Parasocial Relationships Are Just Imaginary Friends for Adults
If you get too invested in a fake friendship, your real ones might suffer.
“How to Build a Life” is a column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
The most popular poster in U.S. history was issued in 1976 and caused a minor moral panic among American parents. It featured Farrah Fawcett, the Charlie’s Angels star, posing in a red, one-piece bathing suit, flashing her perfect, huge smile. Twelve million copies were sold, including to me and most of my seventh-grade friends, each of us taping her up on our bedroom wall. Our mothers were scandalized, which I suppose was part of the point.
Now, all grown up as a social scientist, I can classify my connection with Farrah—whom I felt like I knew, because she was the last person I saw each night as I went to sleep—as parasocial bonding. This is the very common tendency to create and cultivate a relationship in your mind between yourself and someone you don’t actually know, or who perhaps doesn’t even exist at all. It can range from harmless affection, like mine for Farrah, to a full-blown fictional love connection, which some social scientists call “fictophilia,” and which can feel stronger than a real-life tie.
My mother shouldn’t have worried about Farrah; in my head, we grew apart. By eighth grade, the poster was little more than a source of hilarity with my friends. But in many cases, parasocial relationships can persist, posing a challenge for real-life bonding and, thus, happiness. If your connection to someone you don’t know is a little too intense, you might even need to consider a parasocial breakup.
The term parasocial interaction was introduced in the 1950s by the social scientists Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl. It was the early days of home television, and they were seeing people develop an intimate sense of relationship with actors who were appearing virtually in their home. Today, the definition is much broader. After all, actors, singers, comedians, athletes, and countless other celebrities are available to us in more ways than ever before. Forming parasocial bonds has never been easier.
An emotional connection between fans and celebrities is good business. It encourages people to consume more entertainment and buy more celebrity-endorsed products in order to feel close to their fictional “friends.” Many celebrities will even directly sell “personal,” parasocial interactions through companies such as Cameo. Want Caitlyn Jenner to wish you a happy birthday? That’ll be $2,500.
Perhaps parasocial bonding conjures up the image of lonely people grasping at strangers’ lives to get a faint shadow of human connection. But loneliness and parasocial interaction are not consistently correlated. There is no evidence that, for most people, parasocial bonds extend beyond a surface level. I have never once accidentally called my wife “Farrah.” Most chatter about the private lives of celebrities is trivial at worst.
Although there are no exact statistics on frequency that I have found, psychologists do document cases of parasocial relationships that can go much deeper, with significant consequences. Scholars note that parasocial bonds exist on a continuum of intensity, from entertainment-social (say, gossiping about a celebrity) to intense-personal (intense feelings toward a celebrity) to borderline-pathological (uncontrollable behavior and fantasies). At the deepest level, the parasocial relationship can be dangerous, such as when a fan loses touch with reality and stalks a star, under the delusion that they have a real-life connection.
But even in less-severe cases, parasocial bonding can signal that something is amiss in a fan’s real-life relationships. It can be a symptom of a poorly adjusted “attachment style,” a psychological concept that has been an area of intense focus of psychologists for many years. Decades of research have shown that the happiest people tend to be secure in their personal relationships, meaning that they are neither unduly anxious about nor avoidant of commitment. Anxious attachment can lead to jealousy, suspicion, or clinginess, and avoidant attachment might lead a person to offer less emotional support and intimacy than is necessary to sustain a successful bond. Generally, this leads to unsatisfying relationships and unhappiness.
In 2021, two psychologists from York University, in Canada, found that forming parasocial bonds was strongly related to avoidant attachment. That is, people who tended to push others away in their day-to-day lives were more likely than others to relate to fictional characters, and especially to characters who are also emotionally avoidant.
The research does not establish a causal link between avoidant attachment and emotional bonds with fictional characters. However, you can easily see how parasocial relationships could be a substitute when one finds real-life attachment difficult. This could start a feedback loop, in which avoidant attachment stimulates parasocial bonding, which in turn leads to diminished interactions with real-life family and friends as the fan spends their time and energy on someone who doesn’t know they exist.
My purpose here is not to say that parasocial interactions are always bad for you, or even abnormal. Rather, it is to suggest that heavy parasocial bonding might be a signal that you are crowding out the real people who can give you the love you truly need. One way to address this is to get some more distance from your fictional friends, thus pausing the feedback loop and giving yourself more space to pursue in-person connection. Consider doing two things.
1. Pay less attention.
One of the ways we bond with others is through personal details of our lives. You might feel much closer to a co-worker, for example, after she tells you about her family. Similarly, celebrities can cultivate their fans’ parasocial bonds by granting access to their personal lives, often on social media. It can be hard to remember that such access does not establish a symmetrical friendship based on trust; instead, it is usually intended to capture more of your one-sided devotion, for commercial ends.
Remind yourself that a celebrity’s personal life really isn’t your business. Just as you wouldn’t peer into the windows of a stranger’s house, don’t read about their life in gossip magazines, or on their social-media feeds. If you feel you need to take it up a notch, you can even place a moratorium on talking about celebrities’ lives with friends.
2. Break up.
If a parasocial bond is taking up too much of your thoughts and time, you might want to quit consuming a celebrity’s work (say, stop watching a show) entirely. In other words, formally “break up” with your parasocial friend.
This might be harder than it sounds. Scholars have studied parasocial breakups and found that they require care and effort, because they can lead to real symptoms of grief and loss. Luckily, those bad feelings tend not to be very severe. When scholars writing in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media measured the distress people felt after the finales of television shows that contained characters with whom they were emotionally connected, they found that the experience was less distressing than for real-life relationships ending, and less painful than people expected.
There is one more issue to deal with: the avoidant attachment that might have fueled your parasocial bonding in the first place. Changing your attachment style is a little more complex than unfollowing a celebrity on Instagram or deciding not to read an article about the characters in a television show.
To begin with, you might want to learn more about the basic science behind attachment style, and determine whether yours is in fact avoidant. Psychologists use a standard survey to assess attachment styles, and you can try it for yourself. Simply knowing your style can be enormously helpful, especially if you’re willing to expend effort, perhaps with the help of a therapist, to start a process of healthy bonding with real people.
If your style is not avoidant, the dangers of parasocial bonding are likely lower. But you still might find that, if you focus more on your real-life connections, you simply won’t have space in your heart anymore for a fictional friend.