Evolutionary Theory and Reactions to Mass Media: Understanding Parasocial Attachment

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Abstract

Forming attachments to those people proximal to the individual was the only option prior to mass media. In an era of mass media, individuals become acquainted with media personae, expanding greatly the pool of available attachment objects. This increases the possibility of a parasocial attachment, defined as a nonreciprocated attachment to a familiar other, and from whom one derives safe haven and felt security. This paper addresses 2 questions: From an evolutionary perspective, what is the expected way that viewers should perceive and react to attractive and familiar media personae? Second, as human beings evolve socially in a mediated environment, will parasocial attachments be adaptive or will they encourage, as a result of confusion over “real” versus parasocial relationships, some measure of dysfunction? Based on data collected during participant observer ethnography within active fan groups, parasocial attachment to celebrities would be a likely outcome of repeated exposure to those celebrities in visual media. The Media Equation (Reeves & Nass, 1996) states that human perceptions do not differentiate between those that emanate from the real world and those that come from media, helping explain the strong feelings that some media viewers develop for personae only encountered through media. The conclusion is that attachment to celebrities and even celebrity worship itself is to be expected, rather than being an abnormal and an aberrant manifestation of human behavior. Although most case examples of parasocial attachment appeared to support positive functioning, in some cases parasocial attachments can be problematic.

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