March 21, 2006

"A preference for talk shows and soaps 'is a marker of something suspicious.'"

According to Dr. Joshua Fogel of Brooklyn College of the City University of New York:
He said it's not possible to tell whether the programs somehow contribute to cognitive decline or whether women in the early stages of decline gravitate toward those shows. Preferences for daytime TV could also be a marker of a sedentary, homebound lifestyle, and research suggests that staying physically and socially active can help stave off mental decline....

According to Fogel, a potential explanation rests in the fact that talk shows and soap operas involve so-called "parasocial relationships," where viewers feel a connection to a show's characters or host. Such shows may, for instance, be better able to hold the attention of older women with some cognitive impairment.

"This doesn't mean 'Oprah' is bad for you," Fogel said. However, an older woman's fondness for the show could signal a possible problem, according to the researcher.
It's an interesting study, focusing on cognitive decline in older women. I would like to know which way the causality works. Fogel seems to lean toward thinking that people experiencing mental decline gravitate toward shows that provide "parasocial relationships," rather than to think that the shows cause the mental decline. Researchers have tried for years to prove the TV is bad for you, and they never seem to come up with anything substantial.

Anyway, I'm fascinated by this subject of parasocial relationships. They are quite rampant in our modern world, for all of us, not just old women, don't you think? What are your parasocial relationships? Have they changed over the years? At what point do you think a person has has a parasocial relationship problem? In the future, will there be specialists helping us with our parasocial relationship problems? Will the day come when we will turn on Oprah for a little parasocializing and find the guest is the Dr. Phil of pararelationships?

28 comments:

reader_iam said...

"so-called "parasocial relationships," where viewers feel a connection to a show's characters or host.

It's interesting to ponder this quote fragment both as is and after replacing "show's" with "blog's".

Hmmm.

And isn't one way to think of blogs is as a "print" form of a talk show?

wheeler said...

i've always thought creating parasocial relationships was a goal of good fiction. so that even after you put the book down, you find yourself wondering what that character would think about something or another. if the character is well developed, that new perspective could help you better appreciate the world. i guess this would be a problem if you had more parasocial friends than real friends. or if your parasocial friends lived in john grisham or tom clancy novels. in either case, you would be living in a fantasy world.

Lars said...

I am an older male and am pretty much homebound due to health limitations. My parasocial relationships are online forums, online blogs and TV, in that order.

If Dr Fogel doesn't approve, he can bite me.

Goesh said...

Maury Povich I have reason to believe will be hosting a display of obese children and their parents who willfully let them gorge. I rather doubt the audience will be as kind to these folks as they were to the transvestites and women he recently displayed who who tricked many of us into voting for the wrong real gender of them. This is a bit off subject yet related.

Ann Althouse said...

Reader Iam: Funny, that didn't even cross my mind when I wrote this post. Am I your parasocial relationship?

Wheeler: This, I did think about. I think it's absolutely right to value reading because of the way it lets you be with the great thinkers and artists who have ever lived. I reject the idea that interacting with flesh and blood persons is always better. Most of these interactions are on a lower cognitive level than Oprah. Meanwhile, through reading, you have access to the wisest of minds.

Tim said...

Some recent social scientific studies seem to indicate that parasocial relationships have a way of reducing prejudice, at least against gay people. After watching Six Feet Under, Queer Eye, and Eddie Izzard, students displayed lower levels of prejudice towards homosexuals.

http://www.comm.umn.edu/department/pch/pch1.pdf

Dean said...

Parasocializing. Oye vay! Paranormal. So many near things to be discovered nowadays. I am not fat nor thin so I must be parathin (surely not paradst.) Some would say I am a paralegal though I prefer my school, Roosevelt University, job-title of lawyer's assistant. Would saying price increases be better called parainflation instead of confusing the masses by insisting inflation is caused by businesses?


Para[insert]

Ann Althouse said...

Tim: Great point. Film generally works extremely well to allow us to open up to person we avoid in ordinary life. Staying with your friends and family is the classic way to preserve prejudice.

Ron said...

Isn't any good artistic performance a 'parasocial relationship?' The actor wants you to care about the character, even if the character isn't admirable.

Any talk show host whom an audience did not feel a connection to would soon be an ex-talk show host.

reader_iam said...

Funny, that didn't even cross my mind when I wrote this post.

Ah! So it was unconcious subtext (is that redundant?)! ; )

"Am I your parasocial relationship?

I was thinking a bit more generally and broadly than that. Certainly, I would include you/your blog along with a number (somewhere around 10) of others as being a qualitatively different blog-consuming experience in the universe of the many blogs I follow. I'm sure that that has to do with the parasocial aspect coming into play.

More, I would say that extends to commenters as well--it's fairly obvious when subsets of commenters regularly play off each other, here and everywhere. I'm sure you, and everyone else here, have noticed commenters "conversing" with each other across blogs--sort of like a cocktail party circuit of some type. They carry knowledge of each other across blogs and even develop certain habits of interaction.
(There are probably better examples of this, but I'll use one from my own experience. If you or anyone ever notices someone referring to me as RIA, you can pretty much assume they've been a regular reader of my blog at some point, if not a commenter. [That's not a plug, by the way; it's on hiatus for a while.])

I think this whole parasocial issue also explains why commenters can become so proprietary about the comment sections of other people's blogs. If they were just "reading" them or commenting as an editor, say, would do, it seems to me that they wouldn't get too passionate about other people's deportment. Nor would they bother to defend either host or other commenters! Which they frequently do.

Finally, the other thing that struck me when I originally read your post was--haven't you at some point said somewhere that you would like or at least could see yourself as a talk-show host?

Virtually speaking, and within the limitations of "print," isn't that what you are to a small degree?

Balfegor said...

According to Fogel, a potential explanation rests in the fact that talk shows and soap operas involve so-called "parasocial relationships," where viewers feel a connection to a show's characters or host.

Is there a more elaborated meaning for "parasocial" here, so that it's not basically any non-interactive form of entertainment involving a sense of emotional connection?

That said, I adore soap operas. Not American ones -- I've never seen an American soap -- but Korean and Japanese dramas are my relaxation viewing nowadays. My parents have gotten into them too -- they're quite addictive. Are they rotting our brains out? Or were our brains rotted out already?

Fogel seems lean toward thinking that people experiencing mental decline gravitate toward shows that provide "parasocial relationships," rather than to think that the shows cause the mental decline.

That sounds plausible. I don't think the line of causation really runs from soap opera => mental decline. I expect that those experiencing mental decline may be attracted to soaps and TV generally, since they're easy-enjoyment media. But outside of the US, the audiences for soap operas and soap opera-type entertainment are just so large -- not the daytime TV ghetto they are here -- that I can't imagine they operate as a cause of mental decline. If that were the case, Korea and Japan and much of the rest of East Asia would be populated largely by the feeble-minded, and this is clearly not the case.

Well, maybe not Japan. Their schtick is stupid gameshows.

re: reader_iam
They carry knowledge of each other across blogs and even develop certain habits of interaction.

Haha -- I've seen this. I've been tempted to standardise the names I go by across different blog comments, but the defaults for each site always come up, and it's too much trouble to enter new info.

Dave said...

Ann, interesting thoughts.

I've always thought the idea that TV was somehow inherently bad was a strange one.

At the same time, whenever I am sitting in front of the TV I find myself very agitated, thinking that I ought to be doing something more productive with my time. But this is not the same as saying that TV is bad for you--I just hate procrastination.

Scott Wickstein said...

I always considered myself more of a paragon then parasocial...

AJ Lynch said...

I think I am having one with you. I just did not know it had a name until now.

chezDiva said...

Tim wrote:
"Some recent social scientific studies seem to indicate that parasocial relationships have a way of reducing prejudice, at least against gay people. After watching Six Feet Under, Queer Eye, and Eddie Izzard, students displayed lower levels of prejudice towards homosexuals."

I personally thought that Queer Eye re-inforced the stereotype of the gay male. I think the stereotyping did little to reduce prejudicial thinking, it may have increased it as viewers thought all gay men are obssessed with decorating, beauty and fashion. However I do agree with you and Ann that challenging one's belief systems is the only way to break through prejudice and that can only be achieved by seeking knowledge and truth outside of your comfort zone. I just don't see that parasocial relationships are the key. We as humans gravitate toward people, characters and issues that mirror our own.
Therefore, I would think that parasocial relationships would exist to mirror our own believe systems and not to challenge them.

reader_iam wrote:

" I think this whole parasocial issue also explains why commenters can become so proprietary about the comment sections of other people's blogs."

Are these commenters defending the blog's author from an onslaught of nasty trolls or are the commenters fervently defending their own belief systems from a commenter who believes differently than they do? Or is it a combination of the two?

bill said...

"parasocial relationships," where viewers feel a connection to a show's characters or host.

I keep reading this as parasitic. Which does not have to be a bad thing. Many parasites provide valuable services for the host.

SteveR said...

"A preference for talk shows and soaps 'is a marker of something suspicious.'"

Not that I completely understand why but I've always been a bit suspicious of the Oprah cult.

tiggeril said...

So, if I read blogs but rarely comment, does that mean I'm parantisocial?

FXKLM said...

I keep reading this as parasitic. Which does not have to be a bad thing. Many parasites provide valuable services for the host.

I think that's a symbiote. A parasite is harmful to the host by definition.

Gaius Arbo said...

Parantisocial describes some commenters very, very well, indeed!

Eli Blake said...

Funny how they focus on the indulgences of women.

But nothing about men who think the world begins and ends with sports (or even worse, professional wrestling), and could tell you pretty much everything there is to know about Darrel Waltrip or Hulk Hogan.

Karl said...

AA,

I'm sure you've already connected the axons, but your post calls to mind DFW's essay on television and the modern American writer in "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again". Speaking of, I didn't much care for the piece until after I read the piece on David Lynch that followed...I wonder why that is.

-kd

Gundovald said...

I don't know what parasocial means. But it should have the word, "bloggers" in the definition. What makes anyone think that spending time on a computer communicating with people that you don't know and never will, is anything but parasocial. So, why is that bad? The alternative is to keep re-running some internal monologue over and over again in your head. At least this is a dumping ground.

Freeman Hunt said...

I was going to type that I agree that blogs are likely to result in parasocial relationships, but is it still a parasocial relationship if there is interaction between the host (blogger) and viewer (reader)?

reader_iam said...

Chezdiva:

Are these commenters defending the blog's author from an onslaught of nasty trolls or are the commenters fervently defending their own belief systems from a commenter who believes differently than they do? Or is it a combination of the two?

I was thinking of either defending the blog's authors or other commenters (especially regulars) from either trolls or from someone who's not a troll but maybe just crossed some sort of line in tone, or misunderstood something, or whatever.

However, I also think your second scenario has validity as well. (I don't know that it applies so much to Ann's blog as some others I can think of, only because the commenters here aren't particularly monolithic in their opinions to begin with, so I don't think most commenters "expect" one particular certain stance, from all other commenters at least.) I think there are "commenting" communities that tend share a point of view, if not specific opinions on specific topics, and who disagree are sort of "crashing" a private party. I'm not criticizing that--I think it's fine. (No one-size-fits-all, after all.)

And sure, no doubt there are times when it's a mixture of both, as you suggest. Do you think it might have to do with the type of post or kind of topic?

Balfegor said...

is it still a parasocial relationship if there is interaction between the host (blogger) and viewer (reader)?

I think it's still different, in that the discourse is flatter, in a way. In usual social interaction, communication is not solely through language, or even through body langauge and the like, but takes place in a context of real-world relationships and calculations, and you get a lot more indirect feedback in a lot more ways. For some people, blogging may involve (or even require) that same level of engagement, particularly when they blog under their own name, but at least for most commenters (e.g. myself), I don't think this is really so. Some of the commenters here probably are personally acquainted with Prof. Althouse, and even I share some common acquaintances with her, but by and large, those considerations are irrelevant here.

I don't know whether this factor -- the relationship-embeddedness of communications, that is -- is really key in determining whether something is social or parasocial, but it's surely significant somehow. Talking with people over the internet using a fake name seems to me obviously different from talking with a friend in the real world -- or even online.

Palladian said...

Blogs and forums aren't para social, they are social. I don't know in exactly what sense the prefix "para" is being used with the word "parasocial". Is it "distinct from, but analogous to" like in "paraphrase" or "beyond" as in "paranormal"? Or is it the medical "denoting a disordered function or faculty"? Maybe the third. But blogs and fora are often two way conversations, which is social because it is an interaction. I think "parasocial" is being used to describe a one-way relationship between a viewer and a person on television. But I don't even believe that these sorts of "relationships" are necessarily a bad thing, as long as the person involved continues to understand the fictive nature of the "relationship". Television can provide not only mental stimulation (imagine!) but in some small way help stave off loneliness especially in older people whose social interactions are limited.

Brian O'Connell said...

Any form of communication, whether one-way, two-way, or within a group, is inherently social. It's interesting how we can perceive and form relationships across time and space through various media like books, tv, the phone, and the internet. These things work mostly because we're able to successfully socialize through them, even though there's less actual communication going on through them than in the original face-to-face kind. But people can have rich social interactions in as limited a medium as texting, so we seem to be built to make the most of limited channels.

If an Oprah-type parasocial relationship is one where the communication is all one-way, then this is no different from those we have with authors of books or their characters, or indeed with Jesus Christ (if you do have a personal relationship with him).

It's harmful only if it precludes a person from having beneficial social relationships, like with a spouse or children.