People who read books often develop strong feelings towards specific characters. Avid readers feel as if they “know” Harry Potter and perhaps even view him as a friend. This strong sense of affiliation towards characters can develop into something of a relationship, known as a parasocial interaction. These parasocial relationships can occur across many types of media. We can, for example, come to feel that we know and trust Dr. House on television, even though he’s just a fictional character. Real people who we only know through media, such as Kanye West and Kim Kardashian, can also become targets of our parasocial friendships. Recently, however, researchers have begun to expand their thinking in this area, wondering if we can also form intensely negative relationships with people we don’t know personally or who are purely fictional. Drs. Jayson Dibble (Hope College) and Sarah Rosaen (University of Michigan) examined this idea by asking 249 undergraduate students to either report on a television character that they liked or one they disliked. What they found was that both groups reported evidence of parasocial behaviors, such as talking at the character on TV as if s/he could hear and heed what was being said. For example, in response to a liked character one person reported saying “Aww, that was so sweet, Jesse.” In contrast, a person who was reporting on a disliked character recalled saying “You need to get some professional help” toward the TV. The researchers found that characters who were disliked were just as likely to elicit these kinds of parasocial behaviors as liked characters. However, participants who reported on their feelings toward liked characters reported more intense parasocial feelings relative to those who discussed a disliked character. It appears that knowing a character that we dislike intensely makes that character seem just as real to us as one that we are deeply attracted to.
Dibble, J. L. & Rosaen, S. F. (2011). Parasocial interaction as more than friendship:
Evidence for parasocial interactions with disliked media figures. Journal of Media Psychology, 23, 122–132.
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