When Oprah Winfrey hosts her final show and closes the door on this chapter of her life, her many fans around the world will undoubtedly have varied reactions. Some may feel happy or relieved, others indifferent, while the rest of us will just be trying to resist the urge to go into the ugly cry. Having to watch Oprah’s last episode with a box of tissues may seem like an overreaction to some, but I’m not embarrassed. Like many fans, I expect to suffer from "empty Oprah syndrome," a melodramatic term for having a sense of sadness and loss when Oprah goes off the air. But according to science, this is a perfectly natural reaction.
Feeling depressed about the loss Oprah as you would for a friend may seem crazy, but research shows that developing strong attachments to celebrities and even fictional characters is normal. For decades, researchers have been studying the imagined friendships audience members form with people in books, television and movies. Communication scholars refer to these attachments as “parasocial relationships,” a fancy term for feeling like you know a person as if they are your real friend, without ever having met them.
Having a parasocial relationship is different than celebrity worship, which can be an unhealthy — sometimes debilitating or dangerous — obsession with celebrities and public figures (think Kathy Bates in "Misery" or John Hinckley Jr.). On the contrary, researchers consider parasocial attachment to be a natural social response. Humans are hard-wired to develop social connections with other people and, apparently, it doesn’t matter if we’ve met them or not.
A parasocial attachment could occur with a real person, like Oprah or one of the "American Idol" finalists, or with a fictional character like Harry Potter or Meredith Grey from "Grey’s Anatomy." What makes a parasocial friend is not whether you know the person or even whether the person exists, but whether you care about them, and feel like you know them. If you have a parasocial relationship with someone, you might find yourself thinking about them, feeling proud of them, worrying about them, or missing them when they are gone like you would a real friend. Recently, people with an attachment to Maria Shriver might have felt concerned or protective of her when her husband’s betrayal was revealed.
Parasocial relationships are nothing new, but thanks to a boom in social media and reality TV, these connections are particularly easy to come by these days. Celebrities and politicians alike can cultivate these relationships by disclosing details about their life to interested followers. Ashton Kutcher’s status updates on Twitter allow fans to be privy to details about his personality and daily routines, making them feel like though they actually know him. Likewise, reality TV gives viewers the impression that they are getting to know real personalities. So even though "Jersey Shore" might not always paint the most flattering picture of Snooki when she gets drunk, so long as viewers feel like they are gaining some authentic insight into her personality, they can develop these feeling of attachment towards her.
Parasocial friends like Oprah can come with benefits. Like our friends, people we feel close to on TV can teach us lessons and fend off loneliness by keeping us company. The one-sided nature of these relationships means you can’t have a conversation with your parasocial friends, so you’ll never have a friendship with Oprah like Gayle King does. But the upshot is that these imaginary friends can’t directly criticize or insult you, stand you up, or betray your trust either. A parasocial friend could be the most loyal friend you’ve ever had.
Breaking up is hard to do
The downside of having a parasocial relationship is that losing it can hurt just like losing a real friend. Jonathan Cohen, a professor at the University of Haifa who studies what he termed “parasocial breakups” found that when their favorite television personality is taken off the air, viewers can experience intense sadness and loneliness. In a study published in the Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media, Keren Eyal and Cohen studied how viewers responded when the sitcom "Friends" ended and found that viewers who felt closer to one of the main characters experienced more emotional distress when the show was taken off the air. So you see, "Friends" wasn’t just a clever title.
But Ross and Rachel might not hold a candle to Oprah’s parasocial allure. The longevity and frequency of "The Oprah Winfrey Show," combined with Oprah’s renowned ability to connect with an audience, means she’s probably collected a fair share of parasocial viewers who will feel devastated to see the queen of daytime talk go off into the sunset. So if you find yourself reaching for a tissue to hold back the ugly tears during Oprah’s final goodbye, just remember, you’re not alone.
Elizabeth Cohen is a communication doctoral student at Georgia State University studying psychological effects of the media. She also served as faculty advisor for MNN's local correspondent program.