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Attachment and Parasocial Relationships: An Integrative Overview
This review paper uses John Bowlby’s (1969, 1973) attachment theory to interpret and evaluate the parasocial relationships that viewers develop with favorite media figures. First, brief descriptions of parasocial theory and attachment theory are presented. Next, research illustrating attachment-related differences in the strength of parasocial relationships is summarized. The paper proceeds with a discussion of security priming, or priming techniques that are used to temporarily activate feelings of attachment security. The concept of security priming is used to show that media figures have the capacity to provide individuals with feelings of safety and security, thereby fulfilling an important role of attachment figures. Limitations of this research are outlined, and areas for future study are proposed. Finally, the implications of this research are discussed, particularly in terms of dispositional attachment changes and physiological or health effects.
Attachment and Parasocial Relationships: An Integrative Overview
In their seminal paper on media relations, Horton and Wohl (1956) used the term parasocial interaction (PSI) to describe the perceived interaction that occurs between a viewer and a media figure, typically a television character or a celebrity. These interactions, which are limited to the duration of the media exposure, lack the reciprocity that characterizes normal social interactions (Schiappa, Allen, & Gregg, 2007). Nevertheless, repeated parasocial interactions will increase the viewer’s knowledge of a media figure, causing a feeling of closeness or intimacy to develop (Horton & Wohl, 1956; Perse & Rubin, 1989; Rubin, Perse, & Powell, 1985). The result is a parasocial relationship (PSR), or a feeling of friendship that transcends a given viewing session (Giles, 2002; Klimmt, Hartmann, & Schramm, 2006; Perse & Rubin, 1989; Schramm & Hartmann, 2008; Schramm & Wirth, 2010).
Early investigators in this field conceptualized PSRs as compensation for a lack of real social relationships, although subsequent research has not supported this view. Many studies have failed to uncover a direct link between loneliness and PSRs (e.g., Canary & Spitzberg, 1993; Chory-Assad & Yanen, 2005; Eyal & Cohen, 2006; Rosaen & Dibble, 2016; Rubin et al., 1985), and there is even some evidence that high levels of loneliness may be associated with weaker PSRs (Finn & Gorr, 1988; Wang, Fink, & Cai, 2008). Researchers have occasionally observed a connection between PSRs and loneliness in specific populations, such as elderly consumers (Lim & Kim, 2011). Others have suggested that individuals develop strong PSRs only when experiencing specific types of loneliness (Wang et al., 2008). In general, however, there is no consistent research evidence showing that PSRs play a compensatory role for lonely or socially isolated individuals (Cohen, 2009).
Instead, current research suggests that PSRs are a byproduct of normal media use and are experienced to varying degrees by most media users. Rather than compensating for a deficiency of real-life others, such relationships appear to complement or supplement an individual’s existing network of social relationships (Cohen, 2009; Tsao, 1996). Consistent with this idea, a growing number of studies have shown that social and parasocial relationships are functionally similar, and that they trigger comparable cognitive and affective reactions within individuals (Cohen, 2003). For instance, PSRs are formed and maintained in a similar manner as social relationships (Eyal & Dailey, 2012; Rubin & McHugh, 1987; Sanderson, 2009; Schiappa et al., 2007). Media figures elicit common social effects involving task performance (Gardner & Knowles, 2008), linguistic mimicry (Goode & Robinson, 2013), and intergroup contact (Schiappa, Gregg, & Hewes, 2005, 2006). Several studies have also found that people experience feelings of distress after undergoing a real or imagined “break up” with a favorite television character or celebrity, much as they would in a real relationship (Cohen, 2003, 2004; Eyal & Cohen, 2006; Hu, 2015; Lather & Moyer-Gusé, 2011).
The similarity of social and parasocial relationships has a number of implications. Just as there are individual differences in terms of how people experience social relationships, it is likely that there are important differences in terms of how they experience PSRs. Moreover, it is possible that the effects of social relationships on physical and psychological factors, such as health and mental wellbeing, also apply in a parasocial context. Consequently, it would be helpful to use an existing theory of interpersonal relationships to examine the PSR literature. To this end, the current paper will analyze PSRs within the context of John Bowlby’s (1969, 1973) attachment theory, a popular and enduring psychological theory that addresses the emotional bonds or ties that develop in close interpersonal relationships. More specifically, this paper will begin by summarizing and discussing research on attachment-related differences in the strength of PSRs. Afterward, it will review additional PSR research in an attempt to determine whether media figures have the capacity to fulfill important functions related to the attachment system.
Attachment Theory and Parasocial Relationships
Attachment theory. Attachment theory was first described by John Bowlby (1969, 1973), who proposed that humans have an innate attachment behavioral system. In times of need, this system motivates people to seek proximity to significant others as a means of alleviating distress. This “safe haven” function is first evident in childhood, when infants are vulnerable and rely on attachment behaviors such as crying to achieve proximity to others. As adults, people are able to seek proximity more directly, although they can also activate internalized thoughts of their significant others for a similar purpose. Provided the individual has an attachment figure who is available and responsive to the person’s needs, these attachment behaviors will contribute to a sense of security that alleviates distress. Such feelings will then encourage one to engage in attachment-unrelated behaviors, such as exploration or caregiving, with confidence that proximity to the attachment figure (their “secure base”) can be re-established if needed. However, if a person’s attachment figures are unavailable, rejecting, or inconsistent with their responsivity, the individual will experience attachment insecurity and adopt maladaptive strategies to cope with his or her unsuccessful proximity seeking (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007a, 2007b). A distinction is typically made between hyperactivating strategies, which involve energetic attempts to attain proximity, love, and support; and deactivating strategies, which involve distancing oneself from distressing environmental cues and suppressing thoughts of one’s vulnerability (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007a).
Bowlby (1969, 1973) claimed that a person’s early attachment experiences lay the groundwork for his or her “internal working models,” mental representations of the self and close others. One’s working model of the self reflects feelings of competence or self-worth in the context of close relationships, whereas one’s working model of others reflects assumptions about the availability and responsiveness of relationship partners. These working models persist throughout life and shape future relationship expectations, which manifest in a characteristic attachment style or orientation. Adult attachment styles have been conceptualized in a number of different ways over the years, although today they are generally defined in terms of two dimensions: attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance (Brennan et al., 1998). Individuals who are high on attachment anxiety are characterized by preoccupation with close relationships and fear of rejection or abandonment. By comparison, individuals who are high on attachment avoidance are characterized by avoidance of intimacy, discomfort with closeness, and high levels of self-reliance or self-sufficiency. Those who are low on both attachment anxiety and attachment avoidance tend to have a strong sense of self-worth and are comfortable being close and intimate with others. They are said to have high levels of attachment security.
Attachment-related differences in parasocial relationships. Attachment theory is typically applied to relationships with close others, such as parents or romantic partners. However, it has occasionally been used to provide insight into other types of relationships, as well. Notable examples include relationships with God (Kirkpatrick, 1992, 1997; Kirkpatrick & Shaver, 1990, 1992), medical practitioners (Hunter & Maunder, 2001), and even pets (Zilcha-Mano, Mikulincer, & Shaver, 2011). A growing body of literature has also found that attachment theory is useful in the study of PSRs. For instance, individuals with high levels of attachment anxiety tend to report stronger PSRs or feelings of intimacy with favorite media figures than do individuals with other attachment orientations (Cohen, 1997, 2004; Cole & Leets, 1999; Greenwood, 2008; Greenwood & Long, 2011; Greenwood, Pietromonaco, & Long, 2008; Jin & Kim, 2015; Rosaen & Dibble, 2016; Theran, Newberg, & Gleason, 2010). Furthermore, Cohen (2004) found that these same individuals experience unusually high levels of distress when imagining a “break up” with their favorite television character, much as they are susceptible to high levels of distress when breaking up with a real-life partner (Barbara & Dion, 2000; Feeney & Noller, 1992).
Researchers have not yet determined why anxiously-attached individuals develop stronger PSRs than their secure or avoidant counterparts, although some tentative explanations have been offered. Anxiously-attached individuals are characterized by chronic feelings of unworthiness and an idealized view of close others, qualities that tend to manifest in hyperactive attachment needs and clingy or dependent behaviour (Bartholomew & Horowitz, 1991; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007a). If an anxiously-attached person does not receive consistently high levels of support and responsivity from his or her relationship partner, then he or she may experience feelings of rejection and perceive that the relationship is in trouble. For this reason, those who are high in attachment anxiety are prone to feeling unsatisfied or unfulfilled in their real-life relationships. Media figures may offer these people something that they cannot receive from a real partner: feelings of unconditional acceptance with no corresponding risk of rejection. Thus, some researchers have speculated that favorite media figures operate as substitute attachment figures for these individuals, providing them with a safe, reliable, and accessible way to achieve their attachment needs (Cole & Leets, 1999; Greenwood & Long, 2011; Greenwood et al., 2008; Theran et al., 2010). Note that media figures would not be attachment figures in the strictest sense, as attachment bonds are inherently dyadic and involve some degree of give-and-take between both members of the dyad (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007a). Regardless, a one-way relationship with a media figure may provide one with the perception or feeling of having an attachment bond, much as it provides one with the perception or feeling of being involved in a social relationship.
It is also possible that anxiously-attached individuals experience unusually strong PSRs due to their heightened belongingness needs. The need to belong is a basic human drive for social connectedness that motivates the formation and maintenance of social bonds (Baumeister & Leary, 1995; Gere & MacDonald, 2010). These needs are fulfilled by regular, emotionally satisfying interactions with others, and individuals often experience negative mental and physical consequences when belongingness needs are unmet. Although there is some degree of overlap between the belongingness and attachment systems, the two are distinct in many respects. One’s attachment needs are satisfied by specific and irreplaceable attachment figures, individuals to whom a person turns for support during times of threat or distress. By comparison, the need to belong is a more general desire for acceptance and belonging that can be fulfilled by a variety of social contacts, including (but not limited to) attachment figures. In fact, a growing body of research suggests that media figures have the ability to satisfy belongingness needs. More specifically, studies have found that greater belongingness needs are associated with stronger PSRs (Greenwood & Long, 2009, 2011; Knowles, 2007; Rosaen & Dibble, 2016) and that thinking about a favorite media figure can alleviate or reduce a person’s belongingness needs (Derrick, Gabriel, & Hugenberg, 2009).
As mentioned, individuals with high levels of attachment anxiety tend to have greater belongingness needs than those with other attachment orientations (Chen, Hewitt, & Flett, 2015; Joyce, 2014). These inflated needs likely stem from their intrinsic desire for enduring, intimate relationships with others (Joyce, 2014). In addition, concerns over rejection might actually constrain their ability to engage in or maintain the meaningful relationships that they desire, a scenario that would raise their belongingness needs even further (Gere & MacDonald, 2010). Therefore, anxiously-attached individuals may regard favorite television characters or celebrities as nonthreatening social surrogates that help them to achieve desired levels of social connectedness (Gardner, Pickett, & Knowles, 2005). If this is the case, then the strong bonds that they develop with these media figures would merely be a reflection or a consequence of their heightened need to belong.
There is some evidence to support this view. In a recent study, MacNeill and DiTommaso (2016) found that participants with an anxious attachment style developed stronger PSRs with a novel, unfamiliar television character than did those with other attachment orientations. Individuals would have no pre-existing attachment bonds with a novel media figure, and so feelings of attachment security cannot explain the link between anxious attachment and PSR strength in this particular case. A general drive for social connectivity seems to be a more plausible explanation for these results. This finding does not invalidate the attachment-related explanations proposed by other researchers, as it is possible that the relevant effects are amplified when dealing with one’s favorite media figures (i.e., potential attachment targets). However, MacNeill and DiTommaso’s results do show that such explanations cannot fully account for the uncommonly strong PSRs reported by anxiously-attached persons.
Although most attachment-related differences in PSR strength have been reported with anxiously-attached individuals, significant results have occasionally been noted with other attachment orientations. For instance, both Cole and Leets (1999) and Jin and Kim (2015) found evidence that avoidant individuals experience weaker PSRs than their secure or anxious counterparts. These findings are conceptually consistent with the tendency of avoidant individuals to be less trusting, dependent, and intimate with others, although it is important to note that these results have not been replicated in other PSR research (e.g., Cohen, 2004; Theran et al., 2010; Rosaen & Dibble, 2016). Cole and Leets (1999) also found that secure individuals with high avoidant beliefs (e.g., mistrust of others) tend to have uncommonly strong PSRs. They noted that secure individuals often to turn to others for support, and so those with trust issues may find media figures to be acceptable substitutes for real close others. To our knowledge, no attempt has been made to pursue this finding in subsequent research.
Security Priming and Parasocial Relationships
Security priming. Since Bowlby’s (1969, 1973) original work on attachment theory, many researchers have continued to treat internal working models of self and others as relatively stable individual difference variables (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007a). However, some researchers have also found evidence of relationship-specific attachment models (e.g., Baldwin, Keelan, Fehr, Enns, & Koh-Rangarajoo, 1996; Gillath, Hart, Noftle, & Stockdale, 2009; Pierce & Lydon, 2001). In other words, people appear to have various models of self and others that relate to their different relationships, such that some relationships can be characterized as secure, and others as anxious or avoidant. Thus, individuals likely have a dispositional attachment style that shapes general relationship expectations and behaviors, as well as a number of specific attachment styles that reflect expectations and behaviors in their various relationships (Collins & Read, 1994; Pierce & Lydon, 2001).
This distinction may seem like a minor point, but the existence of relationship-specific attachment styles has important research implications. Studies that focus on dispositional attachment orientations are typically correlational by design, and in such situations one cannot determine the nature of the relationship between attachment dimensions and other constructs. For instance, a survey study may find a relationship between attachment security and self-esteem, but the causal direction of this relationship will be uncertain. However, researchers can successfully establish causality by priming specific attachment relationships in controlled settings and then assessing the effects of such primes on variables of interest. The most commonly used technique is security priming, which involves the temporary activation of attachment security through exposure to specific implicit (subliminal) or explicit (supraliminal) stimuli. Examples include security-related pictures or words, the names of real-life attachment figures, and guided imagery tasks that involve visualizing and writing about attachment security situations (Gillath, Selcuk, & Shaver, 2008; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2007b, 2015).
Many studies have compared the effects of security primes to the effects of insecure primes that activate anxious or avoidant relationships. However, this approach is problematic. Whereas nearly everyone has a secure relationship to prime, not everyone has a relationship that can be characterized as anxious or avoidant (Baldwin et al., 1996; Sakaluk, 2014). Participants who do not have a required attachment relationship are typically dropped from the analysis, although this procedure can eliminate a substantial portion of the sample and lower the study’s validity. Researchers often avoid this situation by comparing people who receive security primes to those who receive positive affect and neutral primes. These latter primes are more universal and widely-applicable to participants than insecure attachment primes, and they provide a suitable contrast to the attachment-specific effects elicited by security priming. Common positive affect primes include positively-valenced words or pictures (Mikulincer, Gillath, et al., 2001; Mikulincer, Hirschberger, et al., 2001) and the memory of a humorous or otherwise happy experience (Mikulincer et al., 2003; Schoemann, Gillath, & Sesko, 2012), whereas common neutral primes include emotionally-neutral words or pictures (Mikulincer, Hirschberger, et al., 2001; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2001) and the visualization of mundane daily activities (Gillath & Schachner, 2006; Mikulincer et al., 2003). Studies that have utilized both anxious and avoidant primes and non-attachment primes (i.e., positive affect or neutral primes) have found that they provide similar results when contrasted against security primes (e.g., Gillath, Sesko, Shaver, & Chun, 2010; Luke, Sedikides, & Carnelley, 2010; Mikulincer & Arad, 1999; Mikulincer, Gillath, et al., 2001). For this reason, the remainder of this section will place a general emphasis on security priming without reference to the specific comparison group.
One might question the effectiveness of using priming techniques to increase an individual’s levels of attachment security, especially given the brief duration of these primes. However, there is a great deal of research evidence demonstrating that security primes successfully activate both the safe haven and the secure base functions of attachment security. In line with the safe haven function, security priming elicits feelings of security (Carnelley & Rowe, 2007, 2010; Luke et al., 2010; Otway, Carnelley, & Rowe, 2014; Rowe et al., 2012) and increases positive affect (Carnelley & Rowe, 2010; Gillath et al., 2008; Rowe & Carnelley, 2003; Rowe et al., 2012). Researchers have also found that security priming alleviates distress and provides emotional regulation in a variety of stressful situations, such as during social rejection or when recalling an upsetting memory (Cassidy et al., 2009; Mikulincer, Gillath, et al., 2001; Mikulincer, Shaver, & Horesh, 2006; Pardess, Mikulincer, Dekel, & Shaver, 2013; Selcuk, Zayas, Günaydin, Hazan, & Kross, 2012). These techniques even provide self-control and emotional regulation during the experience of physical pain (Eisenberger et al., 2011; Master et al., 2009; Rowe et al., 2012; Younger, Aron, Parke, Chatterjee, & Mackey, 2010). Finally, there is some indirect evidence that security priming increases levels of felt security; namely, it seems to improve one’s self-view or working model of the self (Carnelley & Rowe, 2007; Gillath et al., 2008; Gillath et al., 2010; Kumashiro & Sedikides, 2005; Pepping, Davis, O’Donovan, & Pal, 2015), as well as one’s working model of others (Carnelley & Rowe, 2007; Gillath & Schachner, 2006; Gillath et al., 2010; Rowe & Carnelley, 2003).
Once attachment security has been achieved, the secure base function should allow one to divert attention and other resources away from self-protection and toward attachment-unrelated activities (Mikulincer, Gillath, et al., 2001; Mikulincer et al., 2003; Mikulincer, Shaver, Gillath, & Nitzberg, 2005; Mikulincer, Shaver, & Rom, 2011). Consistent with this idea, security priming promotes greater interest in exploration (Green & Campbell, 2000; Luke et al., 2010) and higher levels of creativity (Mikulincer et al., 2011). It also increases empathy, compassion, and caring for needy others (Gillath et al., 2008; Mikulincer, Gillath, et al., 2001; Mikulincer et al., 2005), even after the primed individual experiences a barrier to caregiving such as mental depletion or a threat to self-worth (Mikulincer, Shaver, Bar-On, & Sahdra, 2014; Mikulincer, Shaver, Sahdra, & Bar-On, 2013). Researchers have found that security priming promotes altruistic behavior (Lozada, D’Adamo, & Carro, 2014; Mikulincer et al., 2005) and reduces the endorsement of uncompassionate or selfish behavior (Collins & Gillath, 2012). In a similar way, it stimulates prosocial feelings (Bartz & Lydon, 2004; Mikulincer et al., 2003) and improves attitudes toward outgroups and people from other cultures (Mallinckrodt, 2007; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2001). Taken together, this collective evidence indicates that priming techniques are an effective method for increasing attachment security, at least on a temporary basis.
Priming parasocial relationships. The literature on security priming could prove to be useful in the study of attachment and PSRs. As noted earlier, some researchers have proposed that media figures are functioning as attachment figures for anxiously-attached individuals. The basis for this claim is the fact that these persons tend to report stronger PSRs than those with other attachment orientations. However, this evidence does not rule out the possibility that media figures can serve as attachment figures for all individuals, regardless of their attachment orientation. Consider the fact that most people have real-life attachment figures, although anxiously-attached individuals tend to be more dependent or clingy in these relationships than others. In a similar manner, it is possible that parasocial attachments are pervasive, and that anxiously-attached individuals simply tend to develop stronger attachments than do other people. This argument has some merit. For instance, there is considerable evidence that celebrities and fictional characters are a secure influence on those undergoing normative and widespread developmental processes, such as the construction or revision of their identities and self-concepts (Cohen, 2003; Fisherkeller, 1997; Greenwood & Long, 2009; Newton & Buck, 1985; Shedlosky-Shoemaker, Costabile, & Arkin, 2014). Priming techniques would provide a suitable means for testing whether media figures truly have the capacity to fulfill an attachment role. If they do, then priming favorite television characters or celebrities should produce similar outcomes as more conventional security priming, thereby demonstrating the safe haven and secure base effects.
To date, no parasocial priming studies have directly examined issues of attachment security, although there have been some illustrative findings from non-attachment studies. Most of these studies have looked at the ability of PSRs to provide emotional regulation after periods of distress. For instance, Twenge et al. (2007) investigated the influence of parasocial primes on social exclusion (study 3). In their study, a group of participants were subjected to a social exclusion manipulation in which they were told that they would spend the future alone. By arousing feelings of interpersonal rejection, the authors hoped to cause frustration and aggressive behavior in participants (for more on the links between rejection and aggression, see Leary, Twenge, & Quinlivan, 2006). After this manipulation, participants proceeded to write about one of three topics: a favorite celebrity, a favorite family member, or a recent meal. They finished by playing a noise-blasting game that was taken as a measure of aggression. Results indicated that socially excluded participants who wrote about a favorite celebrity or a favorite family member had lower levels of aggression than those who wrote about the control topic. Predictably, the primes had no influence on a second group of participants who did not experience social exclusion and subsequent aggression – differences only emerged when individuals were feeling distressed. The authors concluded that recalling a close social connection, either real or imagined, was sufficient to regulate affect after experiencing feelings of rejection.
Derrick and colleagues have examined the regulatory benefits of PSRs over a number of different experiments. Although their studies used primes of favorite television programs instead of favorite characters or celebrities, a content analysis of their data led the authors to conclude that the pertinent effects were due to the PSRs that were derived from these programs. In one study, Derrick et al. (2009; study 2) looked at the effects of television primes on recovery after thinking about a close relationship threat. Participants began by writing about a fight with a close other or about objects in their residence. Next, they wrote an essay that focused on either their favorite television program or a time when they watched “whatever was on television.” Results showed that people who underwent the threat manipulation and proceeded to write about their favorite television program spent the longest amount of time on their essays. According to the authors, this outcome was an indication that PSRs were performing a recovery function for people experiencing distress. They pursued this idea in a partial replication (study 3). Here, they found that recalling a fight with a close other decreased self-esteem and increased negative mood and feelings of rejection, although subsequently writing about a favorite television program caused recovery from these aversive effects.
Derrick (2013) found that PSRs also provide restoration after people exert self-control. In the relevant study (study 1), participants performed either an effortful writing task that caused feelings of depletion, or an effortless writing task that did not cause feelings of depletion. Afterward, they wrote about a favorite television show or listed items in their room. Results were similar to the previous studies by Derrick et al. (2009). The longest essays (by a considerable margin) were from depleted people who proceeded to write about a favorite television program, an outcome that suggests that the television prime was performing a restorative function for these individuals. This interpretation was confirmed at the end of the study when participants completed a second effortful task to assess their remaining levels of self-control. Here, depleted participants who wrote about their favorite television program showed similar task performance and similar levels of negative mood as non-depleted participants. However, depleted writers who did not write about their favorite television program showed poor task performance and high levels of negative affect. These results indicate that thinking about a favorite television show, and especially the PSRs associated with the show, successfully restored people after they exerted self-control.
These collective studies indicate that favorite media figures can contribute to emotional regulation during periods of distress, an important characteristic of the safe haven function of attachment security. There are additional lines of evidence that imply a safe haven role for these figures, as well. For instance, Derrick, Gabriel, and Tippin (2008) found that parasocial primes improve one’s view of the self, particularly among people with low self-esteem. In one study (study 2), participants were primed by writing about a favorite celebrity or a control, non-favorite celebrity. Among those who wrote about the control celebrity, people with high self-esteem reported greater similarity to their “ideal selves,” the idealized image of who they would like to be, than did people with low self-esteem. Such results might be expected. However, writing about a favorite celebrity caused people with low self-esteem to feel closer to their ideal selves, such that differences with high self-esteem participants were reduced or eliminated. In a follow-up study (study 3), participants with low self-esteem were primed by writing about their favorite celebrity, a control celebrity, or a close relationship partner. Those primed with a favorite celebrity reported more similarity to their ideal selves than those in the other two conditions. This outcome suggests that, for some people, media figures may be even more effective than real-life partners for increasing self-esteem or feelings of self-worth.
One might wonder why PSRs are particularly beneficial for those with low self-esteem. Researchers have found that people who are comfortable with intimacy and closeness (e.g., secure individuals) tend to improve feelings about the self by assimilating the desirable characteristics of close others (Gabriel, Carvallo, Dean, Tippin, & Renaud, 2005; Gabriel, Carvallo, Jaremka, & Tippin, 2008). People with low self-esteem often miss out on these effects, as they fear rejection from others and will often maintain interpersonal distance as a self-protection strategy (Murray, Derrick, Leder, & Holmes, 2008; Murray, Holmes, & Griffin, 2000; Murray, Holmes, MacDonald, & Ellsworth, 1998; Murray, Rose, Bellavia, Holmes, & Kusche, 2002). Derrick et al. (2008) proposed that PSRs, which have no practical risk of rejection, offer people with low self-esteem a sense of security and closeness. These feelings may allow them to assimilate the characteristics of their PSR target, providing them with an opportunity to feel closer to their ideal selves.1
Similar assimilation effects were noted in a pair of papers that examined the impact of parasocial primes on body esteem. Typically, exposure to thin or muscular media figures will lead to lower body satisfaction in women and men, respectively, due to the perceived contrast between their own bodies and these idealized physiques (Barlett, Vowels, & Saucier, 2008; Grabe, Ward, & Hyde, 2008). However, PSRs seem to counter these effects. Young, Gabriel, and Sechrist (2012; study 2) primed female participants by asking them to write about either a favorite or a moderately-liked same-sex celebrity. Those who were primed with a favorite celebrity tended to feel better about their appearance and experienced higher body satisfaction than those who wrote about the control celebrity, particularly when the celebrities were perceived as thin. A follow-up study (study 3) indicated that assimilation of the character’s traits was the underlying mechanism of this effect. Similarly, Young, Gabriel, and Hollar (2013) primed male participants with a picture and biography of a superhero who was portrayed as either muscular or non-muscular. Whereas those who were primed with a non-favorite muscular superhero underwent a drop in body esteem (i.e., due to contrast effects), those primed with a favorite muscular superhero were buffered against this drop. The results of these studies suggest that parasocial primes were triggering feelings of security and subsequent assimilation of the target character’s traits, resulting in a more positive self-view.
Although a growing body of research suggests that PSRs can fulfill a safe haven function, there is less evidence that they produce a secure base effect. However, one experiment from Knowles (2007) is potentially informative. In the relevant study (study 3), participants were subliminally primed with pictures of either their favorite television character or a control television character while performing a color perception task. Among those who were primed with their favorite character, PSR strength predicted subsequent feelings of empathy. Increased empathy is indicative of the caregiver function of attachment security, which has been repeatedly demonstrated with conventional security primes (Mikulincer, Gillath, et al., 2001; Mikulincer et al., 2005, 2013, 2014). This finding provides some evidence that the secure base function was activated after receiving the parasocial prime, although such conclusions may be premature given the limited amount of research on this topic. Arguments for the secure base effect become somewhat more compelling when considering the previously mentioned papers that describe how people use media figures as safe, nonthreatening role models or guides for self-exploration and identity construction. Many of these papers are case reports or non-experimental studies (e.g., Fisherkeller, 1997; Greenwood & Long, 2009; Newton & Buck, 1985), and so examining such issues using experimental priming methodologies may prove to be a fruitful direction for future research. We now turn to additional topics that may warrant further attention in the future.
Topics for Future Study
The previous sections of this review paper have examined two aspects of attachment and PSRs. Our initial focus was on individual differences in PSR strength across different dispositional attachment orientations. We subsequently reviewed the literature on parasocial priming techniques, the results of which suggest that favorite media figures may have the capacity to provide individuals with feelings of attachment security. Future research should assess the interaction between these two areas by determining the effectiveness of parasocial primes among those with specific dispositional attachment orientations.
In general, conventional security primes seem to override or function independently from one’s dispositional attachment style (e.g., Mikulincer & Arad, 1999; Mikulincer et al., 2003; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2001; Mikulincer et al., 2005; Rowe & Carnelley, 2003). However, some researchers have found that they are occasionally less effective for those with high levels of attachment anxiety (Gillath & Schachner, 2006; Mallinckrodt, 2007; Mikulincer et al., 2011; Peterson, 2014; Wilkinson, Rowe, & Heath, 2013). In all cases, these outcomes were restricted to explicit or supraliminal primes, suggesting that consciously thinking about a close other may cause people high in attachment anxiety to ruminate about negative relational experiences involving inadequate love, security, and support (Gillath & Schachner, 2006; Mallinckrodt, 2007; Mikulincer et al., 2011; Peterson, 2014). Given that parasocial primes are unencumbered by these associations, it would be interesting to see if these primes are more effective than conventional security primes for individuals with high attachment anxiety. Such findings could help to explain the uncommonly strong PSRs that are reported by those with an anxious attachment style.2
Future studies should also try to determine whether viewers truly perceive favorite media figures to be attachment figures. Parasocial priming studies have shown that favorite celebrities or television characters can regulate emotions, improve one’s view of the self, and increase feelings of empathy, all of which suggests that individuals derive feelings of attachment security from these figures. However, it is important to note that close social contacts can often fulfill some of these same functions by providing one with more general feelings of belonging. Indeed, several of the reviewed studies were ostensibly assessing the impact of PSRs on belongingness needs instead of attachment needs, specifically (e.g., Twenge et al., 2007; Derrick et al., 2009; Derrick, 2013). Therefore, one cannot conclude that media figures satisfy an attachment role simply because they seem to produce safe haven and secure base effects. Although demonstrating such effects is undoubtedly important, researchers should also compare favorite media figures to a variety of interpersonal targets in an attempt to determine where, precisely, these figures are situated on the spectrum of interpersonal contacts. Such targets should include obvious candidates for attachment figures (e.g., parents or a romantic partner), as well as social contacts who supply feelings of belonging without taking on a specific attachment role (e.g., friends in a social group). If primes of favorite media figures produce similar effects as primes of attachment figures, whereas primes of social contacts do not, it would be strong evidence that media figures are genuinely perceived as viable attachment targets.
There could be considerable long-term benefits for individuals who are able to derive attachment security from their PSRs. Some researchers have found that engaging in a secure real-life relationship can promote a shift toward greater dispositional attachment security (Crowell, Treboux, & Waters, 2002; Davila, Karney, & Bradbury, 1999; Kirkpatrick & Hazan, 1994). Priming secure relationships can produce similar effects, despite the fact that no attachment figure is physically present. For instance, Carnelley and Rowe (2007), Gillath et al. (2008), and Otway, Carnelley, and Rowe (2014) all found that administering security primes to individuals over a period of several days or weeks resulted in greater attachment security at a follow-up assessment.
Feelings of safety or security that are supplied by a PSR could theoretically provide similar shifts in one’s dispositional attachment orientation. In fact, the reliability and accessibility of media figures makes them ideal targets for increasing attachment security. People can use television, computers, and other electronic devices to engage with these figures directly when desired. In addition, “primes” of media figures are quite accessible (some might say inescapable) in the form of advertisements, posters or billboards, and entertainment news articles. With regular and repeated contact, the positive effects that people experience during brief exposures to these figures may produce beneficial long-term changes. If this is the case, it would counter more traditional views of media figures within parasocial research, which suggest that the temporary relief offered by these figures will decrease long-term wellbeing by hindering the development of genuine social or attachment bonds (Derrick, 2013; Keefer, Landau, & Sullivan, 2014; Theran et al., 2010). This latter possibility is somewhat unlikely given the consistent lack of evidence linking PSRs to negative affective states such as loneliness, although the literature on this matter is not definitive.
Security derived from PSRs could also have implications in terms of physical health, although this relationship may seem somewhat unintuitive at first. Over the past several decades, researchers have noted that real social relationships have a number of health-related benefits. For instance, social support has a favorable effect on physiological activity when individuals are experiencing stressful circumstances (Seeman, 1996; Thorsteinsson & James, 1999; Uchino, Carlisle, Birmingham, & Vaughn, 2011; Uchino, Uno, & Holt-Lunstad, 1999), and social relationships are a protective factor against morbidity and mortality across a range of different diseases and conditions (House, Landis, & Umberson, 1988; Reblin & Uchino, 2008; Seeman, 1996; Tay, Tan, Diener, & Gonzalez, 2013; Uchino, 2009; Uchino et al., 2011; Uchino et al., 1999). Social support provided by family members appears to be particularly beneficial (Uchino, Cacioppo, & Kiecolt-Glaser, 1996), leading some to propose that attachment figures are key contributors to favorable health-related outcomes (Diamond, 2001). In fact, any positive effects that are obtained from attachment figures might be attributed to the feelings of security that are derived from these relationships rather than any tangible aspect of the relationships themselves (this idea aligns well with the finding that perceived support has a more favorable impact on health outcomes than actual received support; Uchino, 2009; Uchino et al., 2011). Consistent with this idea, attachment security has been linked to low levels of physiological arousal during a stressful task (Feeney & Kirkpatrick, 1996), as well as positive long-term health outcomes (Puig, Englund, Simpson, & Collins, 2013). Security priming after a stressful task has also been associated with fewer psychological and health problems at a later date (Selcuk et al., 2012). By comparison, people who are high in attachment anxiety or avoidance tend to experience heightened physiological responses to stress and a variety of negative health outcomes (Pietromonaco, DeVito, Ge, & Lembke, 2015; Pietromonaco & Powers, 2015).
If favorite media figures can provide one with feelings of attachment security, then they could theoretically fulfill similar health functions as real close others. To date, PSRs have been linked to health-related attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors in a number of studies (Brown & Basil, 1995; Brown, Basil, & Bocarnea, 2003; Moyer-Gusé & Nabi, 2010; Murphy, Frank, Moran, & Patnoe-Woodley, 2011; Tian & Yoo, 2015). However, there is little research on the direct physiological effects of PSRs (see Knowles, 2007 for an attempt) or their long-term health outcomes. Lakey, Cooper, Cronin, and Whitaker (2014) found evidence that PSRs regulate affect by mimicking the mechanisms by which real close relationships regulate affect. Thus, it seems plausible that these relationships will also produce the accompanying physiological and health effects. In fact, PSRs with media figures may be more beneficial than real close relationships in some respects. For instance, social ties can sometimes cause psychological distress and have a negative impact on health and wellbeing, particularly if they are unsupportive or if they deplete a person’s internal resources (Kawachi & Berkman, 2001; Seeman, 1996). Forming and maintaining one-sided relationships with parasocial contacts may be an effective way for people to enjoy support without exposing themselves to the potential drawbacks of close relationships (Derrick, 2013).
Although one might be tempted to trivialize people’s relationships with media figures, research indicates that such relationships are an important part of many people’s lives. In fact, recent technological advances may actually be extending the reach of these relationships to a certain degree. For instance, digital media offer people greater accessibility to their favorite celebrities and television characters through official and unofficial websites, social media accounts, and instant streaming of films and television programs, all of which could potentially strengthen the intensity of people’s PSRs. As the influence and scope of PSRs continues to grow, the formal study of these relationships will become increasingly important. Moreover, relevant and applicable theories will be needed to generate, organize, and interpret this growing body of research. This paper has attempted to show that attachment theory is one such framework that will be useful in this respect. Although research on attachment to media figures is currently limited, the findings outlined in this review suggest that this approach could yield a great deal of insight in the future.
1 The results of this study may help to explain the uncommonly strong PSRs of anxiously-attached individuals, as these individuals tend to have low self-esteem due to their chronic feelings of unworthiness (Mikulincer, 1998).
2 Security primes may also be less effective for those with high levels of attachment avoidance, although such findings are somewhat infrequent (e.g., Mikulincer, Hirschberger, et al., 2001; Mikulincer et al., 2006; Selcuk et al., 2012). Avoidant persons see attachment figures less positively than do individuals with other attachment orientations, and they obtain fewer regulatory benefits from their attachment figures in stressful situations. In fact, they tend to improve their self-views by contrasting themselves with others – for this reason, they prefer ambivalent others who embody negative qualities or traits (Gabriel et al., 2005; Gabriel et al., 2008). A study analyzing positive and negative aspects of favorite media figures could be of interest in this respect, as avoidant individuals may actually prefer celebrities or television characters with some undesirable characteristics.
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