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A warm TV may drive away feelings of loneliness, rejection

April 23, 2009
Courtesy University at Buffalo
and World Science staff

Not all tech­nolo­gies meet hu­man needs; some of­fer only the il­lu­sion of hav­ing done so. But new re­search in­di­cates the il­lu­sionary rela­t­ion­ships with char­ac­ters on fa­vor­ite TV shows can pro­vide peo­ple with feel­ings of be­long­ing, even in the face of low self es­teem or af­ter be­ing re­jected by friends or family mem­bers.

The find­ings are de­scribed in four stud­ies by psy­chol­o­gists at the Uni­ver­s­ity at Buf­fa­lo, N.Y., and Mi­ami Uni­ver­s­ity, Ohio, and pub­lished in the cur­rent is­sue of the Jour­nal of Ex­pe­ri­men­tal So­cial Psy­chol­o­gy.

“The re­search pro­vides ev­i­dence for the ‘so­cial sur­ro­gacy hy­poth­e­sis,’ which holds that hu­mans can use tech­nolo­gies, like tel­e­vi­sion, to pro­vide the ex­pe­ri­ence of be­long­ing when no real be­long­ingness has been ex­pe­ri­enced,” said one of the stu­dy’s au­thors, psy­cholo­g­ist Shira Ga­bri­el at the Uni­ver­s­ity at Buf­fa­lo.

“We al­so ar­gue that oth­er com­mon­place tech­nolo­gies such as movies, mu­sic or in­ter­ac­tive vi­deogames, as well as tel­e­vi­sion, can ful­fill this need.”

A first stu­dy, of 701 un­der­grad­u­ate stu­dents, used ques­tion­naires to find that sub­jects re­ported tun­ing to fa­vored tel­e­vi­sion pro­grams when they felt lonely and felt less lonely when view­ing those pro­grams. 

A sec­ond study used essays to ex­pe­ri­men­tally ma­ni­pu­late the be­long­ingness needs of 102 un­der­grad­u­ate sub­jects and as­sess the im­por­tance of their fa­vored tel­e­vi­sion pro­grams when those needs were stim­u­lat­ed. Par­ti­ci­pants whose be­long­ingness needs were aroused rev­eled long­er in their de­scrip­tions of fa­vored tel­e­vi­sion pro­grams than in de­scrip­tions of non-fa­vored pro­grams, the study found. 

The third stu­dy, of 116 par­ti­ci­pants, found that think­ing about fa­vored tel­e­vi­sion pro­grams buffered sub­jects against drops in self-es­teem, in­creases in neg­a­tive mood and feel­ings of re­jec­tion com­monly elicited by threats to close rela­t­ion­ships.

In a fi­nal stu­dy, re­search­ers asked 222 par­ti­ci­pants to write a short es­say on their fa­vor­ite tel­e­vi­sion pro­gram, and then to write about pro­grams they watch “when noth­ing else is on,” or about ex­periencing an ac­a­dem­ic achieve­ment. They were then asked to talk about what they had writ­ten in as much de­tail as pos­si­ble. 

Af­ter writ­ing about fa­vored tel­e­vi­sion pro­grams, the sub­jects ex­pressed few­er feel­ings of lone­li­ness or ex­clu­sion than when ver­bally de­scrib­ing ei­ther of the oth­er situa­t­ions, the re­search­ers said. It re­mains un­clear, they added, wheth­er so­cial sur­ro­gacy sup­presses be­long­ingness needs or ac­tu­ally ful­fills them, and they ac­knowl­edged that the kind of so­cial sur­ro­gacy pro­voked by these pro­grams can be a poor sub­sti­tute for “real” in­ter­ac­tion.

“Turn­ing one’s back on family and friends for the sol­ace of tel­e­vi­sion may be mal­a­dap­tive [un­health­y] and leave a per­son with few­er re­sources over time,” re­marked the Uni­ver­s­ity at Buf­fa­lo’s Jaye L. Der­rick. “But for those who have dif­fi­cul­ty ex­periencing so­cial in­ter­ac­tion be­cause of phys­i­cal or en­vi­ron­men­tal con­straints, tech­no­log­ic­ally in­duced be­long­ingness may of­fer com­fort.”


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Not all technologies meet human needs; some offer only the illusion of having done so. But new research indicates the illusionary relationships with characters on favorite TV shows can provide people with feelings of belonging, even in the face of low self esteem or after being rejected by friends or family members. The findings are described in four studies by psychologists at the University at Buffalo, N.Y., and Miami University, Ohio, and published in the current issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. “The research provides evidence for the ‘social surrogacy hypothesis,’ which holds that humans can use technologies, like television, to provide the experience of belonging when no real belongingness has been experienced,” said one of the study’s authors, psychologist Shira Gabriel at the University at Buffalo. “We also argue that other commonplace technologies such as movies, music or interactive video games, as well as television, can fulfill this need.” A first study, of 701 undergraduate students, used questionnaires to find that subjects reported tuning to favored television programs when they felt lonely and felt less lonely when viewing those programs. A second study used essaid to experimentally manipulate the belongingness needs of 102 undergraduate subjects and assess the importance of their favored television programs when those needs were stimulated. Participants whose belongingness needs were aroused reveled longer in their descriptions of favored television programs than in descriptions of non-favored programs, the study found. The third study, of 116 participants, found that thinking about favored television programs buffered subjects against drops in self-esteem, increases in negative mood and feelings of rejection commonly elicited by threats to close relationships. In a final study, researchers asked 222 participants to write a short essay on their favorite television program, and then to write about programs they watch “when nothing else is on,” or about experiencing an academic achievement. They were then asked to describe what they had written in as much detail as possible. After writing about favored television programs, the subjects verbally expressed fewer feelings of loneliness or exclusion than when verbally describing either of the other situations, the researchers said. It remains unclear, they added, whether social surrogacy suppresses belongingness needs or actually fulfills them, and they acknowledged that the kind of social surrogacy provoked by these programs can be a poor substitute for “real” interaction. “Turning one’s back on family and friends for the solace of television may be maladaptive [unhealthy] and leave a person with fewer resources over time,” remarked the University at Buffalo’s Jaye L. Derrick. “But for those who have difficulty experiencing social interaction because of physical or environmental constraints, technologically induced belongingness may offer comfort.”