The Frontal Cortex

Television and Loneliness

Over at Mind Matters, there’s a cool post by Fionnuala Butler and Cynthia Picketton on the benefits of watching television when lonely, which seems to provide the same sort of emotional relief as spending time with real people:

For decades, psychologists have been interested in understanding how individuals achieve and maintain social relationships in order to ward off social isolation and loneliness. The vast majority of this research has focused on relationships between real individuals interacting face-to-face. Recent research has widened this focus from real relationships to faux, “parasocial” relationships. Parasocial relationships are the kind of one sided pseudo-relationships we develop over time with people or characters we might see on TV or in the movies. So, just as a friendship evolves through spending time together and sharing personal thoughts and opinions, parasocial relationships evolve by watching characters on our favorite TV shows, and becoming involved with their personal lives, idiosyncrasies, and experiences as if they were those of a friend.

In a recent article published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Jaye Derrick and Shira Gabriel of the University of Buffalo and Kurt Hugenberg of Miami University test what they call the “Social Surrogacy Hypothesis.”

The authors theorized that loneliness motivates individuals to seek out relationships, even if those relationships are not real. In a series of experiments, the authors demonstrated that participants were more likely to report watching a favorite TV show when they were feeling lonely and reported being less likely to feel lonely while watching. This preliminary evidence suggests that people spontaneously seek out social surrogates when real interactions are unavailable. The authors also found that participants who recalled a fight with a close person in their lives wrote for significantly longer about their favorite TV show than a non-favored TV show. It appears that experiencing a lack of belonging actually caused people to revel in their favorite TV shows, as though the parasocial relationships with TV characters replaced the flawed relationships that had been recalled.

This research makes perfect sense to me. I never travel without a backpack full of TV shows on DVD, as I find the melodrama of good television (The Sopranos, The Wire, The Shield, The Tudors, House, Lost, Freaks and Geeks, etc.) to be extremely soothing after a day spent with strangers. It’s so comforting to press play and enter into a familiar social network, even if that social network involves the New Jersey mob.

Further thoughts: I’d argue that the ideal way to experience the palliative benefits of TV is on DVD. (In other words, the storage technology has revealed the full potential of the medium.) When we’re able to experience episodes back to back – I watched the entire first season of Lost in a single visual binge – it’s much easier to develop serious emotional attachments. The characters develop depth and history; the plots are able to cultivate all sorts of intricate layers and connections. There’s no waiting or forgetting. Instead, we’re plunged deep into another world, fully immersed in lives which are much more interesting than our own.

The bad news, of course, is that all TV shows end. (And they end even faster when you watch them quickly on DVD! I was seriously sad after finishing Six Feet Under. And then I got even sadder when I realized what this said about my life.) Interestingly, such “breakups” emulate many of the negative emotions triggered by real breakups.

In a study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships,Jonathan Cohen, of the Department of Communication at the University of Haifa in Israel, examined the responses of television viewers to the potential loss of their favorite television characters. Cohen found that viewers anticipated experiencing the same negative reactions to parasocial breakups as they experience when their real social relationships dissolve. Even though parasocial relationships may offer a quick and easy fix for unmet belonging needs, individuals within these relationships may not be spared the pain and anguish of relationship dissolution.

The moral is that there is no such thing as “mere” entertainment. The human mind is an attachment machine, forming emotional bonds with stuffed animals, invertebrates and Izzie Stevens. A good drama might ease our loneliness, but a breakup is still a breakup.

Update: Someone just emailed to ask if the advent of reality television (New Jersey Housewives, The Bachelor, etc.) might have altered this effect. The short answer is I have no idea. The slightly less short answer is that I imagine we’re even more likely to form attachments to characters on reality TV shows, since the characters are purportedly “real”. It’s similar to how movies are always much more frightening when preceded by a line about how the drama is “based on real events”.

Comments

  1. #1 Devan
    July 29, 2009

    Picking up on the Reality TV question: In a paper I wrote for a graduate seminar some years ago, I argued—against what was then a common thread in media studies—that the real allure of reality TV is not voyeurism, as the old guard of the discipline would have had it, but parasocial interaction.

    The problem with the voyeurism account is that it doesn’t require narrative to function; it can work even without sound (as in hidden camera footage on all the shows that feature a bunch of housemates).

    However, every “docusoap” from The Real World forward has focused on narrative and conflict above all, with moments of voyeuristic appeal merely intruding before commercial breaks, or appearing only in order to heighten narrative tension. (“I can’t believe those two hooked up!”)

    The parasocial model, though, does require narrative to function. We don’t get to know people without understanding how they make choices in tough situations; any writer of fiction or screenplay would tell you as much. So, the ways that reality shows construct narratives serve to heighten our knowledge of and attachment to certain “characters” or personae.

    (And the narratives are heavily constructed, as indicated by industry terms like “frankenbiting”—faking sound bites out of a hodge-podge of shorter phrases.)

    In short, from my paper:

    Social actors in the shows are not (or not primarily) objects of a distant, pathological gaze emanating from the viewer, but instead are involved in a perceived friendship bond, one which on an experiential level contains moderated versions of the highs and lows of normal, two-sided social relationships.

  2. #2 Mozglubov
    July 29, 2009

    I think you are very right about the availability of shows in digital format changing the viewing experience. I definitely go through bouts of “binge watching” when I discover a new television show. Unfortunately, I don’t think the market has quite caught up. For example, Arrested Development was an amazing comedy, but its true brilliance primarily rested in watching it in a short time span, re-watching it to get the more subtle jokes, and having the ability to watch it in order to allow the absurdity of the plot to unfold in all its wonderful ludicrousy. As a result, it did rather poorly in television ratings, got canceled, and then followed up with very good DVD sales (at which point executives realised maybe it was actually a valuable show – kind of like Firefly).

  3. #3 Undergrad
    July 29, 2009

    Intriguing when read alongside this article about those who take it to the next level: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/26/magazine/26FOB-2DLove-t.html?ref=magazine

  4. #4 catgirl
    July 29, 2009

    I rarely watch TV shows closely, and when I have my TV on, I’m always doing something else at the same time. But I think I have a similar attachment to books. I was 13 the first time I ever read a series of fantasy books (with 7 books). Near the end of the last book, I really procrastinated because I just didn’t want it to end. Right now I’m waiting for the last book of the Wheel of Time series to be published, but I have mixed feelings about it. I have to know what comes next, but I’m sad to see it end. I didn’t read these books out of loneliness, but I definitely mad a connection with the characters.

  5. #5 SDost
    July 29, 2009

    Interesting article, though I don’t agree with you on developing stronger attachments by watching episodes back-to-back. Let’s take Buffy the Vampire Slayer as an example–a lot of people (including me) formed a huge bond to the characters over the seven years it was on. It started in 1997, when I was a junior in high school, and went until 2003, when I was graduating from college. Certain episodes are connected in my memory to real events in my life (weddings, funerals, Christmas, September 11). The show becomes part of your life. You spend the time between episodes–an entire summers–imagining what will happen next.

    When you say there’s no “waiting or forgetting,” I think the waiting actually enhances the emotion and memory, since you have time to process it, go over it in your mind, etc.

    That sort of long-term bond can’t be the same for people who go through the whole series in a couple weeks–it’s just not with you long enough.

    There was a study a few months ago about how people who watch TV shows with commercial breaks rate the shows as better than those who skip through the commercials. Wonder if the same principle is at work.

  6. #6 jb
    July 29, 2009

    A neighbor recently lost her mother. I was out of town for the funeral and went over to pay my respects. Trying to make polite conversation, I said that I hoped the mother’s final days were peaceful. The daughter allowed that was not the case, that the mother would often get angry because the daughter couldn’t see the mother’s visitors. It is not uncommon for dying people to be ‘visited’ by departed relatives, and can even be a comfort, so I asked who ‘visited’. There was a zoo and a volcano and Tiger Woods, I was told. The daughter went on to explain that earlier there was a departed relative but also actors from the mother’s favorite soaps, even people from the evening news, and these visit were often upsetting to the mother. At the suggestion of a hospice worker, the mother switched the mother’s TV viewing to more beign fare such as kids cartoons and sports.
    Since this conversation I have made sure to remind my aging aunt of her religious connection when I talk to her.
    Despite being unable to remember what she had for lunch, she still knows many prayers and Bible passages by heart.
    Fortunately her bad eyesight precludes her watching much TV and she is in assisted living where real social interaction is possible.

  7. #7 Andrea Grant
    July 29, 2009

    And here I thought I was the only one who felt sad after marathoning a TV show on DVD! I’ve learned that I have to start pacing myself about halfway so that the end isn’t so abrupt. Pacing also helps because I’ve found that one downside to watching the entire lifetime of a show on DVD is that whatever flaws there are in the character arcs become more obvious: for example, the absurdity and pointlessness of Tony Soprano’s analysis became clear to me when watching back to back episodes where I started rolling my eyes at how repetitive it seemed.

  8. #8 Bruce
    July 29, 2009

    Always good to see something about the positive merits of television. We’re all so absorbed in the novelty of Facebook et.al., tv gets no respect. But I question whether people who are truly lonely can develop virtual relationships, either? It still takes reaching out, to some extent. Bet they’re still relying no parasocial relationships, probably on tv.

    And for an example of a truly powerful parasocial relationship, look no farther than Tom Hanks and Wilson on Castaway. It was so real that it broke your heart when he lost Wilson.

  9. #9 Jordon
    July 29, 2009

    This certainly means that there’s a market for lonliness on television (and I just had a conversation last night about the absurd amounts of advertisements for dating websites in the day and “hotlinks” and various other “adult” chat lines at night), but, I think Microsoft’s new project just might be going a bit too far with “emotainment,” verging on HAL-esque creepiness:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=40E3oq5DGxQ

  10. #10 Anonymous
    July 29, 2009

    “I was seriously sad after finishing Six Feet Under. And then I got even sadder when I realized what this said about my life.”

    That is exactly how I felt at the end of Six Feet Under–deeply sad as if I’d lost a friend, slightly pathetic for feeling that way about a TV show. Didn’t realize others experienced this as well…

  11. #11 Phil E. Drifter
    July 29, 2009

    “This research makes perfect sense to me. I never travel without a backpack full of TV shows on DVD, as I find the melodrama of good television (The Sopranos, The Wire, The Shield, The Tudors, House, Lost, Freaks and Geeks, etc.) to be extremely soothing after a day spent with strangers.”

    What a F8CKING LOSER.

    I CAN’T STAND television. Whenever I watch 5 seconds of 99% of the garbage on tv (america’s got talent? puh-leeze. Americ-*channel switch*) However, I don’t ‘have’ cable, I’m limited to the
    ♬13 channels of sh!t on the tv to choose from…♬
    ♬I’ve got electric lights ♬
    ♬I’ve got 2nd sights ♬
    ♬I’ve got amazing powers of observation♬

    And I’m not going to waste one F*CKING second turning my brain off so i can follow some stupid f*cking ficticious drama garbage on tv. My time is far too important to be sitting on my ass watching some sh!t on tv because the television was the most powerful weapon of the 20th f*cking century. Bush invades a foreign nation and you all just sit on your asses and stuff your faces and watch the f*cking idiot box.

    No thanks.

  12. #12 Phil E. Drifter
    July 29, 2009

    jb: Since this conversation I have made sure to remind my aging aunt of her religious connection when I talk to her.
    Despite being unable to remember what she had for lunch, she still knows many prayers and Bible passages by heart.

    Atta boy, make sure she’s batsh!t crazy so there’s no way she can get out of her assisted living, and let her continue to pray to a god that doesn’t f*cking exist. You f*cking religitards are a piece of work. THEY WERE STORIES CREATED BY EARLY MAN TO HELP THEM COPE WITH DEATH. They were created so, once these apes realized their own mortality, they made up these f*cking stories to comfort, and then they used them to ‘strike the fear of god’ into people: “If you don’t do what I tell you, GOD WILL PUNISH YOU FOR ALL ETERNITY!!” and it lit a fire under their asses.

    Not mine. I know better. Look at how far we’ve come in only 4000 years and you people want to believe that some god ‘who loves us’ puts us on earth so we can suffer through crime and natural disaster and artificial disaster and cancer and poverty etc etc ad homonym, SO HE CAN JUDGE US ON THE DAY WE DIE?! LOLLLLLLLLLLL you’re all f*cking crazy.

    THERE IS NO HEAVEN. THERE IS NO HELL. THERE IS NO GOD, THERE IS NO SATAN.

    THERE IS THE PHYSICS OF THE UNIVERSE. That’s it. Get over it.

  13. #13 nader paul kucinich gravel
    July 29, 2009

    Future of a Nation that can not trust the Government & Propaganda Media?
    How many times has the Government & Propaganda Media lied to you?
    Chronic lying as career path or intellectual prostitution for paycheck?
    Gravel Kucinich Paul Nader McKinney Ventura Sheehan Kaptur.
    Fool me once shame on you, fool me twice shame on me.
    Poodles, Puppets, Sham debates, Scam elections.
    9/11 liars, AIPAC liars, Federal Reserve liars.
    Speak no evil, hear no evil, see no evil?
    Greed & corruption or conscience?
    Leaks from Whistleblowers.

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  14. #14 Burt
    July 29, 2009

    Television (and its modern extension the Internet) is the most powerful and addictive drug ever created by mankind. Billions of people are addicted both psychologically and physically in some cases.

    It’s so pervasive and ingrained (especially in western culture) that most people don’t recognize that it is a drug (religion used to be the opium of the masses – still is in certain circles – but TV has replaced it in volume consumed and even has become a hypodermic (hypoinsula?) for the injection of religion to a subset of the masses.)

    TV has all the hallmarks of a drug, escapism, pleasure etc. Not that it hasn’t got its good points: As a teaching tool, information source, or parasociability etc. but it can be and is a powerful means of living vicariously and substituting secondary reality for one’s primary existence.

  15. #15 Little Davey
    July 29, 2009

    Hmmm…I’m addicted to Scienceblogs as a substitute for social interaction…

  16. #16 teiana
    July 30, 2009

    Recently in the tv show Neighbours, in real life one of the actors was taken ill and they filled her scenes by replacing her temporarily and at schort notice. The first thing the unwary viewer knew was when a complete stranger started using her name, and her on-screen son started calling the stranger ‘mum’. I was traumatised for weeks! The idea that someone could be replaced by a stranger and nobody would notice was scary. We do get reassured by getting caught up in the lives of people who can fix most problems in half an hour and are always wearing smart clean clothes and never need to wear coats or go to the bathroom.. I want to live in tv land… everything is so much simpler there. Nobody is ever lonely on tv shows either, there’s always people walking in and out. You never see anyone just sitting there thinking. If you’re lonely, that’s a dream world, one where there’s always someone to talk to…it’s good to watch it.

  17. #17 AD Fan
    July 30, 2009

    What is up with this Drifter fellow. A little out of place on a rational blog.
    I want to second the genius of Arrested Development. One of the best comedies ever on TV. So smart. I would go to great lengths to petition for a return.

  18. #18 Dunc
    July 30, 2009

    This explains so much about SF fandom, especially the wilder reaches who have lost their beloved shows before their time. (Browncoats, ‘Scapers, I’m looking at you. Or rather, us…)

  19. #19 Ryan Shewcraft
    July 30, 2009

    I don’t watch much TV (for too many reasons to list) and I don’t read fiction too often. So what fills the gap when I’m lonely? Definitely music, either listening or playing.

  20. #20 Bob
    July 30, 2009

    Have you ever noticed that a tv set in a room full of people will draw attention. People will stand around and watch nothing. My backpacker friends refer to a campfire as “caveman television” because people will sit around and stare at the campfire much as though they were watching television.

  21. #21 Stephanie
    July 30, 2009

    Never thought about the end of a show as the same as the end of a relationship, but it makes sense. I don’t follow too many shows, but I am borderline obsessive about the ones I do follow. I must admit that I walked around in a daze with an intense sense of loss after the last episode of The Wire.

  22. #22 Lex
    July 30, 2009

    Wow what an interesting post!

    I empathize with you on getting more emotionally attached when viewing back-to-back, such was my fate with being introduced to the FireFly series on DVD!

    I am curious as to whether there has been any research on emotional attachments and loneliness with television and its affects on mental illnesses?

    Has anyone heard anything as to this! I would very much like to reference such a notion on my own blog, the Mental Health Recovery Blog if anyone would be comfortable with that!

    I look forward to speaking more with anyone on the subject!

    All the best,
    Lex
    MHCD Research and Evaluations

  23. #23 k8
    July 31, 2009

    I find this fascinating. When I was in a treatment facility for my alcoholism, we were not allowed television, books, radio; any media of any sort. It seemed isolative at first, but there was a specific reason. It was so we would not lapse into using another “substance” i.e. media to escape with. Part of the problem with addicts is that they don’t have appropriate social skills that allow them to interact with other people in meaningful ways. Denying us the opportunity for escape, we were forced to learn new behaviors such as *gasp* talking to people. I know they didn’t make that rule because of the science behind it, but it works.

  24. #24 Isabel
    July 31, 2009

    “Hmmm…I’m addicted to Scienceblogs as a substitute for social interaction…

    Posted by: Little Davey | July 29, 2009 11:17 PM”

    I get the feeling you aren’t the only one Davey!

    I enjoy situation comedies, which have two advantages over dramas, they are shorter and therefore take up less of one’s time, and the good ones can be truly hilarious. Laughter enhances health and reduces stress. I suspect can they have positive social effects also because the theme of practically every show is the absurdity and universality of the human condition.

  25. #25 tvspot
    August 8, 2009

    You should be careful in letting your children spend too much time watching television spots .

  26. #26 lonelyky
    August 9, 2009

    ive definitely used tv as a surrogate friend. especially with series such as charmed, friends, sex and the city. but mostly charmed. i went through a stage where thats all i watched for weeks. and i still put a dvd in when i feel particulary lonely. i get comfort and it actually makes me feel like im involved, not so lonely. isnt that freakin pathetic?

  27. #27 Mckids
    January 15, 2010

    I recently watched True Blood season 1&2 back to back over a period of 5 days. It was my first time watching it, and now I am addicted to it. There’s another 150 days till season 3 premiers, and I feel disconnected and lonely. It’s almost like I’ve lost a friend. And just before I go to bed, I have this strange overwhelming feeling of nothingless, like nothing is going to be good. But then when I fuel my addiction for it (e.g.: searching up, watching clips, etc) I feel okay, like it curbs the chronic feeling of nothing less.

    I swear it’s like a psychological drug, these tv series.

    The stupidest thing about this, is that True Blood isn’t finished, it’s just on hiatus because they have to create a 3rd season. :(

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