The term “parasocial interaction” (PSI) was first used by Horton and Wohl (1956) to describe viewers’ responses to media characters (called “personae” in PSI research; singular: “persona”) during media consumption. Horton and Strauss (1957) set down the first systematic descriptions and observations of PSI as well as of more long-term responses to personae, known as parasocial relationships (PSR). These two articles can be regarded as the beginnings of theorizing about PSI and PSR, as empirical data were still nonexistent.
In the following decades, many communication scholars picked up the idea of PSI and PSR and investigated various aspects of the concepts. Uses-and-gratifications researchers, for example, have regarded PSI and PSR primarily as motivators for selective exposure or as a special type of interpersonal involvement that combines different phenomena like interaction, identification, and long-term relationships with media personae (Rubin et al. 1985). Culturally diverse scientific communities, especially Anglo-American, German, and Scandinavian researchers, have worked on PSI and PSR. Additionally, distinct scientific disciplines, such as communication, social psychology, media psychology, film studies, and the arts have applied PSI and PSR research. Since all of these researchers have implemented and interpreted the concept on the basis of their preferred research paradigm, it is not surprising that even today, a coherent and broadly accepted concept of PSI and PSR does not exist. PSI and PSR have been used to explain an extensive spectrum of media exposure phenomena, where a recollection and revival of the primary idea as well as a theoretical foundation and a meta-theoretical discussion are now seen as necessary (Giles, 2002; Schramm et al. 2002).
Horton and Wohl (1956) considered the illusion of interaction and interactivity between media users and personae as one of the most central attributes of mass media consumption. Television as an audiovisual medium ought to be especially able to constitute an illusion of face-to-face interaction. Nevertheless, this mediated form of communication and social interaction is one-sided because the persona’s action can reach the media user, while the media user’s reaction cannot reach the persona. Second-order reactions of the personae comparable to those of real interpersonal interaction drop out. Thus, PSI shows similarities to forms of asymmetrical interactions in interpersonal communication.
A notable characteristic of PSI is that in spite of the missing feedback, channel viewers often feel addressed by the personae. Referring to this, PSI research has shown that the same key impulses that play an important role in social interactions are relevant for the constitution of PSI. Key impulses are, for example, the mediated spatial distance between the personae and the viewers (obtrusiveness), the duration of exposure to these personae (persistence), the personae’s attractiveness, and especially their nonverbal and verbal addressing performance. By responding to these addressing cues, media users give up their passive roles of being observers and become “actors.”
This activity manifests itself in different forms, like rising interest, intensive thoughts and deliberations, tense body movements, agile facial expressions and gestures, and/or speaking to the TV screen. The two-level model of PSI (Hartmann et al. 2004) conceptualizes those viewer responses to media personae as being composed of different cognitive, emotional, and/or behavioral processes. These processes are seen as following up on initial impression formation (or persona recognition), after which they emerge into different interaction patterns, change dynamically within the course of media exposure, and are strongly influenced by factors relating to both personae and viewers. Due to a wide range of concurring processes, PSI can be classified – similar to involvement – as a kind of meta-concept composed of narrower concepts such as attention, comprehension, knowledge activation, evaluation, social comparison, sympathy, empathy, emotional contagion, and physical activity (Klimmt et al. 2006).
In contrast to the notion of PSI and PSR held by uses-and-gratifications research in the 1970s and 1980s, most research conducted during the last 15 years argues for a clear distinction between PSI and PSR. PSI, in this sense, specifically means the one-sided process of perception of the media person during media exposure. In contrast, PSR stands for a cross-situational relationship that a viewer or user holds with a media person, which includes specific cognitive and affective components. While PSI is restricted to the duration of media exposure, PSR can endure beyond the single exposure sequence – like a friendship that exists between two persons beyond their face-to-face communication sequences. As a consequence, a first PSI sequence between a viewer and a persona is able to constitute a PSR after media exposure, while this PSR in turn is able to influence future motivations and selection processes as well as PSI processes in subsequent media exposure sequences (Gleich 1997).
PSI and PSR have been investigated in relation to diverse personae such as politicians, news anchormen, soap opera and film characters, TV talk show characters, comedians, radio hosts, virtual avatars in computer games or on the Internet, comic figures, and characters in audio stories. In spite of the heterogeneity in the evolution of PSI and PSR research and the focus on positively evaluated PSI/PSR, the existing empirical findings provide some fundamental insight into the phenomenon. Most studies have used the terms PSI and PSR interchangeably, so most findings cannot be attributed exclusively to one of the two concepts. Therefore the following extract of key findings will not differentiate between PSI and PSR.
Both the attractiveness (physical, social, and task attractiveness) and perceived similarity of the media character seem to be important antecedents (Rubin & McHugh 1987; Turner 1993). Personae often exhibit character traits that receivers admire and would like to have (Caughey 1986). Gender also plays a role in this respect. Vorderer (1996), for example, found that female viewers tend to admire the attractiveness of personae more than male viewers and thus tend to hold stronger PSR in the sense of worshipping personae. Interactions and relationships with female TV characters are often more intense than with their male counterparts. However, females display greater admiration for male characters and vice versa, which again points to the importance of cross-gender attractiveness for the formation of PSI/PSR (Vorderer & Knobloch 1996).
Findings regarding the effects of age and education are mixed. Vorderer (1996) found that PSI/PSR with stars of TV series is intense among older, less educated individuals who frequently watch television, but is also intense among adolescent fans of TV series, in contrast to middle-aged groups. Gleich (1997) and Levy (1979) found that strong PSI/ PSR is associated with the age of the onlookers. In turn, Giles and Maltby (2004) pointed out the important role of PSI/PSR among adolescents. Nordlund (1978) reported that the intensity of PSI/PSR increases as the variety and number of spare-time alternatives decrease, which is a typical process as people get older. The intensity of media use seems to be positively associated with strong PSI/PSR in various investigations (Nordlund 1978; Levy 1979; Rubin et al. 1985; Vorderer 1996; Gleich 1997).
Accordingly, Rubin and Perse (1987) reported that PSI/PSR with soap characters increases with the strength of affinity to soaps and the intensity of exposure to them. Therefore, the frequency of selective exposure might be crucial; the effect that older people tend to report stronger PSI/PSR might be diminished if the amount of television usage were controlled. It is not loneliness that makes individuals more prone to turn to media characters. Rather, individuals with high social abilities tend to report strong PSI/ PSR (Cole & Leets 1999). However, shyness (a perceived lack of social competency) might hinder individuals in fulfilling their need for interpersonal interactions. Consequently, Vorderer and Knobloch (1996) found that PSI/PSR is highest among individuals who are shy, but feel a greater need for social interactions. Additionally, strong PSI during media reception can result in more intense post-viewing discussions and cognitions that influence the constitution and development of PSR (Rubin & Perse 1987).
In summary, findings suggest that “social and parasocial interaction are complementary, perhaps because they require similar social skills” (Cohen 2004, 192). Analogously, research shows that PSR develops quite similarly to real-life relationships (Rubin & McHugh 1987; Perse & Rubin 1989; Cohen 2004) and that the “typical” PSR is comparable to the relationship someone has with his/her neighbor (Gleich 1997).
The main problem with the previous findings is the nonstandardized measurement used across the studies. Most PSI/PSR research is based on the parasocial-interaction scale (Rubin et al. 1985) or variations/ adaptations of that scale. Whereas Rubin et al. (1985) found a one-dimensional structure, Gleich (1997) and other researchers explored three underlying dimensions of the PSI scale, from (1) empathy and involvement in the reception process, through (2) emotional relationships in the post-viewing phase, to (3) previewing activities and selection processes.
The PSI scale was initially developed “to measure feelings of audience relationship with local television news personalities” (Rubin et al. 1985, 176). Therefore, in every other context besides television news the scale has to be modified and supplemented. The scale’s heterogeneity has constricted comparisons of PSI/PSR findings across different media genres, media personae, and media audiences for the last two decades (Hartmann & Schramm 2006). Some other measurement tools have now evolved, such as the “audience persona interaction scale” (Auter & Palmgreen 2000) or a seven-dimensional PSR scale (Gleich 1997). The “parasocial breakup scale” (Cohen 2003) consists of 13 items measuring the anticipated feelings and coping strategies of someone whose favorite TV person has been dropped. This scale primarily measures the intensity of the anticipated loss and is therefore an indirect measurement of PSR’s intensity. Schramm and Hartmann (in press) developed a PSI questionnaire based on the two-level model of PSI that can be applied directly after TV exposure. It contains 14 scales (one scale for each of the cognitive, affective, and behavioral dimensions), measures positive as well as negative and neutral PSI, is suitable for all TV personae and genres without modifying the items, and allows for comparisons of findings across different studies.
Although research on PSI/PSR can look back over 50 years of tradition, the measurements and findings in use are still very heterogeneous. The challenge for future research is to provide measurement standards and to build up standards of PSI/PSR findings that are generated, confirmed, and validated across several studies using the same measurements.
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