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Parasocial Relationships

Parasocial Relationships

Have you ever had a crush on a celebrity who did not know you existed? Whether you stan TikTokers, idolise your favourite K-pop band or can't stop watching TV shows with your favourite actor in them, it's likely that you've experienced parasocial relationships. Let's explore the curious concept of these one-sided relationships in psychology.

  • First, we'll introduce the concept of parasocial relationships in psychology and differentiate between the three levels of parasocial relationships.
  • Next, we'll outline the psychological explanations of parasocial relationships, including the absorption addiction model of parasocial relationships and the attachment theory explanation.
  • Then, we'll apply these explanations to parasocial relationship examples.

  • Finally, we'll summarise the potential benefits of parasocial relationships and discuss the negative effects of parasocial relationships.

Parasocial relationships, crowd of fans making heart gestures above their head, StudySmarter Fig. 1: Developing feelings of connection towards celebrities is common among fans.

Parasocial Relationships Psychology

The typical social relationships we have with our friends, family or partners, are characterised by reciprocity; two people are mutually involved in developing and maintaining the connection. So, how is it that we can develop feelings of connection and attachment to media figures or even fictional characters that we don't actually have reciprocal interactions with?

These types of one-sided relationships with people that we will never meet are called parasocial relationships.

Parasocial relationships occur when we develop a feeling of connection to a media figure (e.g. celebrity) or fictional character. These relationships are one-sided, as the subject of our attachment is unlikely to reciprocate our feelings or even know of our existence.

Despite the lack of reciprocity, parasocial relationships can feel as real and meaningful to us as any other relationship. We might feel like we deeply know the person we adore, even if they have never heard of us.

The role of media has always been crucial for the development of parasocial relationships, but this role has certainly evolved over time.

  • At first, the celebrities or characters could interact with their fanbase through books, newspapers, radio and television.
  • The character of these interactions was completely one-directional, but nowadays with the development of the internet and social media, we all can to some extent interact with media figures and their content.

Mediated relationships are a broad category of relationships where the interaction between the people involved occurs through media rather than face-to-face.

Even though parasocial relationships are often mediated nowadays, not all mediated relationships qualify as parasocial.

For example, you can have a bidirectional friendship with someone over social media, this would be a mediated but not a parasocial relationship.

Also, not all parasocial relationships are mediated, for example, you can develop a feeling of connection to a performer that you saw somewhere in real life.

The Three Levels of Parasocial Relationships

McCutcheon et al. (2002) established the Celebrity Attitude Scale (CAS), identifying three levels of parasocial relationships:

  1. Entertainment-Social – The least intense level, where celebrities serve only to entertain. At this level, people don't tend to have strong feelings or attachments towards the celebrity/character.

  2. Intense-Personal – At this level, people develop a sense of greater personal connection with the celebrity. They might feel compelled to learn more about their life and personality, they might idolise them or start to mirror them, developing obsessive thoughts.

  3. Borderline Pathological This is the most intense level, which can include obsessive fantasies and extreme behaviour. This extreme behaviour may include financial investments, such as spending a lot of money to see the person or get their attention, or illegal behaviour, such as stalking. At this level, it is also common for the fan to believe their feelings will be reciprocated when they meet the target of their adoration.

An example of an entertainment-social level of parasocial relationships would be if you followed the Kardashians because you find them entertaining. You might also find this family to be a fun subject for you to discuss with your friends and gossip about.

Let's consider an example of the intense-personal level of a parasocial relationship. You became attached to one of your favourite content creators on Twitch. You feel a need to watch all their streams and binge-watch all their videos on other platforms.

You perceive them as perfect and truly feel like they are someone you could bond with in real life, and you begin to adopt their mannerisms, such as speech patterns and phrases.

The Absorption Addiction Model of Parasocial Relationships

McCutcheon et al. (2002) investigated the character of parasocial relationships and put forward an absorption-addiction model to explain how they develop and evolve.

  • They identified that people who lack meaningful relationships in their personal life, or feel their lives are lacking and appear to be more introverted, are more prone to develop parasocial relationships. Celebrities become sources of fulfilment.

These relationships start with an absorption phase, the individual starts to derive fulfilment from allocating their attention to the celebrity, and they enjoy learning about them and following their life.

With time, they might develop a need to seek greater connection with the celebrity and develop delusional beliefs about their relationship with them.

For example, they feel like they intimately know and understand them.

With time, as these delusions are reinforced through further absorption, seeking a connection with the person can become an obsession.

The phase that follows is addiction. The authors see addiction as a coping mechanism with identity deficits, or lack of social roles that could be a source of fulfilment. The individual begins to compulsively seek fulfilment through the parasocial relationship.

  • When they develop a tolerance to the old ways of seeking a connection to the celebrity, they are compelled to look for more extreme ways to engage with them.

Parasocial relationships, person holding a a smartphone with showing an Instagram page with tall buildings in the background, StudySmarterFig. 2: Nowadays social media gives us even greater opportunities to become absorbed in the life of media figures,.

The Attachment Theory Explanation of Parasocial Relationships

Another explanation for parasocial relationships comes from Bowlby's (1969) theory of attachment and Ainsworth's (1978) studies on the quality of attachment.

  1. Bowlby proposed that we have an innate instinct to form a relational bond with our caregiver in childhood. This bond is formed through proximity-seeking behaviour and helps to ensure that the child's needs which depend on the caregiver are met.
  2. Ainsworth identified three types of attachment in children: secure attachment, anxious-avoidant attachment and anxious-resistant (ambivalent) attachment. It's been found that children who develop a secure attachment in childhood have better outcomes in their romantic relationships in the future. In contrast, insecurely attached people might develop behaviours to protect themselves from rejection, that actually harms the quality of their future relationships.

Based on the attachment theory, people who did not develop a secure attachment with their parents might be more likely to look for parasocial relationships to compensate for that, especially if they are struggling to form relationships in their personal lives.

It's been proposed that insecure-resistant people are most prone to develop parasocial relationships, which might be less threatening than real ones due to a lower risk of rejection.

Parasocial Relationships Examples

Consider the following example of a parasocial relationship. In our example, David is facing issues with his relationships.

David started following a gaming YouTube channel over the Covid-19 quarantine. He felt connected to the YouTuber as he would spend hours watching him live at a time when he felt very isolated from the rest of the world. David's parents often ignored him.

After a few months, David became obsessed with the YouTuber. He tried to contact him by reaching out to his friends on social media, tried finding his personal information, and eventually moved on to stalking.

When some people on the internet accused the YouTuber of problematic behaviour, David harassed them on social media, spread false information about them or even revealed their address to the rest of the world. All in hopes to get the attention and support of the YouTuber in return for his loyalty.

How could the absorption addiction model explain this example?

  • David was prone to forming a strong parasocial relationship due to feelings of isolation and perhaps a lack of meaningful relationships in his life at the time.
  • He was quickly absorbed into the life of the YouTuber, to maintain the fulfilment he looked for increasingly more extreme ways to connect with him and developed delusions about what actions would bring them closer together.

If we look at this example through the attachment theory, we could hypothesise that David did not form a healthy attachment to his parents, this could result in him having difficulty in personal relationships and making him look for ways to fulfil his attachment needs without the threat of rejection. The level of attachment he developed to the YouTuber was so intense that it drove him to engage in aggressive behaviour that put other people in danger.

Are there any Benefits of Parasocial Relationships?

Generally, parasocial relationships can be beneficial to our well-being and add rather than take away from our social lives. They are often a source of entertainment, which can help us manage stress.

  • The media figures we feel connected to can also become positive role models for us and be a source of inspiration.

From an attachment perspective, the mental representation of the subject of our parasocial relationship can be used as a source of emotional support or protection, similar to how the mental representation of a caregiver can be soothing.

As long as the parasocial relationship doesn't take over your life, or lead you to delusions or extreme behaviour, it's definitely not always a bad thing.

What About the Negative Effects of Parasocial Relationships?

Parasocial relationships often become a problem at the Pathological-Borderline level. At that point, they can start to interfere with one's everyday life and even disrupt existing social relationships.

For example, they can lead to extreme behaviours like reckless spending or even illegal behaviour.

Parasocial relationships at an extreme level can result in stalking of the celebrity.

For some, intense parasocial attachment can deepen feelings of loneliness and have negative psychological consequences.

If the parasocial relationship leads a person to spend more and more time-consuming media, it can be further isolating and prevent social interactions.


Parasocial Relationships - Key takeaways

  • Parasocial relationships occur when we develop a feeling of connection to a media figure (e.g. celebrity) or fictional character.
  • These relationships are one-sided; the subject of the fan's attachment is unlikely to reciprocate their feelings or even know of their existence.
  • Parasocial relationships are different to mediated relationships. Three levels of parasocial relationships have been identified: Entertainment-social, intense-personal and borderline-pathological.
  • McCutcheon, Lange and Houran (2002) put forward an absorption-addiction model, this model identifies individual characteristics that make people engage in intense parasocial relationships and describes how such relationships can progress to extreme levels.
  • Based on the attachment theory, people who did not develop a secure attachment with their parents might be more likely to look for parasocial relationships to compensate for that. It's been proposed that insecure-resistant people are most prone to develop intense parasocial relationships.

References

  1. Giles, D.C., & Maltby, J. (2006). Praying at the altar of the stars.
  2. McCutcheon, L. E., Lange, R., & Houran, J. (2002). Conceptualization and measurement of celebrity worship. British journal of psychology (London, England : 1953), 93(Pt 1), 67–87. https://doi.org/10.1348/000712602162454
  3. Cohen, J. (2004). Parasocial Break-Up from Favorite Television Characters: The Role of Attachment Styles and Relationship Intensity. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 21(2), 187–202. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407504041374
  4. Maltby, J., Giles, D. C., Barber, L., & McCutcheon, L. E. (2005). Intense-personal celebrity worship and body image: evidence of a link among female adolescents. British journal of health psychology, 10(Pt 1), 17–32. https://doi.org/10.1348/135910704X15257
  5. Greenwood, D. N., & Long, C. R. (2009). Psychological predictors of media involvement: Solitude experiences and the need to belong. Communication Research, 36(5), 637–654. https://doi.org/10.1177/0093650209338906

Frequently Asked Questions about Parasocial Relationships

Parasocial relationships occur when we develop a feeling of connection to a media figure (e.g. celebrity) or fictional character. These relationships are one-sided, the subject of the fan's attachment is unlikely to reciprocate their feelings or even know of their existence. 

The levels of parasocial relationships are entertainment-social, intense-personal, and borderline-pathological. 

Parasocial relationships can lead to extreme behaviours such as stalking or spending a lot of money to show one's dedication to the celebrity. However, parasocial relationships don't involve dangerous behaviour for most people.

The celebrities can use parasocial relationships to advance their careers. Having a dedicated fanbase that will support their activities and business ventures is definitely an asset.

Social cognitive theory describes how the models in our life can influence our behaviour, while parasocial relationships refer to the connection we develop to media figures or fictional characters.

Final Parasocial Relationships Quiz

Question

What is a parasocial relationship?

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Answer

Parasocial relationships occur when we develop a feeling of connection to a media figure (e.g. celebrity) or fictional character. These relationships are one-sided, the subject of our attachment is unlikely to reciprocate our feelings or even know of our existence.

Show question

Question

Who proposed the absorption addiction model?

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Answer

McCutcheon et al. (2002).

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Question

What issues does the model say people have to form parasocial relationships?

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Answer

The model suggests people have self-identity issues and find their own life deficient. 

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Question

What is absorption in the absorption addiction model?

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Answer

Absorption means that the person is absorbed in following a celebrity. They get the sense of fulfilment that they lack, which motivates them to become more intensely attached. Usually, this means they buy merchandise, listen to music, watch shows, and engage in any form of entertainment or information related to the celebrity.

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Question

What is addiction in the absorption addiction model? 

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Answer

Addiction means that the person becomes dependent on the sense of fulfilment and satisfaction that being included in the celebrity's life gives them, and in turn, they become more and more obsessed with the celebrity or the object of their adoration. 

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Question

What behaviours can someone engage in that are a result of addiction in this model?

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Answer

Stalking is an abnormal behaviour that is a result of addiction.

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Question

What are the three levels of parasocial relationships?

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Answer

  1. Entertainment-social.
  2. Intense-personal.
  3. Borderline-pathological.

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Question

How does the absorption addiction model link to the three levels of parasocial relationships?

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Answer

Absorption is linked to the first level (entertainment-social), and addiction is linked to the second and third levels (intense-personal and borderline-pathological respectively). 

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Question

What did Maltby et al. (2001) find in their study?

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Answer

In this study, they found a connection between parasocial relationships and the effects it has on mental health, suggesting there is a link between this obsession and poor mental health/low functioning. Anxiety and depression were positively correlated with extreme parasocial relationships.  

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What did Schiappa et al. (2007) find in their study?

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Answer

This study analysed the findings of multiple studies that looked into parasocial relationships and found that these relationships could primarily be defined as normal or acceptable. 

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When did McCutcheon et al. propose the absorption addiction model?

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Answer

In 2002.

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Question

Absorption is a form of _______.

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Answer

Escapism.

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The absorption addiction model is problematic because it is _______.

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Answer

Stigmatising.

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The absorption addiction model is ethnocentric. True or false?

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Answer

True.

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What is CAS?

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Answer

The Celebrity Attitude Scale. 

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What did McCutcheon (2006) suggest about parasocial relationships?

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Answer

McCutcheon (2006) suggested that people form Parasocial Relationships due to things lacking in their own lives 

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Question

What are parasocial relationships?

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Answer

Parasocial relationships are where a person develops a one-sided relationship, usually with someone of higher status who is not aware of this infatuation. This is seen typically in celebrities, as well as people in the community who are well-known or liked, and fictional characters.  

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Question

What does attachment theory suggest about parasocial relationships?

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Answer

Attachment theory suggests parasocial relationships develop as a result of childhood development issues. 

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What does Bowlby specifically suggest about childhood attachment and parasocial relationships?

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Answer

Specifically, Bowlby's explanation suggests that people who fail to form close relationships with their caregivers when they're young, struggle to bond and establish relationships with others when they grow older.  

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What is Ainsworth's insecure-resistant type of attachment style?

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Exhibit clingy behaviours but then rejects caregiver, not comforted by caregiver, non-exploratory, difficult to soothe.

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What did Hazan and Shaver (1987) suggest about how an insecure-resistant attachment style in adulthood?


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Answer

An insecure-resistant attachment type manifests in adulthood through clingy, jealous behaviour which makes it difficult for them to form relationships with other people, meaning that they are more likely to form parasocial relationships.  

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Question

Bowlby's ______ deprivation theory suggests that those who do not form strong attachments in early life will seek out attachment substitutes in adulthood.  

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Answer

maternal

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What does the internal working model state about future relationships?

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Answer

The internal working model states as your first relationship, your attachment to your primary caregiver become a template for all your future relationship 

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According to the internal working model, if your caregiver did not comfort you, did not respond to your needs or make you feel secure, you will ______.

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Answer

seek out similar relationships in adulthood.  

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What did McCutcheon et al. (2006) find in their study?

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Answer

They found no correlation between insecure-resistant attachment and more intense levels of parasocial relationships 

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What did Cole and Leets (1999) find in their study?

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Answer

They found that those with anxious-ambivalent attachment types were more likely to develop parasocial relationships, and avoidant styles were least likely to develop parasocial behaviours. 

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Kienlen et al. (1997) found that ______ childhood attachment was linked to a borderline pathological disorder 


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Answer

disturbed

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What did Roberts (2007) find in their study?

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Answer

Roberts (2007) fond that insecurely attached people were more likely to engage in some form of contact with celebrities. 


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What's an issue with the correlational research into parasocial relationships?

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Answer

Most research into parasocial relationships is correlational meaning that we cannot claim direct cause and effect relationships in the research. 

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Question

Why would children form a parasocial relationship with a celebrity when they grow up, according to attachment theory?

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Answer

Due to a lack of secure attachment to the caregiver.

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Question

What are parasocial relationships?

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Answer

Parasocial relationships occur when we develop a feeling of connection to a media figure (e.g. celebrity) or fictional character. These relationships are one-sided, the subject of our attachment is unlikely to reciprocate our feelings or even know of our existence.

Show question

Question

Parasocial relationships can't feel as meaningful as social relationships because they are not reciprocal.

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Answer

False.

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How has the role of media in parasocial relationships change over time?

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Answer

At first, media only allowed communication in one direction, but now we can interact with media figures both ways.

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What are mediated relationships?

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Answer

Mediated relationships are where the interaction between the people involved occurs through media rather than face to face. 

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Question

After watching a speaker at a conference, you develop feelings of connection towards them. This is an example of _____

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Answer

A parasocial relationship.

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Question

You start feeling attached to your favourite youtuber, you can spend hours binge watching their content to learn more about them. This is an example of a ______

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Answer

A mediated relationship and a parasocial relationship.

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Question

All parasocial relationships are mediated relationships.

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Answer

False.

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What are the three levels of parasocial relationships?

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The levels of parasocial relationships are entertainment-social, intense-personal, and borderline-pathological. 

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How is the borderline-pathological level of parasocial relationships characterised?

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Answer

Borderline pathological can include obsessive fantasies and extreme behaviour that you can't really control. At this level, it is also common for the fan to believe their feelings will be reciprocated when they meet the target of their adoration. 

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Question

You became attached to one of your favourite content creators on Twitch. You feel a need to watch all their streams, they just seem perfect to you and you truly feel like they are someone you could bond with in real life. This is an example of what level of parasocial relationships?

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Answer

Intense-personal.

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At what stage of relationships do we idolise our partners?

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Answer

The romance stage.

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What attachment style is most likely to form intense parasocial relationships?

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Answer

Anxious-resistant.

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What factors predispose individuals to developing intense parasocial relationships, according to the absorption-addiction model?

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Loneliness, introversion, lack of meaningful relationships, identity deficits, social role deficits.

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What does the addiction phase in the absorption-addiction model of parasocial relationships involve?

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It involves compulsively seeking connection with the celebrity - individuals are compelled to look for more and more extreme ways to engage with the celebrity. 

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True or False: Based on the attachment theory, the people who did not develop a secure attachment with their parents might be less likely to look for parasocial relationships because they are not used to the attachment.

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Answer

False.

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Question

Why may someone feel or have a weak sense of self-identity and form a parasocial relationship to escape reality?

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Answer

  • Lack of satisfaction with everyday life. 
  • Deficient areas of life, such as work or friends.
  • An inability to form intimate relationships in those areas.
  • A need for excitement.  
  • Extreme love for the object of obsession.


Show question

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True or False: The absorption addiction model of parasocial relationships has two stages, absorption and addiction, and is closely linked to the three levels of parasocial relationships. 

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Answer

True.

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True or False: Escapism first occurs in the absorption stage of the absorption-addiction model.

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Answer

True. 

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Question

Hounding of celebrities by paparazzi to often provide in-depth but false information on their personal lives can fuel ______. 

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Answer

absorption.

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True or False: Addiction in the absorption-addiction model of parasocial relationships is when the sense of fulfilment becomes somewhat of a problem for the person.  

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Answer

True.

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