Virtual and Parasocial Relationships

Self-Disclosure and Virtual Relationships

  • self-disclosure strengthens face-to-face relationships
  • we can assume that computer-mediated-communication (relationships) are also strengthened by self-disclosure
  • Reduced Cues Theory - Sproull and Kiesler
  • Hyperpersonal Model - Walther
  • Absence of Gating - McKenna and Bargh
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Reduced Cues Theory

  • Sproull and Kiesler
  • impersonal
  • lacks cues of emotional state
  • blunt/aggressive responses
  • de-individuation or abnormal activity
    • leads to disinhibition in relating to others
  • leads to a person not wanting to disclose any information about themselves
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Hyperpersonal Model

  • Walther
  • selective self-presentation
  • manipulate replies and self-image
  • high excitement vs trust levels mean CMC relationships usually end quickly 
  • awareness of anonymity (with no care for dishonesty or judgement) - leads to hyperdishonesty or hyperhonesty
  • makes a person want to disclose more, as they think that what they put out on the internet will never get back to their real-life person
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Absence of Gating

  • McKenna and Bargh
  • more gates in face-to-face relationships
  • because CMC relationships do not have these gates (e.g looks, stammers, etc), these relationships are more likely to have deeper and more frequent self-disclosure
  • gives way to false identities
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Evaluation of Virtual Relationships


  • McKenna and Bargh - anxious people reveal more online and 70% of anxious peoples' CMC romances lasted longer than 2 years
  • Whitty and Joinson - in CMC interactions, direct, intimate questions are asked (not face-to-face small talks)


  • acrostics and emojis descrivbe emotional state
  • relationships take place online and offline
  • different types of CMC (dating sites, social media, forums) - we expect to meet up FtF with dating sites, so will disclose less than on social media
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Parasocial Relationships

  • one-sided relationships
  • one side expends a lot of emotional energy, and the other does not know of their existence
  • no chance of rejection

Likely when:

  • viewer is female
  • viewer is shy/lonely
  • viewer's perception is that their idol is attractive
  • viewer's perception is that their idol is real
  • viewer's perception is that their idol is similar to them

Three Theories:

  • Maltby's Levels Theory
  • McCutcheon's Absorption-Addiction Model
  • Ainsworth's Attachment Theory
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Levels Theory

  • Maltby

Entertainment-Social Level

  • gossip, celebrity discussion
  • share publically, with little investment (e.g small talk)

Intense-Personal Level

  • intense, compulsive feelings towards a celebrity
  • share with like-minded friends

Borderline-Pathological Level

  • uncontrollable/strange behaviours and fantasies
  • extreme, costly and possibly illegal activities
  • will do anything to make contact with their idol
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McCutcheon's Absorption-Addiction Model

  • having a parasocial relationship allows someone to escape from reality
  • they may have unfulfilling relationships/everday life, a weak sense of identity, or may be psychologically unstable
  • association between poor mental health and parasocial relationships
  • intense involvements are usually triggered by life events
  • enables a sense of identity


  • seeking fulfilment in a celebrity
  • identifying with celebrities on a personal level
  • pre-occupied with their existence


  • need to sustain their commitment by feeling a stronger and closer involvement (like a drug)
  • extreme behaviours and delusional thinking (escalates through a series of events)
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Ainsworth's Attachment Theory

  • attachment difficulties in early life - set up for later abnormal relationships via the Internal Working Models
  • insecure-resistants are needy and clingy, and fear rejection or breakdown of a relationship (so, parasocial relationships are a good compromise)
  • insecure-avoidants find it hard to develop relationships (so, get into parasocial relationships because they can tailor it to themselves)
  • secures have fulfilling relationships (so, tend to not form parasocial relationships)
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Parasocial Relationships Evaluation


  • no culture bias of theories - parasocials exist worldwide
    • Schmid and Klimmt: parasociality towards Harry Potter was across many cultures
  • Maltby: correlation between celebrity worshipping and psychological instability


  • self-report techniques and correlational analysis makes the theories lack validity
    • people conform to social desirability bias during questionnaires/interviews, and may not have mental health problems before the parasocial relationship forms
  • models are not comprehensive, as they only explain WHY, not HOW they form 
  • McCutcheon: found no correlation between insecure attachments and forming a parasocial relationships (although they were less opposed to stalking)
  • alternative research suggests that lonely and shy people are less likely to form parasocial relationships (embarrassed) - extroverts = determined to have celebrities within their circle and feel embarrassed a lot less easily
  • many people of all groups formed parasocial relationships with members of The Beatles and One Direction - unlikely to all be insecures (make up lesser proportion of the population)
  • attachement may be a better theory than Maltby or McCutcheon's theories
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