People with insecure attachment are more likely to form illusory, parasocial relationships with TV characters

According to findings from the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, the way we engage with fictional characters is in part a reflection of our attachment styles. The study revealed that people who are high in anxious or avoidant attachment are more likely to form illusory reciprocal relationships with their favorite TV characters, suggesting that bonding with story characters can help relieve attachment insecurity.

Connecting to a great story through a book, a TV show, or another medium can mentally transport us to a whole new scene, offering an escape from reality. According to previous psychology work, the extent that people tend to get immersed in a story can be predicted by attachment style. Study authors Marina Rain and Raymond A. Mar wondered whether the tendency to become engrossed with a story character can also be predicted by attachment.

The early bond between an infant and their caregiver influences the way a child grows to view and respond to relationships in later life — something psychologists refer to as attachment styles. Rain and Mar proposed that bonding with story characters offers a way to appease insecure attachment since stories allow people to form close bonds with fictional others without worry of rejection. The researchers specifically opted to study whether the anxious and avoidant attachment styles might influence the extent that people identify with characters and develop illusory relationships with them.

In a first study among 150 college students, the researchers had participants name a favorite TV character and then answer questions about their feelings toward that character and their relationship with the character. The students also completed assessments of anxious and avoidant attachment.

It was found that participants who scored higher in either anxious or avoidant attachment also scored higher in parasocial interaction — the tendency to feel an illusory reciprocal relationship with a character while consuming the media. Moreover, those with high attachment anxiety had a greater tendency to form a parasocial relationship with their favorite character — an illusory, friendship-like relationship that extends beyond the consumption of the media (e.g., ‘I think my favorite TV personality is like an old friend.’). Those high in avoidance, on the other hand, identified with their favorite character to a greater extent.

Importantly, these effects remained after controlling for the personality traits of extraversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, and neuroticism — suggesting a unique role for attachment style.

The authors took these findings as evidence that the way people engage with characters is aligned with their social experiences in the real world. For example, people with attachment anxiety tend to crave warmth and attention from their intimate relationships, and parasocial relationships might provide a safe avenue for them to achieve this. People with avoidant attachment, on the other hand, crave distance from relationships and may find solace in identifying with characters that enjoy independence and autonomy.

A second study offered evidence for this idea that engaging with story characters can assuage attachment concerns. This time, participants completed measures of attachment style and personality — not just for themselves, but for a favorite TV character. It was found that respondents who were more anxiously attached had favorite characters who were more invested in interpersonal relationships, suggesting that people with this style of attachment prefer characters who are nurturing and supportive of intimate partners. Respondents who were more avoidantly attached had favorite characters who were more autonomous, suggesting that people with this style of attachment prefer to identify with characters who boost their feelings of independence.

Rain and Mar conclude that attachment styles seem to impact the way we interact with stories and their characters. Future studies could use experiments to study whether character identification appeases certain concerns associated with attachment insecurity.

The study, “Adult attachment and engagement with fictional characters”, was authored by Marina Rain and Raymond A. Mar.

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