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The first studies of parasocial interaction began in 1956, when sociologists looked at how people viewed news personalities. They found relationships with news anchors mirrored relationships in real life. Viewers considered their favorite news anchor as a friend whose opinion was credible. This study found a correlation between the time study participants spent watching television and the degree of parasocial interaction.
Later experiments looked at soap operas and how relationships develop through frequent viewing. These studies found viewers felt genuine concern about what happened to stars on these shows. The viewers developed an intimacy with the characters, and events portrayed on television impacted their lives. Parasocial interaction explains why people cry while watching a television wedding or feel sad if their favorite character suffers emotional pain.
Some researchers discovered that parasocial interaction meets unmet needs in real life. The more lonely or isolated a person feels, the greater the degree of rapport with television characters or news anchors. People with few interpersonal relationships felt stronger bonds with fictional characters, and women were affected more than men.
This theory also applies to people who read historical romance novels, primarily read by women. A study of these novels and parasocial interaction discovered some women relate to the heroines in the novels and consider them friends. Readers form a mental image of the character from descriptive passages in the books and might identify with the character’s interpersonal struggle to find love. Research found some women used these novels as an escape from loneliness in their lives.
The degree of parasocial interaction depends on several factors. Characters that exhibit attitudes similar to those of the viewer elicit a connected response. Attractiveness also plays a role in how people react to television personalities, along with perceived friendliness. In radio personalities, the quality of the voice might suggest parasocial interaction. Some viewers and listeners interviewed for research said they wanted to meet or talk to the person they considered a friend and missed them when they were absent from the show.
More recently, studies have been conducted on the influence of interactive blogs on the Internet and the effect on parasocial interaction. One study looked at political candidates who provided the ability to interact via the Web. It found a perceived intimacy developed in some people who read or participated in blogs. Some people rated these relationships as important as relationships in real life.