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”.