University at Buffalo - The State University of New York
Skip to Content
Official UB news and information for the media

Study Finds If Your Self Esteem Is Low, a Faux Relationship Can Give You a Boost

Release Date: September 10, 2008

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Shira Gabriel, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology at the University at Buffalo, says "parasocial relationships" -- one-sided associations in which a party knows a great deal about someone who knows nothing about them -- can have self-enhancing benefits for people with low-self esteem, benefits they do not receive in real relationships.

Gabriel's article "Parasocial relationships and self-discrepancies: Faux relationships have benefits for low self esteem individuals" in a recent issue of the journal Personal Relationships, reports the results of three studies on parasocial relationships and self esteem conducted among more than university students.

Secondary authors are Jaye L. Derrick, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow at the UB Research Institute on Addictions, and Brooke Tippin, a former graduate student in the UB Department of Psychology.

They conducted three studies using a total of 348 undergraduate university students at a large research university in the northeast U.S. to examine the relationship between self esteem, identification with a parasocial relationship and perceived discrepancies between the subjects' actual and ideal selves.

Research instruments employed included open-ended essays describing the qualities of the subjects' favorite same-sex celebrity, the Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale and the Inclusion of the Other in Self Scale.

"We found that people with low self-esteem saw their favorite celebrities as very similar to their ideal selves, while those with high self esteem saw them as similar to their actual selves," Gabriel says.

After writing about the qualities of their favorite same-sex celebrities, however, subjects with low self-esteem said they felt closer to their ideal selves and experienced boost in self esteem.

"For low self-esteem subjects these benefits were unique to parasocial relationships," she says. "They did not receive the same boost in self esteem when primed with a close relationship partner or with a control celebrity.

"The current research demonstrates that parasocial relationships can have self-enhancing benefits for low self-esteem people that they do not receive in real relationships," Gabriel says, although such people may have many real and close relationships.

"Parasocial relationships, which have very low risk of rejection, offer low self-esteem people an opportunity to reduce their self-discrepancies and feel closer to their ideal selves," she says.

High self-esteem subjects, on the other hand, cited persons they identified as closer to their actual selves as their favorite celebrities and did not experience any change in self esteem when primed with these celebrities.

"We all have these one-sided relationships," says Gabriel, "even if on an unconscious level. They form as people spend time with media personas on television, in magazines, on CDs and online. A sense of intimacy develops out of 'shared' experiences and interactions over time. Some people develop very strong relationships of this type with specific celebrities with whom they identify.

"We must remember that humans have never developed biological or neural adaptations for differentiating between real and fake people or relationships," she says, "so, although parasocial relationships are not mutual, our study confirms that they are able to solicit substantial psychological effects in some of the emotionally involved parties."

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, a flagship institution in the State University of New York system and its largest and most comprehensive campus. UB's more than 28,000 students pursue their academic interests through more than 300 undergraduate, graduate and professional degree programs. Founded in 1846, the University at Buffalo is a member of the Association of American Universities.

Media Contact Information

Patricia Donovan has retired from University Communications. To contact UB's media relations staff, call 716-645-6969 or visit our list of current university media contacts. Sorry for the inconvenience.