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.
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