and reality
are easy to blur, particularly when it comes to the relationship between actors and the
characters they play. It has already been recounted that actors are often asked questions
that are more in line with the exper
tise of the character they play than with their own
expertise as an actor. If the PSR is with a character and a viewer happens to meet the
actor in real life, those lines are often difficult to distinguish, especially if the character is
a "nice person" an
d the celebrity is dismissive or rejecting. If the viewer asks the
celebrity a "fannish" question, the stereotypical "get a life" reaction as portrayed by
William Shatner on
Saturday Night Live
in 1986 is likely to cause the fan to pull back

Attachment Theory


and reassess t
he connection. In the absence of such a reality check, the PSR is most likely
to persist.

Media dependency research has explored motivation for Internet use and
concluded that the locus of involvement is within the individual and not the message.
al Media Dependency Theory (IMD) was developed to explain how people
become dependent in order to achieve their goals (Sun et al, 2008). Wang et al (2012)
also found that dependency on social media was driven by unmet individual needs.

Additionally, there

is a growing literature on Internet and Gaming addiction
wherein reasons why people become attached and addicted to life on social media and
gaming sites is explored (Griffiths, 2012; Kuss & Griffiths, 2012; NG & Wiemer
Hastings, 2005; Yen et al, 2011). W
hile much of this interaction is not parasocial and
thus not a primary part of this discussion, it is still important to note that mediated
relationships are as vulnerable to confusion between fantasy and reality as are parasocial
relationships. Does a per
son who has an underdeveloped social life begin to see his or her

page as a safe haven from the real social world? Nadkarni and Hofmann (2012)
found that

participation is motivated by two primary needs, one for belonging
and one for self

Further work is needed to develop this idea and those also related to gaming and
the relationships formed in gaming worlds like
Cafe World
and other

games as well as the social worlds of
World of Warcraft
League of Legen

and similar massive multi
player online role playing games (MMORPG's) where players
network with other players, most of whom they have never met in a face
environment. While these gaming relationships are reciprocal and thus not parasocial,

Attachment Theory


rstanding them still might contribute more to the understanding of mediated
relationships of all types.

Related to this is the question of a player's relationship to their online gaming
character or avatar. Dong et al (2013) found that Player
Avatar Ident
ification (PAI) is
both a cognitive and emotional process. Participants were 1,263 adolescents from
Singapore. Looking at four factors (feelings during play, absorption during play, positive
attitudes toward avatar, and importance to identity) they found t
hat those gamers who
have a diffused identity style (Erickson, 1968) were more likely to score high on both
absorption and importance to identity. Subjects in the study had spent months or, in some
cases, years developing their gaming avatar. Vasalou and
Joinson (2009) found that
when online participants create avatars in three contexts, blogging, dating and gaming,
they are more likely to create them to resemble themselves in the blogging context while
in the dating context the avatars were made to be mor
e attractive and in the gaming
context they were made to look more intellectual. These researchers found that all avatars
were perceived by their creators to be highly similar to themselves. In these studies,
relationships to avatars were more likely to in
dicate identification than PSI.

Games like the ones studied in Dong et al (2013) require one to create an avatar
and many players create the character to resemble them physically. A further example
would be my

avatar, which I created to be femal
e and have the same eye and
hair color that I have. Additionally, she dresses the way I would and represents me in the
game. As such it could be argued that my relationship with that avatar could be described
as identification and thus not parasocial. But
some gaming avatars represent a character
in the game that is not the player.
League of Legends

is an example of such a game where

Attachment Theory


players work with characters already created for the game. Relationships with these
characters could be viewed as similar to
PSRs with cartoon characters (Giles, 2002) and
it would be possible to describe the relationship with that gaming avatar as parasocial.
One research question that could be explored is how gamers relate to their gaming
avatars, either parasocially or by ide
ntifying with them. Does one kind of relationship
better predict gaming addiction? If the character is "me," am I more or less likely to
become addicted to the gaming experience?

Hataway (2008), in his critical review of PSI, suggested that more psycholog
research is needed in order to develop parasocial theory. Specific issues cited were “how
parasocial relationships are derived from parasocial interaction and the way those
relationships further influence media usage as well as a social construction o
f reality, and
how parasocial interaction is cognitively produced” (p. 18). He saw as a weakness in the
field the fact that most research in the parasocial area was being done by communication
scholars. The present discussion of PSI and attachment theory a
ddressed this need and
pointed to future directions for attachment research

and other research in both parasocial
and mediated relationships

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urn to home page

Correspondence should be sent to:

Gayle S. Stever, Ph.D.