Parasocial relationships beat some real ones

3 minute read

With YouTubers like these, who needs neighbours and co-workers?

If you’ve ever read a book, watched a TV show or followed a celebrity, chances are you’ve formed a parasocial relationship (PSR) with a real or fictional figure you’ll never directly interact with.  

Historically, PSRs were seen as a surrogate for real-life friendships. But newer research suggests PSRs may have advantages over in-person relationships because they’re more consistent: while they can’t respond with kind words or a hug, they also can’t reject or betray you, or permanently leave you, even if the other party dies or gets killed off by a bloodthirsty author (looking at you, George R.R. Martin).  

But what’s a more fulfilling relationship: a PSR with an online content creator you’ve never met, or a casual friendship? 

In a series of studies involving 3000 participants, published in Scientific Reports, researchers from the University of Essex explored how people felt their PSRs with a range of YouTubers stacked up against actual friendships they’d formed in meatspace with respect to how responsive and close they perceived to be in each relationship, as how well each relationship fulfilled their emotional needs. 

The first two studies showed strong PSRs with YouTubers (i.e., the creators participants watched the most, and felt like they “knew” best) were rated as being significantly closer and more emotionally fulfilling compared to weak two-sided relationships (i.e., with a real person you don’t know very well, and would be unlikely to confide in).  

However, a strong two-sided relationship with someone you are very close to was more effective at fulfilling emotional needs and was rated as more responsive and closer than all other relationship types.  

The researchers took things a step further in the third and final study by attempting to activate emotional regulatory needs through social rejection.  

To elicit feelings of social rejection, participants were asked to write about a time they were left hurt and disappointed actions by a close friend or family member, or a time they felt encouraged or supported by a close friend or family member. They were then asked to nominate a YouTuber they felt they had a strong PSR with and to rate how well their nominee would respond to their needs. 

Participants with high levels of self-esteem strongly believed their PSRs could respond to their emotional needs as a real friend could.  

“This study suggests that people acutely believe that their PSRs will provide them with positive and reliable support, despite the psychological irony that such one-sided relationships are not capable of being responsive, validating (or instrumentally) supportive,” the researchers wrote.  

Interestingly, people with lower levels of self-esteem did not compensate in the same fashion. 

“PSRs are an important part of our psychological toolbox when it comes to feeling like we have people out there who are able to validate and support us in times of need, even if we can never actually meet with them in reality,” researcher Dr Veronica Lamarche (PhD) told media. 

“People naturally believe their closest relationships are the best way of fulfilling their emotional needs.” 

If parasocial relationships aren’t your thing, try making friends with 

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