Wait, What The Heck Is A 'Parasocial Relationship'?

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Zach Smith is a 37-year-old sales specialist, who, generally speaking, is deeply uninterested in celebrity gossip.

Still, when stand-up comedian John Mulaney announced his divorce earlier this month, Smith was among the many fans who found themselves weirdly upset by the news.

Maybe it was because in stand-up sets, Mulaney always spoke so lovingly of his partner, visual artist Annamarie Tendler, and the life they’d carved out with their French bulldog Petunia. Mulaney is a known “wife guy,” and Smith is a bit of a wife guy himself.

Maybe it was because he and Mulaney both had slightly checkered adolescent pasts. (Mulaney, 38, has said he started drinking at 13 before eventually progressing to cocaine in his early 20s. In December, he admitted himself to a rehab facility to seek treatment after relapsing.)

“I don’t know why I was so disappointed, but I guess it’s because so much of Mulaney’s persona is being that seemingly well-adjusted, professional-looking guy who still has insane things in his past,” Smith told HuffPost.

“He spends all that time talking about all the crazy shit in his past, while talking about how lucky he is to have his wife. I related to that.”

John Mulaney and Annamarie Tendler attended the 2018 Film Independent Spirit Awards together. Many comedy fans admit feeling strangely upset by their split.
John Mulaney and Annamarie Tendler attended the 2018 Film Independent Spirit Awards together. Many comedy fans admit feeling strangely upset by their split.

John Mulaney and Annamarie Tendler attended the 2018 Film Independent Spirit Awards together. Many comedy fans admit feeling strangely upset by their split.

But there was even more surprising news about Mulaney to come. Just three days after the divorce announcement, a source told People magazine that the comedian is dating actor Olivia Munn.

“Basically, this super-relatable guy just up and announces he’s walking away, and three days later he’s dating Olivia Munn?” said Smith, still kind of surprised by the news a week and a half later. “That’s cold, out of character and blows the whole thing up.”

Smith — and anyone else taken aback by the unexpected messiness of Mulaney’s life (a very common concern: But what about Petunia?!) ― had developed a “parasocial’ ― or one-sided psychological ― attachment to the comedian without even realizing it.

What the heck is a parasocial relationship?

In 1956, social scientists Donald Horton and R. Richard Wohl first described an interesting phenomenon occurring among the increasingly TV-obsessed American public: Viewers were forming “parasocial relationships,” or the “illusion of a face-to-face relationship,” with performers.

Television or movie characters, radio personalities or even a favorite book character could create this “intimacy at a distance,” but Wohl and Horton were specifically interested in studying viewers’ relationships with TV news anchors.

At this point, your mind might be shifting to the many horrifying examples of men who’ve stalked women news anchors through the years. But modern-day social scientists we spoke to for this story were quick to differentiate between a parasocial interest and plain-out stalking.

“The news anchor stalkers, John Lennon’s murderer and Madonna’s violent stalker were not suffering from PSR that went wrong because they got too intense; they were people with an untreated health condition that caused their violent behavior,” said Riva Tukachinsky Forster, an assistant professor at Chapman University in California who studies media psychology and wrote a book on parasocial relationships.

In fact, by and large, parasocial relationships are almost entirely beneficial. (Phew. Rihanna can continue being my pope!) Studies have shown that these one-sided bonds can help put people at ease, especially in the case of young people figuring out their identities and those with low self-esteem.

“People with low self-esteem might use their parasocial relationships to see themselves more positively, much like people with high self-esteem do with their ‘real’ social relationships,” said Jaye L. Derrick, an associate professor of psychology who studies PSRs at the University of Houston.

“A parasocial relationship is safe,” Derrick said. “Your favorite celebrity cannot reach out of a magazine article to reject you. This has changed somewhat as social media has developed, but that’s still rare.”

Projection is involved here, too. When we’re deeply invested in a celebrity or athlete  ― who they were before fame, their career highs and lows, even their romantic lives ― we often project ourselves onto them; they become aspirational figures, surrogates for our hopes, dreams and expectations for our own lives. (Gatorade famously mined this in the ’90s with its “Be Like Mike” ad campaign featuring Michael Jordan.)

Though plenty of parasocial attachments take on a crush quality ―  fangirls obsessing over New Kids on the Block back in the ’80s or K-Pop boybands today ― that’s not always the case, said Shira Gabriel, an associate professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo who studies these types of connections.

It’s not just women who get caught up in them, either.

“We’ve found that women are more likely to have these with celebrities, but men have them, too,” Gabriel said. “In my lab, we found that men often have them with superheroes ― think positive reactions to Captain America or Iron Man after new movies come out.”

There are some real-life benefits to these super-attached-to-superhero bonds, too. While you might think that comparing yourself to a comically beefed-up actor in a stiff, intimidating superhero suit might make you self-conscious about your own regular dude body, the opposite is actually true. One study showed that having a man-crush on Batman or Cap actually boosts men’s body image and results in guys getting stronger themselves. (Men who didn’t hold such attachments to superheroes felt comparatively bad about their looks.)

DC fans at the Batman Experience exhibit at Comic Con Museum on July 17, 2019, in San Diego. This guy probably has high self-esteem.
DC fans at the Batman Experience exhibit at Comic Con Museum on July 17, 2019, in San Diego. This guy probably has high self-esteem.

DC fans at the Batman Experience exhibit at Comic Con Museum on July 17, 2019, in San Diego. This guy probably has high self-esteem.

“These kinds of parasocial bonds are so normal that most people don’t even label them as parasocial relationships,” Gabriel said. “These guys don’t think ‘I have a relationship with this person or character and root for them!’ even though they really do.”

You can even have a parasocial attachment to a celebrity or fictional character you can’t stand, Tukachinsky Forster said.

“You can ‘love to hate’ a celebrity or character and find that you can’t stop reading about them or watching them,” she said. “When the soap opera ‘Dallas’ was a hit, some people wore a pin or had a mug that read ‘I hate J.R.’ ― one of the main characters on the show ― but they would never want to get rid of his character.” (A modern-day example might be reality stars like the Kardashians, with whom many of us keep up in spite of the pretense of not giving a damn.)

Some other good examples of mostly positive parasocial relationships, according to the experts we interviewed:

  • Cumberbitches: Those who love British thespian Benedict Cumberbatch.

  • Swifties: Taylor Swift fans, some of who flooded Kim Kardashian’s social media feed with snake emojis when they felt the reality star had wronged their fave.

  • Royal stans of Kate and Will, or Meghan and Harry (the latter group calls themselves the Sussex Squad) ― and before them, Princess Diana followers who, after her death, laid 60 million flowers at impromptu memorials across London.

  • Anyone who was oddly upset that Bill and Melinda Gates were divorcing ― and subsequently shocked to learn that Bill may be a bit of a horndog.

  • Trumpers: Gabriel’s research suggests parasocial relationships probably affected the election of President Donald Trump in 2016.

  • God: It might be a controversial concept, but all the experts mentioned God. “People have had relationships with God (or earlier one-sided belief systems) for millennia,” said Derrick. “He’s the ultimate ‘celebrity.’

Fandom and parasocial relationships: A tale as old as time.

Clearly, there’s nothing new about these parasocial bonds. We’re just exposed to them a whole lot more because of how vocal people are about their interests on social media.

In Tukachinsky Forster’s book, she says PSRs date back to Roman antiquity (1-2 AD), with people obsessing over the celebrities of their time, such as actors and rhetoricians. Then, of course, there’s the God example.

“The human brain likely evolved at a time when people really needed social connections to survive,” Gabriel said. “We aren’t physically strong like other apex predators, so to survive, people had to live in collectives. During that time, people who were drawn to others who survived ― those are our ancestors ― and everyone else died out.”

We have a primitive mechanism that propels us to form close bonds with people, Gabriel said. At our current evolved stage, that mechanism doesn’t differentiate between real relationships and those that we learn about through movies, television shows or the internet (such as influencers, YouTubers or podcasters you’d honestly miss if they went offline).

“When we form a parasocial bond with someone, we feel like we really know them,” Gabriel said. “We know logically that we don’t, but our primitive brain doesn’t realize that so the feeling is real. So it is really tough when they do something that doesn’t fit with what we know about them.”

Parasocial relationships help explain why we’re so obsessed with celebrity romance and drama.

Given all the projection involved in parasocial attachments, it’s no surprise that celebrity relationships really get our parasocial gears going.

Breakups like the Mulaneys’ or the Gates’ remind us that even the happiest or successful-seeming marriages may have expiration dates. Reunions like the one that may be transpiring between Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck supply us with hope that it’s entirely possible to pick things back up with a past love, even decades later. (She may have kept that gaudy but gorgeous Harry Winston pink engagement ring?! Bless! My grandma owned a copy version.)

“When we care about someone ― even a celebrity ― they feel like an extension of ourselves, so good things happening to them feels good and bad things happening to them feels bad,” Gabriel said.

Rooting for the elusive, iconic love of Bennifer is also “kind of the same as rooting for good things to happen to our real friends,” Gabriel said.

For many millennials ― Jennifer Lawrence and the Boston Red Sox social media team among them ― Bennifer 3.0* takes us back to the halcyon days of the early-aughts, when life seemed simpler and everyone was wearing way too much Juicy Couture. (* Jennifer Garner got “Bennifer 2.0” in the divorce. Sorry!)

Plus, we’re still living through the tail end of a pandemic, so who can blame us for being thirsty for a little drama and a happy ending?

“If parasocial interactions have increased with respect to interest in celebrity romance, maybe being stuck at home for a year makes those connections to the outside world all the more salient,” said Tracy Gleason, a developmental psychologist with an expertise in interpersonal relationships, both real and imaginary.

A reunited Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez in Amalfi, Italy in July 2021. (Photo by MEGA/GC Images)
A reunited Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez in Amalfi, Italy in July 2021. (Photo by MEGA/GC Images)

A reunited Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez in Amalfi, Italy in July 2021. (Photo by MEGA/GC Images)

Of course, not everyone is psyched about J.Lo and Ben: Redux. Just ask a J-Rod shipper.

“My response to the news about J.Lo and Ben was mild disbelief and probably cynicism, because it seems like a publicity grab,” said Andrew Stout, a 35-year-old academic librarian and loyal J-Rod fan who is clearly, definitely not psyched.

Like Alex Rodriguez himself, the baseball fan is still holding out hope for an A-Rod and J.Lo reconciliation.

“If I’m invested in their story, it has something to do with the fact that they were two huge cultural figures from two different very different fields when I was growing up,” Stout said. “As a baseball fan, I loved A-Rod, and I think every teenage boy was in love with J.Lo in 2001.”

When J-Rod happened, it was like the (very blingy, very Bronx) stars had aligned.

“I guess seeing the lives of the celebrities from your teenage years play out into your adulthood just holds some inevitable fascination,” Stout said.

It is fascinating, sure. But all the people we spoke to for this story admitted they felt a little funny caring so much about a stranger’s relationship.

Hannah, a 22-year-old from Pennsylvania, said she feels guilty about being sad about John Mulaney’s divorce. His personal life and relationships aren’t really any of her business, and outside of the dramatized glimpses he gives in his stand-up, she has no idea what goes on behind closed doors.

“I don’t know what’s going on in his life. I have no clue what he is going through,” Hannah said. “But at least for me, his projects got me through a really tough time in my life and I felt a bond to his work.

“I think what we’re learning is we have to accept that celebrities are human beings and they’re trying to find their way through life the same way we are, in a much more public way,” she said.

Ultimately, parasocial bonds create a paradox for the celebrity: A star no doubt benefits from encouraging strong fan relations (certainly K-Pop bands like BTS do, but even Mulaney mined his marriage for stand-up material). The downside is that fans remain overly invested in the celebrity’s personal life even in their darker moments, when space and disinterest is what the celebrity needs most.

“I actually think parasocial jealousy ― how people respond to romantic relationships that their favorite celebrity is involved in ― is a really interesting topic,” Tukachinsky Forster said. “For example, you had Justin Biber having to shut down his Instagram because of the hate he and his then-girlfriend were getting from Jelena ― or Justin and Selena Gomez ― fans.”

More recently, we saw “Superman” actor Henry Cavill asking his fans on Instagram to stop questioning if his new relationship is real, replete with a couples selfie. (If investing in his-and-hers newsboy caps isn’t true love, we don’t know what is!)

Still, online bullying is considerably different than your standard-issue PSR. A passing interest in a celebrity’s personal life probably isn’t something worth feeling shame or guilt over, Derrick said.

“We can feel intensely interested in other people’s relationships,” she said. “Personally, I believe it’s not that different from really hoping your best friend’s boyfriend proposes soon.”

And for what it’s worth, even parasocial interaction experts like Derrick admit they’ve had celebrity relationships they’ve stanned and subsequently mourned when they ended.

“I suppose you could say I have a parasocial ‘friendship’ with Jennifer Aniston,” Derrick admitted. “I was so enraged after Brad Pitt left her for Angelina Jolie that I haven’t watched a movie with Angelina Jolie since. I guess I can let that vendetta go now.”