We all have crushes on at least one fictional character. Whether you swoon over Jane Austen’s Mr. Darcy or still can’t get over Jon Snow, connecting with and getting emotional over a TV or movie character is pretty common. Turns out, it’s might be good for you, according to a new study.
It’s totally normal. Researchers at Ohio State University were captivated by the fact that becoming overly engaged in the fictional entertainment we watch is really common and they aimed to find out what was behind the phenomenon. To do so, doctoral student Nathan Silver and professor of communication Michael Slater did an online survey of over 1,000 people to get inside their heads.
Attachment issues are not all created equal. The study, which was published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, was most interested in attachment avoidance—those who avoid forming close personal connections and letting their guard down in romantic relationships—and attachment anxiety, in which the person requires constant reassurance that they are loved/that the relationship is OK. In other words, they’re needy.
One type of person tends to get more into the TV shows and movies they watch. The study aimed to “see how the ways people coped with attachment insecurities related to how they interacted with movies and TV shows that they watched.” Perhaps unsurprisingly, they found that those with attachment avoidance were less involved while those with attachment anxiety—the “needy” ones—were way more into the things they were watching.
For those who suffer from both avoidance and anxiety issues, the results were even more interesting. Respondents who had both of these attachment issues were reported that they felt way more “absorbed” or “transported” by their chosen TV shows and movies. Not only that, but they believed their media helped them understand people better and they also like to imagine that they know the characters they love personally.
TV and movies provide an amazing outlet for people with attachment issues. As Silver explained, “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.”
It’s all about living vicariously. “When they watch their favorite shows, people with attachment issues can imagine a relationship without the real-life problems, like the storybook romance of Jim and Pam on The Office,” Silver said. “If you take the perspective of Jim, you don’t have to be anxious about Pam. You can vicariously have this very functional relationship, just like they do on the show. 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.”
Whether or not this behavior is ultimately helpful remains to be seen and needs more research. Silver believes that the lure of the fictional world is easy to understand, especially given the feelings and mental processes it evokes in those with attachment issues. The long-term effects of this are unclear, but Silver appreciates the safe space TV shows and films offer. “Our findings suggest that the story world offers people, in addition to escape, a safe environment to cope with some of the problems they have with relationships,” he explained.
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