Tech & Science dictionary

parasocial relationship

[ par-uh-soh-shuhl ri-ley-shuhn-ship ]

What does parasocial relationship mean?

The term parasocial relationship refers to a relationship that a person imagines having with another person whom they do not actually know, such as a celebrity or a fictional character.

This often involves a person feeling as though they have a close, intimate connection with someone whom they have never met due to closely following that person (or character) in media, such as TV shows, videos, podcasts, etc. For example, a child may feel as though they are friends with a fictional character due to frequently watching the character on a show, or a fan may feel as though they have a relationship with a pop star due to their emotional investment in the star’s career and life.

Parasocial relationships are often discussed in the context of social media and other online platforms that allow celebrities to directly “interact” with fans and followers (or appear that they do).

Though parasocial relationships are often considered common, they may be considered unhealthy when they become extreme enough to interfere with real-life relationships or daily life.

Related words

relationship goals, power couple

Where does parasocial relationship come from?

The term parasocial relationship is credited to sociologists Donald Horton and Richard Wohl, who used it in their 1957 article “Mass Communication and Para-Social Interaction.” The article analyzed a study involving people who felt as though they had intimate bonds with radio and television personalities despite never having met them.

Horton and Wohl referred to these one-sided relationships as para-social relationships. The para- in parasocial (now typically spelled without a hyphen) is commonly used in modern scientific terms to designate an object or activity auxiliary to or derivative of the one denoted by the base word, especially when it’s considered abnormal or defective (as in paranoia).

Horton and Wohl’s article stated that parasocial relationships are common, but that they can sometimes lead to pathological behavior, such as obsession and stalking, especially in people who lack real-life relationships.

In 2021, the term parasocial relationship gained more widespread awareness and use when many social media users used the term in criticism of other users who had been commenting on the personal life of comedian John Mulaney. Specifically, users critical of the negative reactions to revelations about his personal life argued that such reactions were rooted in a parasocial relationship. Use of the term increased as people used it to discuss the relationship between fans and other celebrities, such as pop stars and social media influencers.

Examples of parasocial relationship

Me, chastising people online for creating parasocial relationships with celebrities when I have entire backstories for my neighbors' dogs.
@1followernodad, September 8, 2021
Clearly, there’s nothing new about these parasocial bonds. We’re just exposed to them a whole lot more because of how vocal people are about their interests on social media.
Brittany Wong, Huffington Post, May 26, 2021

Who uses parasocial relationship?

The term parasocial relationship originated as a term used in psychological research. It is now commonly used in the context of pop culture and perceived relationships with celebrities.

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