“Donald Trump Is Like an Old Friend”: Parasocial Relationships and Politics

Walking down a New York City street while still in my teens, I spotted a television film critic I admired walking in the opposite direction. I said, “Hello, Gene.” He looked at me and in a formal tone of voice replied, “Good evening.” We both kept walking, but immediately I felt disturbed by my behavior. His manner and tone of voice had made me aware of the fact that I didn’t know the man, yet I had felt comfortable calling him by his first name, simply because I had seen him on television. I had what anthropologist Donald Horton and sociologist R. Richard Wohl labeled in 1956 as a parasocial relationship with Gene: “the illusion of a face-to-face relationship with the performer.” Television had created a simulacrum of a relationship, as if I knew Gene as a peer, a member of my social circle. This parasocial relationship with a media figure was one-sided and non-reciprocal, but, nevertheless, I experienced it as a genuine relationship and absorbed it into my “matrix of usual social activity.”

In the decades since Horton and Wohl coined the term, social scientists have formulated theories to explain parasocial relationships—such as the compensation hypothesis, a compensation mechanism for the lack of “real life interaction with real people whom we know”; catalogued the many types of parasocial relationships within categories of celebrities and fictional characters; and developed measurement scales such as the parasocial interaction scale (PSI), to assess parasocial bonds. The only consensus is that the parasocial relationship is a real feature of human behavior. One particular form—the media-mediated interaction between politicians and the voting public, well documented in the media studies and political science literature—has been receiving increasing scrutiny, following the election of a television reality show host to the US presidency.

Donald Trump Is Like an Old Friend

The improbable election of Donald J. Trump, real estate developer, bestselling author, cameo actor and reality television host has generated a torrent of theories. Political scientists, pundits and journalists have generally favored explanations featuring cyber attacks, private email servers, implicit gender and racial bias and identity politics, which no doubt are strong arguments. But new arguments are now being made that his tenure as a television reality show performer during fourteen seasons of the highly rated The Apprentice and Celebrity Apprentice shows may have been the decisive factor in his slender 2016 election win. Several social science researchers have been attempting to quantify the parasocial relationship factor in Trump’s election. Shira Gabriel and her colleagues have recently published a paper arguing that parasocial bonds formed by exposure to The Apprentice television franchise were a factor in Donald Trump’s election. Using survey data collected in late December 2016, from a sample of 521 participants, they measured parasocial bonds, Trump/Apprentice familiarity, political attitudes and behaviors and current attitudes towards Trump, and used the data to test several hypotheses. They explain:

The more participants in our study were exposed to Trump, both through his TV show and other media, the more likely they were to have a parasocial bond with Trump. That bond with Trump predicated having a positive attitude toward Trump, believing his promises, disregarding his inflammatory statements, and even (self-reported) voting behavior. In addition, these effects were particularly strong for those whose votes were a surprise in the election: people who did not identify with the Republican party.

Can predictions of political support be made by measuring the strength of parasocial relationships with candidates for office? Jonathan Cohen and R. Lance Holbert are using a newly developed political parasocial relationship measure, PPSR, to attempt to predict support for Donald J. Trump, Hillary Clinton and US Speaker of the House, Paul Ryan. They question how the intensity of the citizen–politician parasocial relationship predicts support for a candidate over and above the more traditional voter choice predictors, such as personal policy preferences and party identification. In a May 2017 survey of 2,055 US adults, questions on the PPSR included whether or not you agreed with these statements:

  • When I’m watching Donald Trump, I feel as if I am part of his group.
  • Donald Trump makes me feel comfortable, as if I am with a friend.
  • I think Donald Trump is like an old friend.

The hypothesis is that Trump’s parasocial score “is statistically significant and highly predictive of Trump-support … [and] is by far the strongest predictor of Trump support.”

The idea that a media persona generates affective relationships with voters and influences political support might be viewed as a relatively recent phenomenon, a consequence of our digital media saturated environment. Heyu Xiong has done a clever study of the “political consequences of television celebrity.” Although not an explicit investigation of the parasocial phenomenon, he argues that name recognition and celebrity exposure affect the “personalized political considerations” of voters. The political actor in that study was not Donald J. Trump but Ronald Reagan. Reagan was host of General Electric Theater (GET), an anthology television show watched weekly by twenty million households—almost 45% of all television-owning households—that aired on CBS from 1953 to 1962. Reagan appeared at the beginning of each episode to introduce the premise, sometimes also acting in the episode. Xiong points out the similarity with Trump’s The Apprentice: both shows were devoid of political content and aired years before any declaration of political aspirations. Xiong creates a proxy for viewership of the GET program, using precise information about CBS broadcast infrastructure to compute signal strength on a 10 km x 10 km raster for the entire US, and historical Arbiton (a defunct competitor to Nielsen) market reports. He then looks at all elections Reagan participated in during his political career: the 1966 and 1970 California governor races; the 1976 and 1980 Republican primaries; and the 1980 and 1984 general presidential elections. He concludes:

I calculate that exposure to G.E. Theater induced a large percentage of viewers, otherwise not predisposed to voting Republican, to vote for Reagan in the 1980 general Presidential election … Voters differentially exposed to G.E. Theater were substantially more likely to attribute their decision to vote for Reagan to his personal characteristics.

As with any social science hypothesis, one or two examples or studies are not sufficient evidence for any claim. Fortunately for psychologists—though perhaps to the detriment of liberal democracies—The Apprentice is a natural experiment currently being replicated in different cultural and political settings. In early 2017, Bloomberg News reported that the franchise exists in more than a dozen countries. In Brazil, a former host was elected mayor. In Finland, another was elected to parliament. According to Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism and sociology at Columbia University, “The reality TV star forges a weirdly intimate link with the public that comes to see him as their deputy or representative.”

As improbable as this hypothesis may seem, politicians are hedging their bets. Recently elected congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks directly to her followers on Twitter, via video. Senator and presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren has live streamed herself drinking a beer on Instagram. And, of course, the 45th POTUS tweets on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis. On Twitter, the parasocial interaction has additional potency: one is able to communicate back to the media figure in a faux exchange of intimacy. Political scientists have called this the “personalization of politics.”

Intimacy at a Distance

What might be the causal mechanism of parasocial relationships? Let’s begin with the premise that the human brain is an information-processing organ, adapted by natural selection to enhance fitness. The recognition and interpretation of the faces of conspecifics provides particularly important information for social, group-living primates. The African savanna is the human environment of evolutionary adaptedness, EEA. On the African savanna 1.5 million years ago, everyone encountered would have been family or friend. Our hominid ancestors would never have encountered a facsimile of a human face. Satoshi Kanazawa posits that the psychological mechanisms of the adapted human brain have trouble distinguishing between people and situations that did not exist in the EEA. Kanazawa uses the US General Social Survey data on television viewing, types of show watched and satisfaction with friendships as evidence for his claim

that people who watch certain types of TV shows are more satisfied with their friendships as if they had more friends and socialized with them more often … [and] that the human brain and its psychological mechanisms have unconscious difficulty comprehending entities and situations that did not exist in the EEA.

Horton and Wohl’s article “Mass Communication and Parasocial Interaction: Observations on Intimacy at a Distance” describes a 1955 New York television program called Count Sheep with Nancy Berg, which aired weeknights at 1am. The nightgown-clad Miss Berg would appear, get into bed, perform a bit of business, such as read from Romeo and Juliet or eat grapes off a toy Ferris wheel, and then, in extreme close-up, whisper a good night to the camera and pretend to go to sleep as animated sheep jumped over a fence. Her manager stated, “A lot of people watch it. God knows why.”

This might seem like just a quaint anecdote about the naive beginnings of visual mass medium—except that presidential aspirant Beto O’Rourke recently live streamed his dental cleaning to the televisions we carry in our pockets. All future political aspirants will be like Miss Berg, sharing details (authenticity optional) of their lives with us, much as a friend would. As media technologies create more accurate facsimiles of the physical world, the affective power of the parasocial interaction will increase in persuasiveness. The outcomes of this human behavioral phenomenon in the political realm are soon going to become evident and cause disruption.

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