Parasocial relationships are one-sided relationships that occur with celebrities outside of an individual’s real social network, usually without the personality’s knowledge. McCutcheon et al. (2002) developed the Celebrity Attitude Scale, which measures items within 3 levels of parasocial relationships: (1) entertainment-social sub-scale, which measures social aspects of parasocial relationships, (2) intense-personal sub-scale, which measures strength of feeling about celebrities, and (3) borderline-pathological sub-scale, which measures levels of uncontrollable feelings and behaviour towards celebrities.
The absorption—addiction model sees an individual’s fascination with a celebrity potentially progressing from admiration for a celebrity’s skills in most people to a delusion of a real-life relationship in individuals dissatisfied with themselves and their own lives. In rare cases involvement in parasocial relationships can become addictive and may involve criminal behaviour such as stalking and physical violence against the celebrity. Alternatively, attachment theory sees a tendency for parasocial relationships to be formed by individuals with insecure childhood attachments. Such individuals have a need for close emotional relationships, but without fear of rejection — as celebrities are not aware of such relationships, they will not ’reject’ the individual. There is also the possibility that parasocial relationships help young people with identity formation, through observation and imitation of positive role models, which celebrities can help provide.
Fig 9.5 Parasocial relationships are intensified by purchasing memorabilia relating to a media personality
McCutcheon & Houran (2003) assessed whether interest in celebrities divides into pathological and non-pathological cases. 600 participants completed a personality test and were interviewed about their level of interest in celebrities. Participants had to rate statements, such as ’If she/he asked me to do something illegal as a favour, I would probably do it’. One-third of participants showed pathological celebrity worship syndrome; 20 per cent were extroverts who followed celebrities for entertainment—social reasons, 10 per cent were neurotic, moody types who had intense attitudes towards celebrities bordering on addiction, while 1 per cent were impulsive, anti-social types, classed as borderline-pathological, who were prepared to hurt themselves or others for their idol. The findings indicate that rather than division into pathological and non-pathological types, there is a sliding scale in which celebrity fans become progressively more fascinated by their idols. Worshipping celebrities does not make people dysfunctional, but it increases the chances of them becoming so.
• McCutcheon et al. (2002) found a negative correlation of −0.4 between the level of education achieved by participants and the degree to which they idolised celebrities, which suggests that celebrity interest is linked to the amount of schooling received.
• Maltby et al. (2004) found those in the entertainment—social category of the celebrity attitude scale were mentally healthy, but those in higher categories often had poor mental health, suggesting that different parasocial levels correlate with different levels of mental stability.
• Kienlen et al. (1997) found 63 per cent of stalkers experienced loss of primary caregivers during childhood, usually due to parental separation, while more than 50 per cent reported childhood emotional, physical or sexual abuse by primary caregivers. This supports the idea that disturbed attachment patterns relate to extreme forms of parasocial relationships.
• MacDougal (2005) believes the adoration given to dead celebrities is like that in charismatic religions, suggesting that religious worship and extreme levels of parasocial relationships fulfil similar needs in some individuals.
Research into stalking may help to understand the behaviour, leading to the formation of effective therapies, such as psychotherapy to address underlying causes, with a role also for drug treatments, to reduce obsessive tendencies.
The idea of attachment being related to parasocial relationships is supported by a key component of attachment theory — that of seeking proximity to the attachment figure. Those in parasocial relationships will often seek ’closeness’ to their admired media personality.
Younger people may be more attracted to celebrities as they have less involvement in face-to-face relationships and spend more time interacting with media sources than older people do.
Research into parasocial relationships often use questionnaires, which can be negatively affected by idealised and socially desirable answers, with findings therefore lacking validity.
Legal interventions, such as trespassing orders, are effective in dealing with celebrity stalkers, but can make stalkers even more obsessive and persecutory towards their target.
Ross & Spinner (2001) indicated that there is variation in attachment styles across significant relationships. If this also applies to parasocial relationships it would mean that linking a specific attachment pattern to such relationships is not valid.
West & Sweeting (2002) recommend media training in schools to highlight the dangers of idolising celebrities, such as developing eating disorders to emulate super-slim body images of some celebrities.