Jennifer Lynn Barnes

Newly minted PhD, professor, pop culture junkie, voracious reader, and author of the Raised By Wolves series, Every Other Day, Nobody, and More

On fandom, parasocial relationships, and what we don’t know

Sarah Rees Brennan has a new post up about her experiences (some of them heart-breaking) as a now-published author who used to write fanfiction. It’s well worth a read, especially for the way it highlights the role that gender may play in these issues.

What this post made me think about is the parallel between the way we view and understand fictional characters and the way we view and understand real people that we do not actually know. There’s a long tradition of research in media studies on what they call “parasocial relationships,” which are one-sided relationships formed with (for example) TV personalities, fictional characters, or celebrities. The basic idea is that it’s easy to fool our brains into thinking we know someone. If you see someone a lot—on television, in magazines, or even just on your twitter feed—of course you start to feel like you know that person. In the course of our evolutionary history, if you saw or heard someone that often, you almost certainly did know them.

But that’s not the case in the modern world. And that’s where you get parasocial relationships, which are, by definition, one-sided. Spend enough time reading interviews with Jennifer Lawrence or read enough celebrity gossip about Taylor Swift, and you start to feel like you really know them. It’s one-sided because they do not know you.

Interestingly, social scientists have long-argued that the parasocial relationships we have with real people we do not actually know operate very similarly to the relationships we have with fictional characters. And both of the above parallel our actual two-sided, real-world relationships in a variety of interesting ways. For example, seeing a picture of a favorite fictional character can have what they call “social facilitation effects,” which we would normally see if you were in the presence of a friend. Being primed with your favorite celebrity (and/or character) increase self esteem and can make you feel a sense of belonging. When a favorite show is cancelled, the resulting emotional distress can look a lot like a break-up.

Long story short, there is a ton of super interesting research that documents a tendency to view fictional characters and real people we don’t know (like celebrities) much like we view real people who we actually know. This can be wonderful! Oh, the fictional friends I have made! But this tendency also has the potential to come with a variety of side-effects, because while fiction is often purposefully written to make certain we know tons of stuff about the personalities, backgrounds, inner workings, flaws, strengths, moral status, and emotional cores of the characters on the page, this is not true of parasocial interactions with real people. When your brain tricks you into thinking that you really know a fictional character, there are many ways in which that is true. But when real people are involved?

It’s not true. It’s not true at all.

In my day job, I study the science of fiction and why we like stories and what the cognitive effects of engaging with fictional characters and fictional worlds might be. In this field, we’re starting to see evidence that reading fiction might improve (or otherwise be related to) the ability to get inside other people’s heads: to read their emotions, and understand what they think and believe so forth. People like Lisa Zunshine and Raymond Mar and Keith Oatley have all kinds of wonderful papers (and books!) on this relationship between spending time with fictional characters and being able to read real people.

How does this work? It’s early days, still, so we don’t really know. But what does seem to be true is that fiction often gives us a front row seat to people’s emotions and relationships and thoughts and beliefs and desires in a way that reality usually does not. In the real world, you might infer, based on the fact that someone bolts in the middle of their father’s funeral, that they are upset or overwhelmed. You might even feel like you know that. But in fiction, you often do know it—you see the before and the after and the moment when the character lets him/herself break down because there is no one there to see it.

But in reality? We don’t have this kind of access. In life, there is no author or director making sure we have the information we need to have in order to understand the “characters.” As a result, in the real world, we only perceive ourselves as knowing what other people are thinking and feeling. We make inferences based on behavioral cues, but we have no direct access to their minds. Oftentimes, we can guess and guess well, but it’s always that… a guess.

What does all of this have to do with Sarah’s post?

I think that a lot of the negative experiences that Sarah talks about female authors (specifically those who used to write fanfic) having are the result of people feeling like they know things that they could not possibly know. Like what an author was thinking when they wrote XYZ character, or what the author’s intention was when they did/said that one thing, or why Author X is friends with Author Y.

In fiction, you frequently (though not always) have the access you need to make conclusions about characters’ mental states and motivations with a high level of certainty. Most of the time in reality, you do not—especially if the people you’re attributing mental states and intentions and dispositions to are people you do not actually know, people you are watching from afar.

Reading Sarah’s post made me wonder if those of us who engage with fiction frequently and passionately and, yes, through fandom, writing stories and daydreaming about characters and diagnosing their motivations—I wonder if that level of engagement could potentially have very real cognitive effects on us, beyond what has already been studied. On the one hand, that kind of engagement might actually make us better at understanding people. But at the same time, I think it quite possibly increases our perceptions of how good we are at doing that, beyond what is actually possible. Regular engagement with fiction—particularly active engagement through fandom—might fool us into thinking, even more than people who are less engaged with fiction, that we really, truly know what other people are thinking or intending and who they are deep down.

Might we get into the habit of telling ourselves stories about real people’s motivations, the same way that fandom thinks about and expands on the inner lives of the characters in the books and television shows we love? And might this trick us, in real-world settings, into forgetting that these stories, in our minds, about these people who are REAL—are not real themselves?

The stories we tell ourselves are just that—stories. They are, at best, guesses, and often, they’re not very good ones. We do not have special access to another person’s thoughts or emotions, no matter how much we’ve read about them. We do not “really know” them better than the people they are close to in real life. It is not in any way rational to think that, based on your familiarity with someone’s writing or twitter feed or something you were peripherally involved with ten years ago, you have superior knowledge of that person’s current mental states, emotions, personality, and moral proclivities than do people who currently hang out with that person on a daily basis.

And yet, this happens. It happens all the time. We judge people not just on their actions, but on the stories we tell ourselves about those actions, not just on their work, but on the stories we tell ourselves about how we think that work came to be. And there are very real reasons to think that the people who might be most prone to this feeling—that we really know someone, that we understand their intentions and emotions and motivations and inspirations—are those of us who spend the most time in fictional worlds, with fictional characters, telling ourselves stories about them.

This is what I was thinking when I read Sarah’s blog entry. I was thinking about parasocial relationships and the way we perceive mental states and how fiction can fool you into thinking those perceptions are more than guesses. I was thinking about the way that gender almost certainly plays a role in what those guesses end up being. And I was thinking that it would probably do a world of good if we made more of an active effort to remind ourselves of all the things we don’t know.

  1. elanorjoy reblogged this from fanculturesfancreativity and added:
    Holy shit. The brilliance here. And the scariness of coming to terms with a potentially capital T truth.
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