People who feel strong connections to fictional characters in TV shows are more likely to have relationship issues, research suggests.
Fictional TV shows and movies may provide a ‘safe space’ in which people with relationship problems can work them out.
By thinking about their favourite character, they can imagine what they might do in the same situation.
People high in anxious-avoidant attachment were especially likely to strongly identify with fictional characters.
Anxious-avoidant people desire intimacy, but display avoidant behaviour that tends to damage their relationship.
Classic examples of avoidant behaviours include not returning calls, not expressing love, mocking partner’s attempts at intimacy and ‘forgetting’ plans.
Mr Nathan Silver, the study’s first author, said:
“We can do a lot more with stories than just escape into them.
For people with attachment issues, movies and TV shows can be a way to try to understand their problems or to vicariously meet their needs for intimacy in a way that they may find difficult in real life.”
For the study, 1,039 Americans were asked about their relationship problems and TV habits.
Anxious-avoidant people were most strongly connected to characters in TV shows, the results showed.
They were more likely to:
- become transported or absorbed in the story,
- more likely to imagine different choices for the character,
- and imagine knowing a fictional character personally.
Mr Silver explained the problem that faces anxious-avoidant people in their relationships:
“These are the classic self-sabotagers.
They really want supportive intimacy, but tend to screw it up because they also have these avoidance behaviors.
What the story world provides these people is a safe place to deal with this ambivalence.
That’s why I believe they are engaging more in the story world.”
Fiction provides a virtual world to try out possibilities, said Mr Silver:
“What our results suggest is that people with these issues can use the story world to think about how they would react if they had the chance.
They expand their social experiences, at least vicariously.”
Unfortunately, the study doesn’t tell us whether using TV shows and movies in this way is beneficial or not to people with attachment issues.
About the author
Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book “Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2013) and several ebooks:
- Accept Yourself: How to feel a profound sense of warmth and self-compassion
- The Anxiety Plan: 42 Strategies For Worry, Phobias, OCD and Panic
- Spark: 17 Steps That Will Boost Your Motivation For Anything
- Activate: How To Find Joy Again By Changing What You Do
The study was published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships (Silver & Slater, 2019).