In a Parasocial World

Posted by on Mar 12, 2016 in MEL Notes Blog | 0 comments

This post is written in response to:

Schiappa, E., Gregg, P. B., & Hewes, D. E. (2005). The parasocial contact hypothesis. Communication Monographs, 72(1), 92-115. doi:10.1080/0363775052000342544

Jordan Moffet is a second year doctoral student in the Department of Marketing, E.J. Ourso College of Business. Her research interest is in customer engagement marketing.



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The Parasocial Contact Hypothesis
(Schiappa, Gregg, and Hewes 2005)

 This article had two primary research questions that it set out to address with a series of three studies:

  1. Can parasocial contact by majority group members with minority group members lead to a decrease in prejudice?
  2. Are the effects of parasocial contact moderated by previous interpersonal contact with minority group members?

Interpersonal contact theory suggests that “the reduction of prejudice through intergroup contact is best explained as the reconceptualization of group categories (p.93)” and that prejudice can be reduced as one learns more about a category of people.

Drawing from this theory, the authors then formulated the ‘Parasocial Contact Hypothesis (PCH),’ predicting “parasocial contact can provide the sort of experience that can reduce prejudice, particularly if a majority group member has limited opportunity for interpersonal contact with minority group members (p.97)”

To address the two research questions, the authors conducted a series of three studies, examining parasocial contact with gay men (Studies 1: Six Feet Under and Study 2: Queer Eye for the Straight Guy) and with a male transvestite (Study 3: Dress to Kill with Eddie Izzard).

Accordingly, the results from the series of three studies revealed that:

  1. First, parasocial contact by majority group members with minority group members was associated with lower degrees of prejudicial attitudes.
    • Parasocial contact yielded the same sorts of judgments as did direct contact with a minority group member, and
    • Exposure to the gay men and the male transvestite decreased majority group members’ prejudicial attitudes.
    • As expected, there was a greater degree of changed beliefs about a minority group as a whole among those with parasocial contact.
    • Furthermore, in line with interpersonal contact theory, the degree of changed beliefs about a minority group was associated with changes in category-attribute beliefs.
  2. Second, previous interpersonal contact with minority group members negatively moderated the effects of parasocial contact.
    • When the majority group member had more gay acquaintances/friends, the association between parasocial contact and changes in prejudicial attitudes was weakened.

In conclusion, the authors provide support for the proposed parasocial contact hypothesis, as well as begin to shed light on the underlying mechanisms that explain such effects.  

This is of particular importance, as parasocial contact can seemingly be used to foster positive changes in prejudicial beliefs and attitudes about minority group categories.


Some thoughts for a future study…

 First, please watch this ad – Imagine a world…

Research has found that ‘narrative’ versus ‘analytical’ processing of an ad message leads to greater positive attitudes toward the ad through self-transportation (Escalas 2007). Furthermore, greater transportation has also been found to increase the perceived realism of narratives and character liking (Green, 2004; Green and Brock, 2000; Krakowiak and Oliver 2009).

Transportation and parasocial interaction, however, are considered different concepts. On the one hand, transportation suggests that the audience member is a vicarious participant in the narrative, whereas on the other hand, parasocial interaction suggests that the audience member is a spectator. Nonetheless, both are suggested to lead to identification, which is defined as the process by which audience members temporarily take on the perspective, thoughts, feelings, and motivations of a character while viewing (Moyer-Guse 2015). And, identification thus should lead to positive changes in prejudicial attitudes.

Research has also demonstrated that when an individual is exposed to information that is incongruent with his/her own attitude, there will be greater positive changes in attitudes toward the object of the ad due to more elaborate processing (Sen and Lernan 2007). Thus, one may expect that by framing the message in a way that is incongruent to the surrounding stereotypical norms (like that ‘Imagine a Word’ ad), greater changes in attitude will result.

This made me wonder…

 When a majority group member is exposed to ad concerning a minority-group related issue, similar to the one shown in this blog post, will the message frame moderate the ad exposure effect on prejudices? And what explains these effects (i.e., involvement, transportation, parasocial contact?

More specifically…

  1. Will information congruency (to norms) moderate the effect of ad exposure on prejudicial attitudes?
  2. Will narrative (versus analytical) messages moderate the effect of ad exposure on prejudicial attitudes?
  3. Will degree of involvement, transportation, or parasocial contact explain these effects?

In other wordsI want to know if we can encourage majority group members to put themselves in minority group members’ shoes through media exposure to the point that the majority group members will change their prejudicial beliefs in a positive way? 


Now, a note from the author….

moffet4I reached out to Dr. Edward Schiappa with a few questions, referencing one of his webinars titled “Visual Persuasion in a Digital Age.” The webinar discusses persuasion through mediated persons, drawing from interpersonal communication literature to identify four main characteristics on which make assumptions for both real-life individuals, as well as mediated individuals:

(1) Attractiveness
(2) Trustworthiness
(3) Likeability
(4) Predictability


The Low-life PhD student: With regard to the webinar, you discuss four characteristics…Attractiveness, trustworthiness, likability, and predictability…[that pertain to mediated personas]

The Remarkable Scholar: I should explain why we identified these particular characteristics.  There is a body of literature in Communication that focuses on Interpersonal Communication, and a number of studies have been done that look at certain judgments we make.  Is someone physically attractive?  Do we trust them to get stuff done (known as “task attractiveness”)?  Are they likable?  There is also a theory known as UNCERTAINTY REDUCATION THEORY that posits we seek information when we first meet someone to increase our ability to predict their behavior and understand their actions (also called attributional confidence).

We used these concepts to see if people made the same sort of judgments about people/characters they only know parasocially, through the media.  And in fact, they do.

The Low-life PhD student:  I’m curious to know what you think about these characteristics – So for instance, as we get to know a mediated identity and develop certain perceptions regarding that person’s trustworthiness and predictability, for example, what do you think the differences would be when the mediated person does something ‘unpredictable’ or disappoints us if you will? When the person is ‘real’ from a marketing perspective at least, I would expect that individuals would be more disappointed with a ‘real person’ as they have higher expectations (even if that relationship was purely mediated) than they do with a mediated ‘fictitious character.’ However, I can only assume there may be some moderator that flips this??

The Remarkable Scholar: I actually reviewed a study that was looking at these very questions.  It was an experiment that wanted to see what sort of effects there were when a fictional character expressed a belief at odds with the actor portraying it.  The fact is that we really don’t know much about this particular phenomenon.  But this article, which was published last year, is a start:

My own thinking is that it really varies a lot.  For example,

I am quite sure that Kevin Spacey is not the dark overlord that he portrays on House of Cards, so I don’t really worry about the inconsistency.  On the other hand, I used to love the music of Ted Nugent, but now I can’t stand it because he is such a raving asshole.

The Low-life PhD student:  Also, just in general, do you see media and parasocial contact and relationships as being key drivers for ‘big changes’ in today’s society? Do you think that we take advantage of the opportunities they offer us or do you think otherwise?

The Remarkable Scholar: Actually, the available research suggests that the media is not as powerful as one might think.  That is not to say it is NOT important, it certainly is.  But critics of the media often overstate its significance.  For example, decades of research on the Cultivation Hypothesis show that “heavy” consumption of TV can influence one’s beliefs and lead to a distorted view of the world.  But the meta-analysis of this research finds the overall effect is pretty small (r = .10, or so).  That is on the low end of the influence spectrum.

This does not mean, of course, that there are not individual instances that are quite influential.  We have been drenched in media coverage/discussion of Donald Trump in the past few months, and I am sure that that media coverage is turning the dial on public attitudes.

But there is a difference between what we learn from media (Trump said X) and what newscasters or media pundits say about events.  What I would describe as “direct learning” (watching Trump talk about his hand size) is different than hearing talking heads talk about Trump.

The former sort of contact is going to be more influential than the latter.

All the best, Edward Schiappa