When Laura Moore, a business school student in Toronto, first "met" Liz Lemon on "30 Rock" she thought, “I've found my soul mate and she is on TV.” The clincher: A season one episode when Liz, explaining to Jenna how her new relationship is going, said “Terrible. I just want to go home and watch that show about midgets and eat a block of cheese.”
For Laura, the line was a revelation. “I’ve thought that exact same thing!” she says. She’s been a fan ever since, relieved by the thought that someone else thinks like she does.
Television has returned after its summer hiatus, but if you’re a little too excited to hear about your favorite characters’ adventures and heartbreaks (and maybe caught a few reruns just to “hang out” with them over their agonizingly long vacations), rest assured: You are not insane.
Feeling like you’re friends with a fictional character is a common phenomenon—one that psychologists call “parasocial interaction”—and it can even be good for you.
Parasocial interaction is psych-speak for relationships that, unlike real friendships, only go one way. (As in, Friends’ Rachel Green has no idea that you exist even though you know that she once owed fifteen dollars in a poker game and watched her daughter’s birth.) These fictional friendships are surprisingly similar to real-life friendships and go from first meeting to intimacy to breakup, just like any real-world affair.
Stage 1: The “Getting To Know You” Phase
When Chris Basler, a screenwriter in Los Angeles, was in high school, he had what he calls “an intense personal connection” with David Fisher of "Six Feet Under." David’s plot line in the first season centered around coming out to his family—something Chris had yet to do—so watching the show every week with his parents hit very close to home. “It was really painful,” he says. “I knew that his struggle was the same struggle I was going through.”
Seeing ourselves in a character can help us establish a bond, explains Dara Greenwood, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology at Vassar College. That connection can feel intensely personal, especially since we get to witness their inner struggles.
Since Chris works behind the scenes, he knows that fictional struggles come from somewhere real. “Writers write what they know. If they’re writing a gay couple dealing with adoption, that’s coming from a real place,” he says. “Watching it on TV lets you know what’s normal and what other people are dealing with.”
While some characters show us the person we are, others show us who we aspire to be, and can even help us get there. (Don’t we all want our conversations to be as punchy and witty as "Seinfeld"?)
“Some research suggests that individuals with lower self-esteem may benefit from feeling connected to a character who is more in line with their ‘ideal self.’ It can help them internalize that perspective,” says Greenwood. Ultimately, it may come down to whether the qualities you admire are healthy and achievable. If they are, idealization can be good for you.
In a television landscape littered with stick-thin, sickly-sweet female role models, women who came of age in the nineties may remember MTV’s "Daria" as a welcome breath of fresh air. Laura, the business student, certainly does. “Watching Daria—this sarcastic, sardonic girl who was vaguely angry and felt above everyone else—she was like a beacon of light.” Daria reminded Laura that there were other girls like her, even if they didn’t exist en masse in her hometown.
Even with characters we might not like in real life (think: Don Draper or Dr. House), we develop strong connections. In some ways, it’s an exercise in empathy. “Even the most hated characters have traits that make them capable of loving other people and make other people capable of loving them,” says Chris. “We don’t fall for people who are perfect; we fall for ones who also have flaws.”
Stage 2: The Intimacy Phase
After years of watching Chris Noth as mysterious Mr. Big of "Sex and the City" fame, I once caught an episode of "Law and Order: Criminal Intent," where Noth plays a well-suited detective, and thought to myself, “So that’s what Mr. Big does in his secret life!” Sure, it might sound crazy, but when we get really close to a character, they naturally start to become real to us.
Mariska Hargitay, known for her role as sex crime detective Olivia Benson on "Law and Order: Special Victims Unit," is so strongly associated with her character that real-life sex crime victims often seek out her help. In fact, Hargitay received so much fan mail from women sharing personal stories of rape or abuse that she founded The Joyful Heart Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping survivors of sexual assault, domestic violence and child abuse heal and reclaim their lives.
The reason we trust fictional characters so fully—even when we know they’re really actors—might come down to brain science. “There’s evidence that we are hard-wired to believe what we see, even if we know that it’s fiction,” says Jonathan Cohen, Ph.D., professor of communication studies at the University of Haifa in Israel. “It requires effort to remind ourselves that what we are watching is not really there, like when you remind yourself that ‘it’s just a movie’ during a scary scene.”
Often, people simply choose not to separate fact from fiction, says Cohen. “After all, people on TV always look better, sound smarter and are more effective than the doctors, cops or lawyers we meet in daily life.” (You mean FBI detectives don’t always look like "Bones’" Agent Booth? Please, say it ain’t so!)
In many ways, parasocial relationships tend to mirror the real world. In fact, your attachment style, meaning the way you typically think, feel and act in close relationships, affects your TV friendships too. “Anxiously attached people”—those who want to be close to others but often worry that loved ones will leave them—“are more likely to go overboard with parasocial relationships, whereas securely attached viewers”—those who feel confident and comfortable in relationships—“are likely to enjoy them and keep them in perspective,” says Cohen. That’s the same pattern you’d see in real life relationships.
Fictional friendships may even fill the void on those Saturday nights when all your plans fall through. One hypothesis—called the “social surrogacy hypothesis”—suggests that television relationships can take the place of real ones. A 2009 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that TV shows you love can actually increase feelings of belonging, sometimes even boosting mood and protecting against blows to self-esteem.
But not all experts agree. “For the most part, parasocial relationships do not serve as surrogates, but rather as an extension of one’s ‘real’ social networks,” says Cohen. “People who tend to lack the social skills to create and maintain friendships seem to lack the skills that it takes to create parasocial relationships.” He points out that people with large social networks also tend to have a lot of parasocial relationships, while people with fewer friends don’t.
Cohen adds that your TV friends can fill a really important role: They can make you more accepting. Studies show that developing parasocial relationships with minority characters improves attitudes toward that minority, just as spending time with a diverse social group would.
Stage 3: The Breakup
Of course, all good things do come to an end eventually. If you’re still scarred by the end of a show you loved, then you know that a botched finale can leave you with a "Lost"-sized hole in your heart. But is it really reasonable to compare the end of a TV show to an in-the-flesh, heart-wrenching breakup? Yep, in fact, it is.
A 2004 study, led by Cohen, concluded that we expect losing an on-screen “friend” will be as painful as losing a real one. And both breakups—real and imagined—had surprisingly parallel effects. “When the characters went off the air, the strength of the relationship predicted how sad people were, just as you would expect with other types of friends,” says Cohen. The closer people felt to the characters and the more often they had watched them, the more upset they were by the loss.
As with any breakup, we need closure to move on, and as with any breakup, we don’t always get it. “When we don’t get that closure, it’s frustrating,” says Chris. “You’ve seen all these characters grow, but you’re ultimately not going to know where or how their stories end.”
In one infamous example, HBO’s "Carnivale" was abruptly cancelled after the second season, leaving fans in the dark about some major plot threads—including whether leading characters lived or died. Frustrated fans organized petitions and mailing drives to get the show renewed, sending more than 50,000 emails to the network in one weekend. Their effort forced one of the creators to reveal which characters would have survived, illustrating how deeply we come to care about these characters’ fictional futures.
Bonding over a cancelled show can even spark a real-life friendship—one where the other person actually knows you exist. “I’ve had friendships start because we were drunk at a bar and someone said ‘I love The Wire,’” says Laura. Think of that next time you’ve just lost a whole day to reruns.
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