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TV Characters Might Be Fictional, But Your Relationship With Them Isn't

Most of us have experienced the one-sided yet strangely emotional connection that can be made with a fictional character on a TV show, in a movie, or in a book. These are called "parasocial relationships," a term coined by psychologists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl in 1956.

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Most of us know these relationships aren't real (at least not in the traditional sense). Still, research has shown the surprising ways our brains may fail to distinguish between parasocial relationships and the relationships you have with people you know personally.

A 2008 study set out to study "social facilitation." That's the phenomenon that makes people perform better on simple tasks and worse on complex ones when they're around others. Researchers wondered, would social facilitation happen when people viewed images of their favorite television characters? Sure enough, it did: the more they liked the character, the more their performance on various tasks reflected that the character might as well be in the room with them. Likewise, studies have shown that people anticipate having the same negative emotions during "parasocial breakups" — that is, a character leaving their favorite show — as during the end of a real friendship.

This relates to what psychologists call the "social surrogacy" hypothesis, which suggests that parasocial relationships can actually substitute for real ones in important ways. A 2008 study in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology found that people tend to watch their favorite TV shows when they're lonely, and that those shows actually help them feel less lonely. It also found that even simply thinking about a favorite show can keep people from having low self-esteem and experiencing bad moods or feelings of rejection.

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