Who is your favorite literary or pop-culture character?
Do you ever think about that person to get you through hard times?
This is another one of those bits of human nature that art and culture have long realized, and the psychological sciences are slowly catching up with. Of course thinking about inspiring people can give you the courage or patience to handle your own ordeals. That’s why people say “What Would Jesus Do?” When I was an undergrad, if I couldn’t muster up motivation for a study or library research session, I would pretend I was a student at Starfleet Academy. Starfleet cadets never lacked for motivation.
I reviewed a new study about this for the British Psychological Society’s research digest earlier this month:
While there is a clear, bright line between real people and imaginary people (I exist, Hermione Granger does not), there is no such line dividing real and imaginary relationships. (As far as you are concerned, dear reader, both Ms. Granger and I are studious women who exist only on the page or screen.) Even in our most intimate personal relationships, we are often interacting with a mental model of our partner or parent, imagining their current state of mind, or how they would respond to whatever situation we find ourselves in. Although operationalised in this article as relationships with fictional characters, other researchers have included connections with real people whom we don’t personally know (artists, politicians, athletes) and historical figures in the spectrum of parasocial relationships.
Parasocial relationships enable us to explore emotional and social realities without the risks inherent in the real world. The authors dryly note: “Readers and viewers are protected from social rejection and the physical danger of threatening circumstances; thus, forming a relationship with an interesting but potentially dangerous character (e.g., Tony Soprano) does not present the same obstacles in the narrative world as it might in the physical world.”
The paper suggests that these parasocial relationships help us envision a bigger, better version of our selves, much as our real-life relationships can do. I credit Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance as Lincoln with giving me the political will to begin the process of getting my mother into assisted living. I just felt so decisive after seeing that movie!
I’ve written before about parasocial relationships (read the whole thing here):
So given how much even our relationships with real people can take place in the imagination, it’s no leap to have a strong relationship with a fictional character. Some people are more inclined to this than others–and, counter to the geeky fanboy/girl Comic Book Guy stereotypes, it’s the people who are overall highly social and relationship-oriented who are most likely to have strong parasocial relationships as well. I tend to be very prone to them, myself: I really was in tears, yesterday, of happiness that dogs I have never met are going to survive and be safe. Certain writers–Dorothy Parker, Anne Sexton–have always felt like sisters to me. When I read Torah, I have extremely vivid images of the Four Matriarchs–if I could draw, I could draw you exactly what they look like to me.
Bringing up the Four Matriarchs, and Jesus, is no accident. Religion has always encouraged parasocial relationships with people you don’t know in the flesh, and uses stories and images to encourage adherents to identify and model themselves after various ancestors, saints, or demigods.