Friends in books_ The influence of character

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Oct 16, 2017 - media contexts, research on PSR with book characters has been neglected so far. .... relevant in the context of books—a medium that is famous, among other things, ..... Another aspect of the reading experience defined by Appel et al. ..... indirect effect is not zero is higher than 95% and thus the indirect ...

Poetics 65 (2017) 12–23

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Friends in books: The influence of character attributes and the reading experience on parasocial relationships and romances


Nicole Liebers , Holger Schramm University of Würzburg, Media and Business Communication, Institute Human-Computer-Media, Oswald-Külpe-Weg 82, 97074 Würzburg, Germany



Keywords: Parasocial relationship Parasocial romance Reading experience Media character Book

While studies on parasocial relationship (PSR) have been conducted for nearly 60 years in various media contexts, research on PSR with book characters has been neglected so far. To close this gap, this study takes a first step in investigating the fundamental connections between different dimensions of the reading experience and the constitution of PSR, especially parasocial romance (PSROM). A survey of 493 adults indicates that ease of cognitive access enables PSR, mediated by reading pleasure and the feeling of presence. In addition, the degree of reality helps to establish a PSR, mediated by the personal relevance of the story. Moreover, the perceived similarity between a reader and a book character, and the attractiveness of his or her physical and mental character influence the development of a PSR, whereas only physical attractiveness influences a PSROM.

1. Introduction A book, a radio broadcast, the current blockbuster movie, the latest computer game—while these entertainment offerings may be as different as can be, they are all usually constructed around media characters that enable media users to feel intimately connected to the story and to develop an emotional bond through sharing the thrill of the character’s adventure. Various scientific concepts have been established concerning the processes and relationships between media characters and media users. One key concept is parasocial interactions and relationships. A parasocial interaction (PSI) refers to the interaction between a media character and a media user that occurs strictly during media reception; in contrast, a parasocial relationship (PSR) is not confined to the interaction during reception, but may become something similar to a real or almost real relationship (Schramm, 2008). The majority of investigations of parasocial phenomena assume that these interactions and relationships are of an amicable nature (e.g., Auter & Moore, 1993; Colliander & Dahlén, 2011; Eyal & Cohen,2006). However, since 2010, and particularly during the last two years, there has been a trend towards including not only amicable but also romantic facets of parasocial phenomena (e.g., Driesmans, Vandenbosch, & Eggermont, 2016; Erickson & Cin, 2017), with the assumption that these romantic attachments are marked by emotional, physical, and sexual attraction (Tukachinsky, 2010). Although recent conceptualizations of romantic parasocial phenomena are theoretically equal, they use different labels (cf. Tukachinsky, 2010, versus Adam & Sizemore, 2013). In the current study, the term “parasocial romance” (PSROM), originally introduced by Adam and Sizemore (2013), is used to describe PSR that move beyond amicable and include emotional, physical, and sexual attraction. During the 60 years since Horton and Wohl (1956) first introduced the term “parasocial”, many studies on PSI and PSR have been conducted on various types of media characters and using different kinds of media, such as movies and computer games. However, little research has been conducted on either PSI or PSR in the context of books. Books tell their stories predominantly with written words and do not normally use sounds or moving images, as movies or computer games do, for example. Hence, they differ in terms of information coding (visual versus audiovisual) ⁎

Corresponding author. E-mail addresses: [email protected] (N. Liebers), [email protected] (H. Schramm). Received 28 October 2016; Received in revised form 19 September 2017; Accepted 1 October 2017 Available online 16 October 2017 0304-422X/ © 2017 Elsevier B.V. All rights reserved.

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and modality (verbal versus pictorial). Research on information processing indicates the predominance of multimodal and multicodal media, and assumes that media such as TV affect information processing in a positive way, leading to a higher level of elaboration compared with books (e.g. Mayer, 2001). If this is the case, then it would seem unwise to merely transfer the insights into parasocial phenomenon gained in the context of television to the context of books, because people process the information from the two types of media differently. Furthermore, while PSI have been investigated in connection with other single dimensions of reception (e.g., the realism of the storyline or the experience of presence), the interrelationships between these different dimensions have never been compared, nor have they been compared with longer-term constructs, like PSR, that extend beyond a single experience of reception. Do readers form more intensive PSR when they perceive the plot of the book to be more realistic, because it seems to be more similar and relevant to their own life? Do reading flow and pleasure predict the feeling of presence, and does this in turn enhance the intensity of PSR? Questions such as these have not been answered to date, and yet doing so would provide meaningful insights into how parasocial phenomena develop and which factors matter in the long-term bond between media characters and the audience. Finally, studies to date have generally not explored the full range of possible relationships between the audience and media characters. In most cases, PSI and PSR have been investigated in the context of positive, amicable relationships, while neglecting other kinds of PSR such as negative or romantic relationships (Schramm & Hartmann, 2008; Tukachinsky, 2010). Recent studies have tended to include a wider range of parasocial phenomena and moved beyond solely studying amicable PSI/PSR. This is particularly relevant in the context of books—a medium that is famous, among other things, for giving the audience private insights into the thoughts and motivations of the protagonists. In doing so, books generally offer the audience a greater chance to reconstruct a media character’s motivations and feelings than films can offer. This might strengthen the way we feel about a media character, regardless of whether the feeling is amicable, hateful, or romantic. Studying the different facets of PSR in the context of books could thus provide promising insights into the development and their influencing factors of parasocial phenomena in general. To address these research gaps, we conducted the first quantitative study of PSR in the context of book characters, and examined the interrelationships among different dimensions of media reception with PSR and PSROM to provide a richer and more nuanced perspective on parasocial phenomena. 2. Theory 2.1. The parasocial phenomenon The term “parasocial” was initially used by Horton and Wohl (1956) to describe media users’ social responses to media characters. Their study is regarded as the starting point of research on PSI and PSR. According to their original definition of PSI, the interactions between media users and media characters are similar to the face-to-face interactions between two real individuals. PSI can be understood as a mediated form of social interaction, but one that is missing mutuality. Real social interactions feature bidirectional communication between individuals, whereas PSI is one-sided and not dialectic, because the media character controls the PSI, which makes reciprocal development of the relationship impossible (Schramm, 2008). The concept of PSI was later extended to PSR, which represent a more long-term response to media characters. Whereas PSI is limited to the interpersonal interaction between a media character and a media user, and can therefore only take place during media reception, PSR may exceed this limitation and lead to cross-situational relationships between a media user and a media character. Hence, unlike PSI, PSR can endure beyond a single exposure and develop into a long-term relationship between two individuals, beyond their face-to-face interaction (Schramm & Hartmann, 2008). Another similarity between parasocial and social relationships is that both types start with a first interaction followed by an initial relationship. This relationship influences the subsequent second interaction, which influences in turn the further development of the relationship and so forth (Schramm & Hartmann, 2008). Furthermore, the psychological processes in parasocial and social relationships are often similar (e.g., Cohen, 2004). Nevertheless, there are some clear differences between parasocial and social relationships. Social relationships are often accompanied by strong feelings of obligation, effort, or responsibility, whereas such feelings do not apply to PSR because the media user can terminate the relationship whenever he or she wants to. Finally, in a PSR, the media user has the potential to choose from a massive sample of media characters. This one-sided selection process is unusual in real-life relationships. Therefore, unless a media character and media user communicate one-to-one, their relationship will normally remain parasocial (Giles, 2002). To date, PSR has been investigated predominantly in the context of amicable PSR. Regardless of the research foci and the reference media frame, the majority of studies have investigated PSR with favorite media characters, such as TV newscasters (e.g., Levy, 1979), comedians (e.g., Turner, 1993), athletes (e.g., Hartmann, Stuke, & Daschmann, 2008), and TV stars in general (e.g., Madison, Porter, & Greule, 2016). The resulting PSR were thus interpreted as amicable relationships resembling social relationships with friends. Nevertheless, real social relationships potentially involve more facets than just amicable ones. Reflecting this reality, Tukachinsky (2010) subdivided PSR into para-friendship and para-love. Whereas para-friendship includes feelings such as commitment to and support for a PSR, para-love is marked by more romantic feelings, including physical and emotional attraction. Although here we use the same distinction, we use the terms differently to Tukachinsky (2010), with PSR denoting para-friendship and parasocial romance (PSROM) denoting para-love. We decided not to adopt the labels introduced by Tukachinsky (2010) because “para-love” does not perfectly fit the idea of the parasocial phenomenon we investigated. The idea of PSROM refers to having a crush on a media character, including feeling emotionally and/or physically attracted to and having passionate thoughts about him or her, whereas the term “love” represents a longer-term relationship and deep affection, which may occur, but not necessarily, in the context of a parasocial phenomenon. Hence, we—along with several other authors (e.g., Aubrey, Click, & Behm-Morawitz, 2016; 13

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Erickson & Cin, 2017), and even Tukachinsky herself (Tukachinsky & Dorros, 2017)—decided not to use “para-love” to describe the construct we investigated. There is still no widely accepted term for this phenomenon, although the terms used do not differ considerably in a theoretical sense (cf. Erickson & Cin, 2017 versus Adam & Sizemore, 2013); hence, we had to choose between several existing terms. We chose to use “parasocial romance” because this term, originally introduced by Adam and Sizemore (2013), best represents the study’s definition and operationalization. Despite the increasing interest in PSROM, only a handful of studies have examined it to date. An inevitable first step in the empirical investigation of PSROM was the development of a measurement tool, and two such instruments have been developed (Erickson & Cin, 2017; Tukachinsky, 2010). Moreover, previous studies have found evidence that personal characteristics such as gender, relationship status, and attachment belongingness needs are linked to the manifestation of romantic parasocial phenomena (e.g., Aubrey et al., 2016; Greenwood & Long, 2011). Studies have examined not only how the development of romantic parasocial phenomena depends on audience characteristics, but also their consequences; for example, the link between the reception of a romantic movie and idealistic romantic beliefs (Driesmans et al., 2016). Briefly summarized, research to date has identified some of the personal characteristics that influence the development of romantic parasocial phenomena, developed ways of measuring them, and hinted at some of their consequences. However, we do not know which or to what extent character attributes such as attractiveness matter in the development of romantic parasocial phenomena. This leads to some particularly interesting questions when considering character attributes that have already been linked to amicable parasocial phenomena. Is physical attractiveness in PSROM even more important than in PSR? Is perceived similarity in PSROM as relevant as it is in amicable PSR, or do opposites attract more here? To our knowledge, no study has yet investigated character attributes in general or actively compared PSR and PSROM from this perspective. 2.2. Parasocial research in different media types The concept of PSR initially focused on the interactions and relationships between media users and media characters in passive audio-visual materials such as television and film. Rubin, Perse, and Powell (1985), for example, investigated the connection between PSR and loneliness in the context of local television news viewing, and Cohen (2004) examined the role of attachment styles and relationship intensity on the consequences of a parasocial break-up from a favorite television character. However, more recently, PSR research has moved into other types of media such as radio broadcasts, computer games, and social media. In three such examples, Savage and Spence (2014) examined how PSR with radio hosts is affected by the hosts’ credibility; Papa et al. (2000) investigated parasocial phenomenon in terms of social learning during a radio soap; and Bowman, Schultheiss, and Schumann (2012) examined how PSR influenced pro- and anti-social motivations to play online role-playing games. Previous studies have also focused on PSR and social media; for example, Chen (2014) examined PSR on YouTube, while Powell, Richmond, and Williams (2011) investigated social media in the context of PSR and political campaigns. Other studies were not limited to a single medium. Typically, such studies have investigated PSR in terms of a media user’s favorite media character, without specifying the media. Giles and Maltby (2004), for example, investigated adolescents’ relationship between autonomy, attachment, and interest in celebrities. To do so, they surveyed adolescents and asked them to think of their favorite celebrity without specifying the media context in which they had contact with that celebrity. Hence, although the study included different media types, this was not the object of the investigation. Similarly, Schmid and Klimmt (2011) studied PSR with Harry Potter characters. Even though the story of Harry Potter is mostly known through Rowlings’ books, Schmid and Klimmt’s (2011) study covered different countries and was not limited to readers, but included all media users who had read at least one of the book or seen at least one Harry Potter movie. However, although books have sometimes been included, no quantitative studies on PSI or PSR have limited their focus to books, noted by Liebers and Schramm (2017). This is true despite the fact that former studies have found no reason that PSI and PSR should not occur in the context of print media in the same way as in other media types. Book characters occupy center stage and readers bond with them in just the same way that TV viewers bond with TV characters, by developing sympathy, sharing the protagonist’s pain, and sometimes even falling in love with their hero, just like TV viewers. Therefore, it is logical to assume that parasocial effects also occur in books, although with differences in information processing. Hence, the transfer of findings on parasocial phenomena made by previous studies in other media contexts—although conceivable—is questionable. Does physical attractiveness still affect the intensity of PSR when visual cues are missing? Do readers assume and imagine the physical attractiveness of media characters that they only read about? Do other factors, such as the complexity of a book, become important? To answer these and other questions in the future, a wide range of studies, including surveys and experiments, is needed. The first step is to investigate whether the concept of parasocial phenomena can indeed be transferred to books. 2.3. Parasocial relationships and the experience of reception Hartmann, Schramm, and Klimmt (2004) assumed, in their two-level model of PSI (for a summary in English, see Klimmt, Hartmann, & Schramm, 2006), that PSI and PSR influence each other mutually, and, more precisely, that every PSR is the result of a previous PSI; this PSR is then the foundation of any further PSI, which in turn leads to another PSR. This causality loop implies that PSI and media reception itself influence PSR. In addition to PSI, other mechanisms take place during media reception; one example is the excitement that TV viewers feel when watching a thriller. These mechanisms can also influence each other. For example, Auter, Ashton, and Soliman (2008) found the degree of reality to have an effect on PSI; hence, the entire process of reception can have an effect on PSR. 14

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To date, no studies have explicitly related how a PSR, which is more of a long-term phenomenon, is related to the dimensions of reception, which are inevitably restricted to the short term. Some initial research has, however, investigated how single dimensions of reception relate to PSI or PSR. For example, Rubin and Perse (1987) found a positive correlation between the intensity of PSR and the degree of reality; Seung-A (2010) showed a connection between social presence and PSI. The first aim of the present study is to link the experience of media reception with PSR—a phenomenon that is not limited to the single interaction that occurs during reception, but that may extend over a period similar to that of a real relationship (Schramm, 2008). Which aspects of the reading experience affect parasocial relationships? (RQ1). Appel, Koch, Schreier, and Groeben (2002) assumed that the dimensions of reception influence each other in books as well as in other media forms. These authors coined the term “ease of cognitive access”, a construct that they considered a requirement for any further cognitive experience of reception; i.e., easy cognitive access (among other things) is necessary to experience pleasure while reading. Consider the following example: you have just started to read a book by your favorite author, but you must concentrate very hard to understand the meaning, because he or she decided to include a loanword in every second sentence. You would probably not enjoy the book as much as you would if the book had been written in a way that is easy to understand. Hence, the current study’s first hypothesis is (H1a): easier cognitive access entails more intense reading pleasure. Appel et al. (2002) expected ease of cognitive access and the resulting reading pleasure to be especially important to the predominantly cognitive dimensions of the reading experience, such as presence. Presence describes a psychological state in which the media user does not perceive (or only partially perceives) events as being mediated (Minski, 1980). Presence has mainly been investigated in the context of new media, such as augmented virtual reality, and is often taken to mean spatial presence; i.e., a sense of being physically present. Nonetheless, as presence also involves cognitive and affective processes, this phenomenon may also occur in less immersive media, such as books (Schubert & Crusius, 2002). Thus, we assume (H1b): more intense reading pleasure entails a more intense experience of presence. Appel et al. (2002) and Lombard and Ditton (1997) considered the experience of presence and PSR to be closely connected: the more present media users feel in a story, the closer they are to the media characters and the more PSI and PSR resemble real social interactions and relationships. Consequently, we propose our third hypothesis (H1c): a more intense experience of presence entails a more intense parasocial relationship. Accordingly, the fourth hypothesis (H1d) assumes that ease of cognitive access has a positive indirect effect on the intensity of PSR, mediated by the sequential enhancement of reading pleasure and feeling of presence. Another aspect of the reading experience defined by Appel et al. (2002) is personal relevance. The personal relevance of a storyline can influence how people receive the story, which in turn affects other dimensions of reception. Specifically, the degree of reality of the storyline has often been associated with personal relevance. Although Appel et al. (2002) did not define the degree of reality as an autonomous dimension of the reading experience, they did distinguish between fictional and non-fictional media in their scale development, and stated that it is possible that the degree of reality influences other dimensions of the reading experience. The influence of the degree of reality on other dimensions of the experience of reception has been examined in other studies on parasocial phenomena. Rubin and Perse (1987) found a positive relationship between the degree of reality and the intensity of PSR, and explained that media users are motivated to receive media for the purposes of reality exploration and social utility. Given this explanation, it seems likely that this connection is mediated by the personal relevance (with regard to reality exploration and social utility) offered by a specific media product. Thus, the second set of hypotheses is: H2a: storylines that readers perceive to be more realistic are associated with higher personal relevance; H2b: higher personal relevance is associated with more intense parasocial relationships; and H2c: the degree of reality has a positive indirect effect on the intensity of PSR, which is explained by the perceived personal relevance of the story. 2.4. Parasocial relationships vs. parasocial romances with book characters A limitation of previous research is that the construct of PSR has been investigated predominantly in the context of amicable PSR. In simple terms, PSR can be understood as regular social relationships that happen to be rooted in some type of media (Giles, 2002). Accordingly, the same psychological mechanisms are assumed to take place in both social and parasocial relationships (Eyal & Cohen, 2006; Tukachinsky, 2010). Hence, not only amicable but all other kinds of relationships, including, for example, romantic, neutral, or even hate-filled relationships, are conceivable (Tian & Hoffner, 2010). Given that in most cases media stories are constructed predominantly around positive characters that are associated with sympathy or even admiration, positive PSI and PSR containing amicable or romantic facets should be more common than neutral or negative forms of parasocial phenomenon. Therefore, amicable and romantic PSR are at the center of the current study. Assuming that both social and parasocial relationships involve similar psychological mechanisms, the differences between amicable and romantic social relationships are likely to occur in amicable and romantic parasocial relationships in similar ways. Reviewing the literature on the development of PSR in this context of relevant character attributes, two factors emerged multiple times: similarity and attraction. Schramm and Wirth (2010) examined the effects of both physical and mental attractiveness on PSI. In addition, Turner (1993) reported that PSR develops faster and more intensely when there is higher perceived similarity between the social backgrounds and attitudes of the media user and the media character. However, no studies to date have investigated the impact of similarity together with mental and physical attractiveness when distinguishing between PSR and PSROM. Hence, the second goal of the present study is to investigate PSR and PSROM with regard to similarity and attraction. Hence, our second research question is: To what extent do perceived similarity and attraction influence parasocial relationships and parasocial romances? (RQ2). One of the most important factors that affects the development of amicable relationships is the perceived similarity between potential relationship partners. The more similar two individuals are, the faster and more intensely their relationship will develop (Aube & Koestner, 1995), because people perceive others who are similar to them as approving and confirming their own convictions 15

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and traits (Fehr, 2001). People assess the chance that other people will like them as being higher when they are more similar (Condon & Crano, 1988). With PSR resembling real social relationships, it is conceivable that perceived similarity also influences PSR. However, with regard to the development of romantic relationships, especially short-term erotic encounters, Amodio and Showers (2005) found that similarity is not only unnecessary, but that (contrary to amicable relationships) opposites may actually be more attracted. Hence, we suggest H3a: perceived similarity leads to more intense amicable parasocial relationships, whereas there is no significant influence of perceived similarity on the intensity of parasocial romances. With regard to personal attributes that influence interpersonal relationships, the similarity–complementarity hypothesis considers similarity to be a pivotal aspect (Aube & Koestner, 1995). The greater the perceived similarity, the more likely it is that interpersonal attraction will be triggered. It is important to note that this attraction can be based on both physical and mental characteristics. Hence, we propose H3b: the more similarity a reader perceives between himself/herself and a book character, the more attractive he/ she will perceive the character’s physical and mental characteristics to be. The formation of the initial PSI also resembles a real social interaction. During real-life encounters, an initial impression–formation process takes place and leads to a schema-like characterization of the encountered person (Fiske, Lin, & Neuberg, 1999). According to Klimmt et al. (2006), the same is true for PSI. Furthermore, they assume that the media character’s perceived attractiveness plays a key role in this schema-like characterization, leading to more intense PSI with more attractive media characters. Knoll, Schramm, Schallhorn, and Wynistorf (2015) and Schramm and Wirth (2010) found that attraction affects parasocial phenomena in this way. However, attractiveness is also key to developing sexual relationships, with physical attractiveness considered the most important trigger for sexual desire in both men and women. In contrast, for long-term relationships such as marriage and friendship, mental attractiveness becomes more important (Regan & Berscheid, 1995). Transferring these findings to amicable and romantic PSR, we propose H3c: higher perceived levels of physical attractiveness are associated with more intense amicable parasocial relationships and parasocial romances. Regarding mental attractiveness, we assume H3d: higher perceived levels of mental attractiveness are associated with more intense amicable parasocial relationships, but do not influence the intensity of parasocial romances. In line with our hypotheses, we assume that the indirect effects of perceived similarity on the intensity of the parasocial phenomenon differ in their mediation variables. H3e: perceived similarity enhances the intensity of amicable parasocial relationships, mediated by both physical and mental attractiveness, whereas the positive effect of perceived similarity on the intensity of romantic parasocial relationships is explained solely by enhanced physical attractiveness. 3. Method 3.1. Procedure Data were collected via an online questionnaire. Completion of the questionnaire took about 20 min on average. Participants were first asked to name their favorite book character and the latest book in which this character appeared. There were no limitations on what character or book the participants were allowed to select, resulting in a wide range of reported characters and books. The most popular characters were from series, such as Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games, Harry Potter and Hermione Granger from Harry Potter, and Tyrion Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen from A Song of Ice and Fire (see Appendix A Table A1 for the top-10 chosen book characters). Participants were then asked to answer questions about the attributes of their chosen character, the respondents’ PSR, and their reading experience concerning the chosen character and the book or books in which he or she has appeared. Asking participants to identify a favorite media character and then asking questions about that character is a method that has been used previously in parasocial research (e.g., Cohen, 2004; Sun & Wu, 2012; Tukachinsky, 2010). 3.2. Sample Most of the participants were recruited using a snowball sampling method via social media and email. The online questionnaire was also distributed to special interest groups focusing on books and reading, such as Facebook groups with names like “book adviser,” as well as online message boards. The study was also advertised by book- and reading-related bloggers, who spread the questionnaire via their fan communities. A total of 493 respondents completed the online questionnaire. All participants were required to have good knowledge of the German language, as the questionnaire was written in German. Nearly four-fifths (79%) of the participants were female, and their ages ranged from 14 to 74 (M = 27.7, SD = 10.3). Most of the participants had received a high school diploma (52%) or an advanced technical certificate (23%). As is evident in the extreme skew towards female participants, this was a convenience sample rather than a representative sample, and the implications and concerns associated with this are described in the Discussion section. 3.3. Measurement All ratings were made on a 5-point Likert scale ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). All items in the following section have been translated from German to English. The reliability scores for all indices are presented in Table 1. 3.3.1. Parasocial relationships The measurement of PSR, including its multifacetedness, was based on the understanding of PSR as a multi-dimensional construct, which includes cognitive, affective, and conative mechanisms (e.g. Schramm & Hartmann, 2008). Measurement of this construct 16

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Table 1 Summary of measurements and scale reliabilities. Index



Cronbach’s alpha

Parasocial relationship Parasocial romance Perceived similarity Mental attractiveness Physical attractiveness Ease of cognitive access Reading pleasure Experience of presence Degree of reality Personal relevance

3.78 1.55 2.81 3.81 2.80 4.62 4.89 4.17 2.72 3.37

0.60 0.87 0.97 0.87 1.27 0.54 0.44 0.86 1.14 1.06

0.77 0.86 0.79 0.78 0.93 0.75 0.81 0.85 0.78 0.76

therefore considered all three sub-dimensions, as the hypotheses assume no differences between the sub-dimensions regarding the investigated relationships in this study. Each sub-dimension was measured using four items, which were then condensed to a mean index. Because there was no standardized scale with which to measure these sub-dimensions of PSR, individual items from different PSR scales (e.g., Gleich, 1997; Thallmair & Rössler, 2001; Tukachinsky, 2010) were used. Examples include “Sometimes I wish I could ask X for advice” for the cognitive sub-dimension; “If X was a real person, he or she could count on me in times of need” for the affective sub-dimension; and “I would like to read another book about X” for the conative sub-dimension (see Appendix A Table A2 for the complete list of items). Cronbach’s alpha for the 12-item PSR scale was 0.77, and thus was acceptable. 3.3.2. Parasocial romance In addition to measuring PSR in general, PSROM was measured with four items taken from studies by Gleich (1997) and Tukachinsky (2010). Participants responded to items such as “For me, X could be the perfect romantic partner” (see Appendix A Table A2 for the complete list of items). Cronbach’s alpha for the 4-item scale was 0.86 and thus is good. 3.3.3. Attributes of the character In addition to asking about PSR and PSROM, the following book character attributes were assessed: mental attractiveness, (imagined) physical attractiveness, and perceived similarity between reader and book character. Each attribute was measured using three items. Items from Schramm and Hartmann (2008) were adapted to assess mental and physical attractiveness; for example, “I like the appearance of X” (to gauge physical attractiveness) and “X has many good qualities, that I would like to have myself” (to gauge mental attractiveness). Perceived similarity was measured using items from Appel et al. (2002) and Thallmair and Rössler (2001), such as “X has the same attitudes towards things that I do.” All scales measuring character attributes achieved satisfactory reliability, with a Cronbrach’s alpha of 0.78 or higher. 3.3.4. Reading experience Finally, the questionnaire assessed five dimensions of the reading experience: ease of cognitive access, reading pleasure, experience of presence, personal relevance, and degree of reality. Each dimension was measured using three items, most of which were adapted from Appel et al. (2002) and Cho, Schen, and Wilson (2012). Examples include: “I didn’t have to concentrate deliberately—the concentration came by itself” (ease of cognitive access); “Reading the book was fun for me” (reading pleasure); “I had the feeling of being in the described world of the book” (experience of presence); “The subject of the book dealt with questions that I already thought about” (personal relevance); and “The story in the book could actually happen in real life” (degree of reality). All of the scales measuring dimensions of the reading experience achieved satisfactory reliability, with Cronbrach’s alpha of 0.75 or higher. 4. Results To test the hypotheses, mediation analyses were conducted using PROCESS, an SPSS macro developed by Hayes (2013). A mediation analysis investigates the indirect effect of one or more mediator variables on the relationship between an independent variable and an outcome variable. Mediation analyses use two different statistical methods: ordinary least squares (OLS) regressions to estimate the path coefficients, and bootstrapping–resampling analysis employing a confidence interval (CI) to test the mediated indirect effect. Bootstrapping–resampling draws several random sub-samples of the original data set, and for each sub-sample calculates its indirect effect in the suggested mediation model. A corresponding 95% confidence interval, including the indirect effects of all sub-samples, can then be specified. If this confidence interval does not contain the value of zero, then the likelihood that the 17

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Fig. 1. Indirect effect of ease of cognitive access on parasocial relationships.

indirect effect is not zero is higher than 95% and thus the indirect effect is significant at p < 0.05 (two-tailed). All of the following analyses are based on 10,000 bootstrap samples with bias-corrected confidence intervals (for more details on mediation analyses, bootstrapping, and PROCESS, see Hayes, 2013). Effect sizes are reported using the index of mediation, which refers to completely standardized indirect effects (for more details, see Cheung, 2009; Field, 2013; Preacher & Hayes, 2008). With regards to the first goal, this study investigated several aspects of the reading experience and their relationships with the intensity of PSR (RQ1). H1 postulated that the ease of cognitive access has an indirect effect on the intensity of PSR, which is mediated by reading pleasure and the experience of presence during reception. To test this hypothesis, we conducted a mediation analysis with the two proposed mediators sequentially (see Fig. 1). The results confirmed the mediation effect predicted by H1, with a large effect size (b = 0.27, 95% CI [0.20, 0.39]). Hence, easier cognitive access was positively linked to reading pleasure (H1a✓), whereas reading pleasure was positively linked to the experience of presence (H1b✓). A more intense experience of presence was associated with a more intense PSR (H1c✓). In line with this, ease of cognitive access had a positive indirect relationship with PSR (H1d✓). We also assumed that the degree of reality would be positively related to the intensity of PSR. H2 proposed that this relationship would be mediated by the personal relevance of the storyline to the reader. Therefore, we conducted another mediation analysis to test whether personal relevance mediated the relationship between the degree of reality and the intensity of PSR (see Fig. 2). The results for H2 indicated that the assumed mediation was significant, with a medium effect size (b = 0.11, 95% CI [0.07, 0.16]). The results indicated that a higher degree of reality was linked to higher perceived personal relevance (H2a✓). Moreover, personal relevance was associated with more intense PSR (H2b✓). Finally, higher personal relevance explained the positive relationship between degree of reality and PSR (H2c✓). The second research question was concerned with whether perceived similarity, mental attractiveness, and physical attractiveness have different effects on the intensity of PSR and PSROM. To test H3, we conducted two mediation analyses—one for the relationships between perceived similarity, attractiveness, and amicable PSR, and another for the relationships between perceived similarity, attractiveness, and PSROM. Because we did not assume that mental and physical attractiveness had direct effects on each other, we decided to incorporate these two mediators into the mediation analyses concurrently rather than sequentially (Figs. 3 and 4). Regarding PSR, all of the paths in our model were found to be significant, whereas for PSROM only physical attractiveness explained the relationship between perceived similarity and the intensity of the relationship. These results support H3, with a medium effect size for amicable PSR (b = 0.20, 95% CI [.15, 0.26]) and a small effect size for PSROM (b = 0.09, 95% CI [.03, 0.14]). In accord with our hypothesis, perceived similarity had a positive direct link to PSR but no direct link to PSROM (H3a✓). Moreover, perceived similarity was positively related to physical as well as mental attractiveness (H3b✓). Physical attractiveness in

Fig. 2. Indirect effect of the degree of reality on parasocial relationships.


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Fig. 3. Effects of perceived similarity, mental attractiveness, and physical attractiveness on parasocial relationships.

Fig. 4. Effects of perceived similarity, mental attractiveness, and physical attractiveness on parasocial romances.

turn enhanced both PSR and PSROM (H3c✓), whereas mental attractiveness was only linked to PSR (H3d✓). In conclusion, the positive link between perceived similarity and PSR was explained by both physical and mental attractiveness, while the positive relationship between perceived similarity and PSROM was solely mediated by physical attractiveness (H3e✓). 5. Conclusion The first aim of this study was to examine the effects of several dimensions of the reading experience on PSR. We first assumed a link between ease of cognitive access, reading pleasure, experience of presence, and PSR. Our results supported this hypothesis: the effect of ease of cognitive access on PSR was independently mediated by reading pleasure and the experience of presence, while ease of cognitive access had no direct effect on PSR. We also expected that the influence of degree of reality on PSR would be mediated by the personal relevance of the storyline; this hypothesis was also confirmed by our results. Both findings reinforce the hypothesis that media reception can influence PSR, although such relationships develop mainly after the reception. Single links between these variables have already been shown in previous studies (e.g., Lee, 2013; Rubin & Perse, 1987). By including several different aspects of media reception and their interrelationships, the current study offers some initial insights into reception and will help researchers to model how the diverse dimensions of reception affect each other. These findings could be expanded in future by conducting research on the experience of flow or suspense. The current study also investigated presence rather than transportation, as previous findings on parasocial phenomena have mainly concentrated on presence (e.g., Lee, 2013). Although the two concepts are essentially very similar 19

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(e.g. Green et al., 2008), transportation is the more established concept in the context of reading and should therefore be included in future studies. Finally, PSI is one dimension of reception that particularly needs to be examined in the context of PSR. Moreover, research on how parasocial phenomena can be enhanced in the context of narrative media would also be interesting for marketing specialists, because previous studies reported a direct link between PSI and the persuasive effectiveness of product placement (e.g., Knoll et al., 2015). The current study also examined the influence of attraction and similarity on the intensity of PSR and PSROM. We assumed that both physical and mental attractiveness would affect PSR directly, while perceived similarity would affect both physical attractiveness and mental attractiveness, thus affecting PSR. All of these hypotheses were supported by the results and are consistent with previous findings (e.g., Knoll et al., 2015; Tian & Hoffner, 2010). The current study also hypothesized that perceived similarity and mental attractiveness would not affect PSROM directly, while physical attractiveness was assumed to be more important in PSROM than in PSR. The results supported this hypothesis because only physical attractiveness had a direct effect on PSROM; the influence of perceived similarity on PSROM was only mediated, and mental attractiveness had no influence on PSR at all, reflecting previous social psychological findings on real relationships (Amodio & Showers, 2005). Moreover, our findings suggest that PSR and PSROM do indeed differ, at least partly, in terms of similarity and attraction. The distinction between amicable and romantic PSR made by Tukachinsky (2010) seems to be accurate and necessary when it comes to the effects of character attributes. Taking this idea further, these differences between PSR and PSROM provide potentially relevant insights in the context of testimonials. Quite often, a testimonial as for an example a professional athlete is subjectively very attractive to the audience and a PSROM with him/her is conceivable. Are testimonials more effective when the audience is “in love” with the person rather than just amicably related? Is this true in general or just for some products that refer to romantic contexts (e.g., lingerie)? If PSROM reinforce the persuasiveness of a testimonial more than PSR, could a marketing manager neglect the testimonial’s mental attractiveness in favor of his/her physical attractiveness? Again, to validate these speculations, we recommend that future research on parasocial phenomena in general, and particularly in the context of persuasion, include the whole range of relationship facets. Finally, we note some of the limitations of the current study. First, the sample was not representative, as the participants were predominantly young, female, and highly educated. This lack of representativeness may be due to the snowball sampling method used to recruit participants through social media and email. Although this is a common problem in social-scientific studies, the external validity of the empirical findings is nonetheless limited. To apply these results to readers in general, replication with a more representative sample is necessary. This is particularly important in the case of the present study because demographic attributes such as sex or education affect media reception, and the reading experience in particular. Furthermore, the current study did not survey the participants’ sexual orientation. Considering that people generally prefer one of either men or women when it comes to romantic or sexual relationships, the same should be true in the context of PSROM. Hence, feeling attracted and having an intense PSROM should be more likely when the media character matches the person’s sexual preference. Future studies on PSROM should therefore control for sexual orientation and preference. The third limitation was a result of our research design. Because we collected data via an online survey rather than an experiment, all of the findings represent correlations and no causal relationships can be implied. All causalities suggested in the current study are speculations based on theory, prior studies, and the fact that PSR as defined in the current study takes place after the reception, whereas the other investigated dimensions of reception, such as ease of cognitive access and the feeling of presence, take place during the reception. Hence, the (temporary) experience of reception occurs before the construction of long-term PSR, which was why we assumed the relations between the constructs in the way we did. Nevertheless, we cannot rely on the empirical method used in the current study. Future research could address this limitation and confirm the proposed causal relationships through an experimental study. Another advantage of an experiment would be the chance to investigate not only PSR but also PSI (Dibble, Hartmann, & Rosaen, 2016). Considering that books differ from other media because they have, for example, very limited potential to address (verbally and physically) their audience, it would be particularly interesting to investigate PSI in terms of the EPSI concept (for more details, see Hartmann & Goldhoorn, 2011). Moreover, participants were free to choose their favorite book character regardless of whether the chosen book had been adapted into a movie. Hence, we cannot be certain that the participants’ reception experiences, including the feeling of presence or attraction toward the book character, were solely based on their reading experience. This is particularly critical, as our study was based on selfreported retrospective data that often do not mirror the actual experience of reception because of the long delay between the actual reception and the survey. This divergence might even increase if someone not only read the book but also saw the movie adaptation and then mixed up the two experiences when answering the survey. To be sure that our results were not distorted by this, we included in the analyses (post-hoc) whether a movie adaption of the participants’ chosen books existed at the time of the survey. As the results barely differed between the two cases, we assume that movie adaptions did not have a strong influence. Nevertheless, future studies on parasocial phenomena should limit the choice of favorite book character to books that have not yet been adapted into film, or at least ask the participants about their experience with the book character in other media contexts to allow statistical control over its influence. Overall, the current study represents a first step toward including print media in parasocial research. We have not only shown that PSR takes place in books, but we have also confirmed some of the previous findings in this area, despite examining PSR in a novel medium in this research field. We recommend that further studies examine the whole range of print products and look at whether and how the parasocial phenomenon in books differs from that in other media contexts. For example, future research could examine which media influence PSR to what extent, and whether and how the influencing factors differ from medium to medium. Is the physical attractiveness of a celebrity more important when watching the person on TV than when reading a magazine article? Does a PSR with the protagonist of a favorite book consist of the same factors when that character is portrayed in a film? Parasocial research 20

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needs to examine and fill these gaps to more comprehensively understand what the parasocial phenomenon is and how it takes place in different contexts, as well as to connect it with other relevant constructs of media reception and impact. Many people, especially children, see media personalities as a special kind of friend who remains steadfastly at one’s side in good times and bad. When something happens to disrupt these relationships, there is often pain and distress similar to an in-person breakup (Cohen, 2004). Because parasocial phenomena have the potential to be this meaningful, it is important to carefully examine their possible long-term effects, connecting longer-term PSR with other dimensions of the media experience during reception. The present study represents one of only a few studies to connect the transitory process of media reception with the long-term media effect of PSR. Considering that the possible long-term effects of media reception are currently a core concern in communication studies, future research on PSI and PSR should also adopt this approach. Appendix A

Table A1 The top-10 most chosen book characters Construct


Number of selections

Katniss Everdeen Harry Potter Hermione Granger Tyrion Lannister Daenerys Targaryen Allan Karlsson Detective Kluftinger Christian Grey Robert Langdon Elizabeth Bennet

The Hunger Games Harry Potter Harry Potter A Song of Ice and Fire A Song of Ice and Fire The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared Milchgeld/Seegrund Fifty Shades of Grey Illuminati/Inferno Pride and Prejudice

14 12 12 10 8 7 5 5 4 4

Table A2 Measurement of parasocial relationships and romances Construct

Adapted items used in the current study

Original source

PSR cognitive

I feel like I personally know X well. I feel like I truly understand X. I often think of things that X has said or done in everyday life. Sometimes I wish, I could ask X for advice. It is easy to think of something nice to say about X. X’s well-being is very important to me. X is likeable. If X was a real person, he/she could count on me in times of need. I would like to read another book about X. I look forward to reading about X again, if there is a new book. If X was the protagonist of a new book, I would read the book. If a newspaper or a magazine wrote something about X, I would read the article. My thoughts about X are romantic. My thoughts about X are passionate. For me, X could be the perfect romantic partner. Sometime I think that X and I are just meant for each other.

Thallmair and Rössler (2001)

PSR affective

PSR conative


Tukachinsky (2010) Gleich (1997) Schramm and Hartmann (2008) Tukachinsky (2010) Appel et al. (2002) Rubin et al. (1985) Thallmair and Rössler (2001) Gleich (1997) Tukachinsky (2010)

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(pp. 179–208). Munich: Fischer. Tian, Q., & Hoffner, C. A. (2010). Parasocial interaction with liked, neutral, and disliked characters on a popular TV series. Mass Communication and Society, 13, 250–269. Tukachinsky, C., & Dorros, S. (2017). Rehearsing love or setting oneself up to fail? The effect of parasocial romantic relationships in adolescence on romantic beliefs and experiences. Presentation on the annual meeting of the International Communication Association (ICA). Tukachinsky, R. (2010). Para-romantic love and Para-friendships: Development and assessment of a multiple- parasocial relationships scale. American Journal of Media Psychology, 3, 73–94. Turner, J. R. (1993). Interpersonal and psychological predictors of parasocial interaction with different television performers. Communication Quarterly, 41, 443–453. Nicole Liebers (M.Sc., University of Würzburg) is Ph.D student in Communication at the University of Würzburg, Germany. Her research fields are entertainment, advertising, as well as audience and effects studies with focus on parasocial interactions and relationships. Holger Schramm (Ph.D, Hanover University of Music, Drama and Media) is Professor of Communication at the University of Würzburg, Germany. His research fields are music in the media, sports communication, entertainment, and advertising/brand communication with focus on audience/reception and effects studies (parasocial interactions and relationships, emotions, non-mediation phenomena like presence and flow).


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