Do you ever look forward to cuddling up with your television and spending a nice, quiet evening together – just the two of you? Turns out, the relationships you have with characters in your favorite shows may be giving you a bigger emotional boost than you think.
Four new studies in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology test the ‘social surrogacy hypothesis,’ which holds that humans can use technologies, like television, to feel a sense of belonging that they’re lacking in their physical lives. And not only TV, but movies, music and video games can fill this need as well, according to the theory.
The experiments measured different categories of emotional reaction, like self-esteem, belongingness, loneliness, rejection and exclusion, in response to descriptions of subjects’ favorite TV programs. In one of the experiments, 222 undergraduate students were asked to write a 10-minute essay about their favorite TV shows, and then to write about TV programs they watch when nothing else is on, or about the experience of achieving something noteworthy in school. Afterward, they were asked to verbally describe what they’d written in as much detail as possible.
The results: after writing about their favorite TV shows, participants verbally expressed fewer feelings of loneliness and exclusion than when describing the filler TV shows or the experience of academic achievement. The takeaway is that surrogate relationships with characters or personalities in TV programs can fill emotional needs. Another of the experiments produced results suggesting that thinking about a favorite TV show buffers against drops in self-esteem and feelings of rejection that accompany the end of a relationship — an electronic vaccine for heartbreak.
These results buttress a concept that most people would admit scares them a little — ‘technology induced belongingness’. That spending a half hour with our favorite imaginary personalities can turn on our love lights seems a bit strange, but may be truer than we’re willing to admit.