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The role of Personal Characteristics and Romantic Characteristics in Parasocial Relationships: A Pilot Study

Abstract: This study examined how individual characteristics (e.g., loneliness and openness) and dimensions of involvement in actual romantic relationships (e.g., rewards, costs, and investments) were related to parasocial relationships. Parasocial relationships represent the degree of affinity and involvement in “interactions” with television characters. The respondents (n=45) completed a questionnaire packet to assess each of these factors. The results indicated that romantic, rather than individual characteristics were the best predictors of parasocial relationships. More specifically, individuals who had greater rewards, greater costs, and fewer investments in romantic relationships were more involved in parasocial interactions. These findings were interpreted in the context of spillover and compensatory processes, and highlighted the need for research that integrates media and close relationship studies.

Television viewing is one of the most common and pervasive of social activities among Americans. According to Lowery and DeFleur (1995), by 1959 Americans had purchased more than 50 million television sets and 88% of American homes had a television; this rate has continued to increase over time. The amount of time dedicated to watching TV has also expanded. According to the Global Child Health Society (2001), if current viewing rates continue, then individuals will have spent 7-10 years of their life span watching television. Much research on television has focused on extreme dimensions of programming such as violence (Gerbner, Gross, Morgan, & Signorielli, 1980) and sexual images in soap operas (Greenberg & Busselle, 1996).

These are important issues, but fail to focus on the less explosive (but perhaps more relevant aspects of TV viewing) such as the enjoyment in watching a favorite character or show on a routine basis. Many people spend a great deal of their lives in front of the television, but might not attach much importance to this behavior. Yet, the repeated exposure to TV, and emerging attachments to favorite TV characters, can make demands that are easily ignored in daily and weekly routines (e.g., time, energy, attention). Further, the quality of one’s social interactions might affect viewing habits; that is, individuals who are less satisfied with their actual romantic partner might be drawn to more attractive others presented in TV shows. Schaffer (2000) argued that activities that compose much of our common routines deserve more empirical attention. Consistent with this argument, the present study focused on the ways in which romantic relationships are associated with attachments to preferred television characters.

Parasocial Relationships

The connection to TV personalities/characters has been identified as a parasocial relationship in media research. Perse and Rubin (1989) suggested this reflects “a perceived interpersonal relationship on the part of a television viewer with a mass media persona” (p. 59). The performers/personalities coax the viewers’ investment by speaking directly to the camera (enhancing the perception of a mutual “dialogue”), engaging in self-disclosure, and requesting viewer feedback. Similarly, Rubin, Perse, and Powell (1985) argued that TV stations promote such attachments to newscasters by attempting to make reporters attractive and consistent in their presentation style.

Horton and Wohl (1956) provided a classic overview of what they perceived to be the social dynamics of parasocial relationships. They argued that television viewers are not passive participants, but actively engage in a specific form of interaction with television personalities (e.g., Steve Allen). That is, viewers make not only an investment of time by watching shows on a regular basis, but they make an emotional investment of loyalty, interest in the personalities’ well-being, and “dialoging” by responding to personality questions/actions. For example, Levy (1979) found that some individuals reported verbally responding to television personalities’ greetings and acknowledging the end of the program as one might acknowledge the end of a social visit (e.g., saying “good night” or “see you later”). This parasocial relationship might also be reflected in such behaviors as “coaching” (e.g., shouting directions) a sports team from your living room when the game is being played 2000 miles away, answering questions asked by a game show host, or advising a TV character to take or not take a job while the interview is portrayed on TV. Similarly, feeling embarrassment, misery, joy, pride, etc. in response to the trials and tribulations of the character’s life reflects a parasocial investment. Indeed, in the film, “Marvin’s Room”, Aunt Ruth dresses in her finest clothes so that she is properly attired to ‘attend’ the wedding of her favorite TV characters when the episode is broadcast (Rudin, Rosenthal, & De Niro [producers], 1996).

These parasocial interactions offer many social benefits. In addition to companionship, they provide the opportunity to create/test new social personas, see models of social behaviors (e.g., intimacy, generosity), and learn cultural values (e.g., importance of marriage, parenting). For example, Perse and Rubin (1989) indicated that due to the nature of repeated viewing, one benefit of parasocial interaction is a perceived reduction in uncertainty about social relationships. Their study of soap opera characters showed that individuals who watched more television perceived that they knew these characters better and that such characters had complex personalities.

Perse and Rubin (1989) concluded that these findings demonstrated that the same cognitive constructs utilized in building actual social relationships are extended to the parasocial domain. Similarly, Rubin and McHugh’s (1987) study indicated that the more importance an individual placed upon a specific television character, the more likely he or she was to (a) find the character attractive, and (b) develop a parasocial interaction with that character. Horton and Wohl (1956) concluded that parasocial relationships affirm, rather than replace, actual social relationships for the majority of viewers.

Other researchers strove to determine what types of individuals were predisposed towards creating parasocial bonds with television characters. In examining attachment styles, Cole and Leets (1999) reported that individuals with anxious-ambivalent attachment were most likely, and avoidant individuals were least likely to enter into parasocial relationships. They argued that “anxious-ambivalents turn to relatively stable TV characters as a means of satisfying their unrealistic and often unmet relational needs” (p. 507). Such research indicates that personal characteristics are related to parasocial interactions.

In sum, this research has shown that TV viewing while perceived to be mundane is not unimportant. Mandel (2000) argued that the interactions between storytellers and audience are complex and in part define social realities; we would argue that the same can be said of the interactions between TV characters and TV viewers. This relationship might have been presumed to be unidirectional and passive, but a more complex process occurs when TV viewers see themselves as active participants in TV characters’ lives. Such a view would support significant investments in these parasocial relationships. An examination of parasocial relationships in the context of actual relationships has received little attention to date. Media researchers might have considered the specific nature of the social network as irrelevant to TV viewing, but we suggest that there might be a significant interplay between actual and parasocial relationships. Thus, the purpose of the present study was to address this gap in the literature by determining the role that individuals’ personal and romantic characteristics play in parasocial relationships.

The Current Study

In the current study, we chose to examine the personal factors of openness and loneliness. Miller, Berg, and Archer (1983) defined openness as the capacity to elicit self-disclosure from others. They theorized that high openness is associated with good communication skills and more positive interactions with others. Their own research indicated that openness was related to greater social competence and more affection from others in long term relationships. Similarly, individuals with greater openness demonstrated better interpersonal skills in social interactions (Shaffer, Ruammake, & Pegalis, 1990). Thus, openness might be associated with more gratifying interactions with actual relationship partners and less parasocial involvement.

The second individual characteristic we investigated was loneliness. This represents a subjective individual experience of deprivation or isolation, marked by a discrepancy between what is desired and experienced in personal relationships (de Jong Gierveld, 1987). Russell, Peplau, and Cutrona (1980) argued that loneliness is an important trait to investigate because it is experienced by so many individuals and has important implications for social functioning. They argued that loneliness is distinct from social integration; that is, individuals can have many members in their social networks, but still be lonely if the relationships fail to meet their expectations. Thus, individuals who are currently in romantic relationships may still experience loneliness if their relational ideals are not fulfilled. As a result, parasocial relationships may not be restricted to only those individuals who lack social relationships.

It seems reasonable to expect that lonelier individuals might be attracted to the companionable aspects of television, and thus be more involved in parasocial relationships. Indeed, Horton and Wohl (1956) stated that “nothing could be more reasonable or natural than that people should seek sociability and love wherever they think they can find it” (p. 223). Thus, they suggested that lonely individuals would be drawn towards parasocial relationships. Cohen (1997), however, argued that past research has revealed inconsistent patterns of association between loneliness and parasocial involvement. For example, Rubin, Perse, and Powell (1985) found that parasocial interaction and loneliness were both related to greater reliance on television, but loneliness was not a significant predictor of parasocial interactions. Further research will help to clarify the parasocial-loneliness association.

We also extended previous research by examining parasocial relationships in the context of romantic experiences. More specifically, we assessed the degree of involvement (as reflected in rewards, costs, and investments) in the romantic relationship. According to Nye (1979), rewards are the positive aspects of a partner and/or relationship. Examples of rewards include sharing enjoyable leisure activities (Huston & Vangelisti, 1991), or expressing appreciation, sharing affection, and giving gifts (Davis & Oathout, 1987). Costs are negative aspects of a relationship, represented by such actions as intentionally irritating (Huston & Vangelisti, 1991), criticizing, ignoring or dominating a partner (Davis & Oathout, 1987). Rusbult and Buunk (1993) defined investments as resources that would be difficult or impossible to retrieve if a relationship ended. Years spent together, shared memories, ‘couple friends’, joint purchases (e.g., car, vacation) would all be examples of such investments. In addition, personal sacrifices, such as declining a promotion to stay with a partner, are a form of investment. Individuals are more committed and satisfied with relationships that are characterized by high rewards, low costs, and high investments (Kurdek, 1995).

Much research has examined how investment model factors contribute to romantic relationships (e.g., Duffy & Rusbult, 1986; Lund, 1985), but very little is known about how such factors affect parasocial relationships. Thus, individuals who find their actual romantic relationships more aversive (e.g., less rewarding, more costly, fewer investments) might become more involved in parasocial relationships. Similarly, it makes sense that from a compensatory perspective, individuals who are less involved or invested in their romances might be drawn to parasocial relationships as a more attractive relationship.

In sum, the present study focused on how personal characteristics and actual romantic relationships were related to the degree of involvement in parasocial relationships. Thus, the following research questions were addressed:

Research Question 1 — What role do openness and loneliness (individual characteristics) play in parasocial relationships?

Research Question 2 — What role do rewards, costs, and investments (romantic characteristics) play in parasocial relationships?


Sample and Procedure

As part of a larger study, data were collected from 45 undergraduate students at a southwestern university. Individuals were eligible to participate in this study if (a) they watched television, and (b) were currently in a romantic relationship (steady dating, 69%; engaged, 22%; cohabiting, 9%). The majority of the sample (69%) were Caucasian, 22% were Hispanic, and 9% were African-American. Thirty-one percent of the students were male, 69% were female. The mean age for the sample was 20.3 years. The sample represented all undergraduate levels (freshman, 31%; sophomores, 18%; juniors, 20%; seniors 31%).

Parasocial Factors

All respondents completed a questionnaire packet. To assess the strength of parasocial involvement, we utilized Cole and Leets’ (1999) modified Parasocial Interaction Scale. This scale originally focused on individuals who represent themselves on television, that is TV personalities (e.g., Regis Philbin, Star Jones). For the present study, we revised the items to reference favorite television characters because fictional characters represent a larger proportion of television programming and thus, a potentially richer source of parasocial relationships. For example, the original item, “I look forward to watching my favorite TV personality’s show” was changed to “I look forward to watching my favorite TV character’s show”. Nineteen items from the original scale were adapted for this study. For all questionnaires, individuals indicated on a 9-point Likert scale (1 = “strongly disagree”, 9 = “strongly agree”) the extent to which they agreed with each item. Higher scores represented more involvement in parasocial relationships. The internal consistency alpha was .90.

Personal Factors

Respondents also completed the UCLA Loneliness Scale (Russell, Peplau, & Cutrona, 1980). This was a 20-item scale (e.g., “My interests and ideas are not shared by those around me”). Higher scores on this scale indicated greater loneliness. Cronbach’s alpha for this scale was .88. To assess openness, Miller, Berg, and Archer’s (1983) Opener Scale was utilized. The scale was composed of ten items (e.g., “People frequently tell me about themselves”). Reliability for this scale was .83.

Romantic Relationship Factors

The Multiple Determinants of Relationship Commitment Inventory (Kurdek, 1995) was used to measure relationship investment factors. The scale utilized a four-item subscale to measure each of the relational characteristics (e.g., rewards – “One advantage to my relationship is having someone to count on”; costs – “I give up a lot to be in my relationship”; and investments – “I’ve put a lot of energy and effort into my relationship”). Given the brevity of the subscales, internal consistency was adequate (rewards=.63; costs=.78; investments=.66).


Preliminary analysis

To examine the strength of association between the variables, we conducted Pearson product-moment correlations (see Table 1). This analysis indicated that parasocial involvement was not related to personal characteristics, but was associated with greater romantic rewards (r=.33, p<.05). Openness was related to less loneliness (r=-.51, p<.01); this moderate correlation suggested that the two characteristics tap into somewhat unique dimensions of individual differences. Loneliness was associated with more costs (r=.34, p<.05). This finding was consistent with Rusbult and Arriaga’s (1997) argument that personal traits contribute to the dimensions of relational investments in romances and marriages. Research Questions Given the associations between individual, romantic and parasocial factors, we utilized a single one-step regression to address the research questions. This regression allowed us to control all factors simultaneously, and thus provided a more conservative examination of parasocial relationships. The regression shown in Table 2 indicated that, collectively, the personal characteristics and investment factors accounted for 36% of the variance (Adj. R2=.27, p<.001) in parasocial involvement. An examination of individual factors indicated that neither loneliness nor openness was a significant predictor. However, greater costs (b =.41, p<.01) and greater rewards (b =.48, p<.01), as well as fewer investments (b =-.35, p<.05) in actual relationships were associated with parasocial involvement. Thus, our findings indicated that romantic factors played a significant role in parasocial relationships. Discussion Mandel (2000) stated that "addressing the mundanities of our everyday existence reveals crucial truths about ourselves and our lives that, once put to scrutiny, expose the richness and diversity of what we may have assumed did not bear examination". Our findings supported this argument, as there was an important association between the dimensions of romantic involvement (e.g., rewards, costs) and the nature of parasocial involvement. This suggested that there might be a common interplay between interactions with significant others and TV viewing that was not previously considered. The degree to which individuals initiate and maintain parasocial relationships may be affected in part by their daily routines with their romantic partners. The association between loneliness and parasocial relationships detected in the correlational analysis disappeared when analyzed in the regressions, indicating that romantic factors superseded personal factors in contributing to parasocial processes. These findings highlighted the importance of examining both personal and romantic factors in such research. Strengths and Weaknesses There were some strengths to this study that merit acknowledgment. First, the participants’ responses to the questionnaire were anonymous. Given that some aspects of the study had the potential for embarrassment (e.g., the degree of closeness felt towards an imaginary television character), anonymity was assured to enhance more honest and accurate responses. Second, this study examined the association between parasocial and actual relationships. There has been past speculation regarding how parasocial relationships affect people’s "real lives" (Horton & Wohl, 1956), but such speculation has not been empirically tested. Our findings suggested that there is indeed an interplay between the social and parasocial worlds, and indicate the need for more research. Third, we directly measured the dynamic (e.g., degree of interest, affinity) features of parasocialism. Rather than presuming degree of involvement from structural dimensions (e.g., hours watching TV), we assessed the emotional/psychological dimensions, which more accurately reflect the concept of parasocial relationships. Finally, our study focused on favorite television characters, which has been an understudied phenomenon in media research. The frequency of exposure and long-term nature of fictional characters suggest that this is an important source for parasocial involvement worthy of more empirical attention. In balance, there were some limitations to this study that should be considered. First, the sample was relatively homogenous, and the results obtained may not be representative of the general population. In addition, the sample size (n=45) was fairly small and might have limited the statistical power of this study. Second, data was collected from only one member of the romantic relationship, so it is unknown whether partners would support the respondents’ view of the romantic (or parasocial) characteristics. A comparison of partners’ parasocial and romantic experiences would clarify the associations between both relationships. We should note, however, that because parasocial involvement is an intrapersonal experience, self-report methods do seem warranted. Finally, data collection occurred at only one point in time, so we were unable to detect changes in the associations between personal, romantic, and parasocial characteristics over time. Interpretation of Findings Given that regression is the more conservative statistical test, we will discuss only the findings from the regression analysis. Consistent with past research (e.g., Rubin, Perse & Powell, 1985), we found that an individual characteristic (loneliness) was not associated with parasocial involvement. Past studies have reported that loneliness was related to more structural characteristics of TV use (e.g., Perse & Rubin, 1990), but the association to parasocial involvement has been less clear. It is possible that the parasocial relationships fail to ameliorate the emotional aspects of loneliness, but simply watching television effectively "passes the time". Additionally, lonely individuals might lack the emotional energy to make an investment in a TV-based relationship. Alternatively, loneliness might be related to parasociality in other mediums; Perse and Rubin (1990) noted that their respondents (undergraduates) were more likely to use movies, rather than television as a personal resource. In their early loneliness review, Perlman and Peplau (1981) argued that it is necessary to distinguish between the behaviors that create, accompany, or mollify this experience. It is possible that parasocial involvement could represent all three behaviors, and further refinement is necessary to clarify its association (or lack thereof) to loneliness. We also found that individuals’ degree of openness did not contribute to parasocial involvements. One explanation might be that the recipient quality of television viewing would preclude the need to utilize one’s openness in a parasocial relationship. The nature of programs demands that TV characters reveal much personal information (e.g., preferences, traits); thus, eliciting self-disclosure (opening) might not be necessary or relevant to a parasocial bond. This is consistent with Kalekin-Fishman’s (2000) analysis of everyday conversation. She noted that conversation works when there is presumed commonality among individuals. It is possible that TV viewers assume they have much in common with their favorite characters that would preclude the need to be more open. To the best of our knowledge, this is the first study that examined the association between romantic involvement (e.g., rewards, costs, investments) and parasocial interactions. The results of this study indicated that individuals who perceived more costs and fewer investments in their current romantic relationships were more involved in parasocial relationships. These findings support the investment model premise that individuals who are in aversive relationships (e.g., high costs and fewer irretrievable investments) might be less engaged in their romance and thus see parasocial partners as less unpleasant and more appealing. From a compensatory perspective, it makes sense that individuals may use parasocial relationships as one way to fulfill desires or address needs (e.g., for attention, companionship) that are unmet in their romances. In addition, some individuals might perceive that parasocial relationships do not violate the conditions of a romance (e.g., fidelity) that other forms of media, such as the internet, provide. This allows them to continue both involvements simultaneously. It was somewhat curious, then, that greater romantic rewards were also associated with more parasocial involvement. One possibility is that individuals who experience more rewarding relationships may be more willing to engage in other types of relationships. Interactions with significant others might create a pleasant social environment, motivating individuals to seek other gratifying experiences. Thus, it is possible that the rewards from actual relationships and rewards from television relationships are mutually reinforcing. These findings are consistent with Wilensky’s (1960) Spillover Model. This model has been used to explain the dynamics between work-family domains. More specifically, this model argues that consistency can occur across different arenas of people’s lives, such that the gratifying aspects in one area of life (e.g., romance) would contribute to positive experience in another area (e.g., parasocial interactions). Another consideration might be that romantic partners watch the preferred TV shows together. If this is a pleasant experience, then individuals might enjoy both relationships (actual and parasocial) simultaneously. Further, a partner’s tolerance and/or support of parasocialism (e.g., taping the show if one is out of town) might increase positive perceptions of the romance. The current study did not assess viewing patterns with or without romantic partners, but such research might help to clarify the romantic-parasocial association. An alternative explanation might be that parasocial relationships offer unique relationship rewards that are not conveniently available in actual relationships. Just as Kalekin-Fishman (2000) argued that plain talk can offer multiple benefits (e.g., providing norms, clarifying future intentions), TV can be a source of multiple pleasant, albeit vicarious, experiences. This is consistent with Herzog’s (1944, as cited in Lowery & DeFleur, 1995) finding that individuals utilize media as a means of obtaining several types of gratification (or rewards), such as emotional release, wish fulfillment, and valuable advice. It should be noted that the contrasting results for rewards and costs are consistent with social exchange principles that suggests these factors are somewhat distinct, and not simply two ends of a single continuum (e.g., Nye, 1979). Future Directions Given the primacy of television in American leisure, more research is needed to specify the nature of parasocial and actual relationship involvements. Research can be enhanced by assessing the parasocial experiences of viewers that represent a broader demographic base. It is possible, for example, that the nature of parasocial relationships differ for younger and older adults, or African-American professionals and Caucasian-American at-home workers. A larger and more diverse sample might increase the generalizability of our results. Second, the investigation of other personal characteristics (e.g., self-esteem, shyness, novelty seeking) might provide more insight into the role of individual differences in parasocial involvement. In addition, the assessment of other romantic characteristics (e.g., conflict tactics, satisfaction, commitment) would enhance our understanding of the associations between these two types of relationships. Third, longitudinal research would detect fluctuations in the associations among individual, relational, and parasocial factors, and would allow conclusions about causality. Such a study would also allow researchers to investigate how different stages of a romantic relationship (e.g., initiation, breakup) might contribute to parasocial involvements. Fourth, a multi-method approach might provide more detailed data about these factors. For example, focus groups would allow for greater participant feedback about parasocial processes that are not detected via a questionnaire. Similarly, TV viewing diaries might elucidate specific parasocial experiences. It is possible and perhaps likely that the nature of parasocial relationships is defined by idiosyncratic behaviors (e.g., talking to the television character during the program) that are not easily captured in more global measures. Given that most parasocial studies have relied on questionnaires (e.g., Cole & Leets, 1999; Rubin, Perse, & Powell, 1985), it might be the appropriate time to expand measurement approaches. In sum, our study identified some associations between individuals’ actual romantic and parasocial relationships. Our findings defy the stereotype that parasocialism is limited to individuals who are socially isolated. Rather, it appears to be an important phenomenon in the context of relationships with romantic partners. It is possible that relationship researchers have considered TV viewing too mundane to be relevant to romantic functioning, and have focused on more extreme events (e.g., domestic violence). 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Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 10, 175-204. Russell, D., Peplau, L., & Cutrona, C. (1980). The revised UCLA Loneliness Scale: Concurrent and discriminant validity evidence. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 4, 115-127. Schaffer, S. (2000). Introduction: To mundanity and beyond... Journal of Mundane Behavior, 1(1). Shaffer, D., Ruammake, C., & Pegalis, L. (1990). The "opener": Highly skilled as interviewer or interviewee. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 16(3), 511-520. Wilensky, H.L. (1960). Work, careers, and social integration. International Social Sciences Journal, 12, 543-560. Authors’ Notes: Andrea McCourt is a doctoral student in the Human Development and Family Studies Department at Texas Tech University (Lubbock, TX). She has a Master’s degree in Higher Education-Student Affairs from Texas Tech University. Her research interests focus on parasocial relationships and social utilization of media materials.

Dr. Jacki Fitzpatrick is an Associate Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Texas Tech University. Her research focuses on romance and friendship in young adulthood. In recent years, she has begun to study the ways in which technologies (e.g., television, computers) are utilized in relational contexts.

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