Although by no means a new area of research, the subject of parasocial relationships has suddenly become quite topical again in recent months. For the uninitiated, a parasocial relationship is one we share with a fictional character, rather than a real person. The sudden resurgence of interest probably tells us a great deal about how we live our lives today and our retreat into the digital world as real-life becomes ever more grim!
A particular trend has been the growth of personality tests that liken us not to some stereotype determined by traits and states but, rather, according to how we compare to someone who doesn’t really exist anyway. Fans of the St Trinians movies, for instance, may be classified according to whether they are “geeks”, “chavs”, “emos”, “posh totty” and the like. The underlying logic is that these fictional types not only classify us as individuals, they also provide considerable insight into the role models we draw on to help us decide what to do in particular situations and to generally help us lead our lives. It’s an interesting idea, but does it actually hold true?
A recent paper in the journal Self and Identity seeks to answer this question and provides at least a degree of supporting evidence. In a series of experiments, students presented with a series of situations (e.g. taking part in a competition) were asked not only what they would do, but who they would look to in deciding how to respond. While close friends and family still represent the main role models in our lives, it seems that fictional characters we like (and often even those we don’t like at all!) still represent better sources of behavioural inspiration than casual acquaintances and work colleagues. Interesting!
So, if I was seeking a fictional role model, who would I choose? Well, the clue is in the accompanying picture but, just in case you are still in doubt, here’s a trailer for the greatest TV programme ever which just happens to be returning to BBC1 this coming Saturday evening!