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Parasocial Interaction

Parasocial interaction is a key construct for understanding the effects of the entertainment-education strategy as well as different commercial productions. Researchers of entertainment-education initiatives have pointed out that the parasocial relationship between the viewers and the characters can influence the emulation of the desired modeled behaviors. It can be a facilitator to promote attitudinal and behavioral changes (Papa et. al. 2000; Sood & Rogers, 2000).

The concept of parasocial interaction first elaborated by Horton & Wohl (1956), describes a type of interaction between an audience member and characters represented in mass media as if it is a usual social relationship. However, unlike face-to-face interactions, parasocial interactions are unilateral, controlled by the performer, and not subject to reciprocal development, according to the theorists. Initially, Sood & Rogers (2000) explain, parasocial interaction stems from the concept of “pseudo-gemeinschaft”, which is defined as a simulation of interest to another individual in order to manipulate the other person more successfully (Rogers, 1994). It is a fictitious friendship between a person from the audience and a media character. Studying the effects of a 1943 successful 18-hour U.S. War Bond radio marathon, Merton, Fiske & Curtis (1971) conclude that the popular singer that led the broadcast is responsible for generating in the audience feelings of reassurance and a need to believe. Merton and colleagues believe that people who are alienated and estranged from society need a sense of reassurance, which is fulfilled by a dedicated and sincere portrayal of the singer. Therefore, in its inception, parasocial interaction originates in the field of psychiatry, and is viewed as an abnormal behavior, derived from feelings of loneliness, fear, inadequate leisure activities, and limited social interaction (Sood & Rogers, 2000; Giles, 2002).

Studies of parasocial interaction in the context of mass media communication research are not intensified until the introduction of the uses and gratifications theory in the 1970’s (Giles, 2000). These new lines of research encountered a different interpretation for the parasocial behavior, which is no longer viewed as a problem of solitude, but rather as a normal occurrence with key long-term effects (Nordlund, 1978). As explained by Myrowitz (1985) audiences view television characters as members of their social group, as if they were their friends:

Even among `average' people, the para-social relationship takes its place among daily live interactions with friends, family, and associates. Indeed, `real' friends often discuss the antics of their para-social friends (p. 120).

Most recent studies of parasocial interaction have been conducted in the psychometric tradition of uses and gratifications research, along with other behavioral measures to predict media use (Giles, 2002). Mark Levy (1979) is responsible for important developments in the research of parasocial interaction. Levy studies the relationship between older adults and local television news. He conductes focus group interviews, concerned mainly with viewers’ parasocial interaction with newscasters. Then he uses this data to elaborate a 42 item psychometric scale to measure the strength of parasocial interaction with local newscasters. Subsequently, this scale is correlated with a number of demographic variables in a sample of viewers in a larger age range. Some of the items that fit the category of “most strongly agree” are, “ I compare my own ideas with those of the newscasters” and “When the newscasters joke around with each other it makes the program easier to watch”.



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