How involved in a show or movie do you get? Do you think about it once it’s over? Do you analyze the plot line over and over in your head? How "into" the characters do you get? Do you tend to emotionally get drawn into a television show or movie more than others? According to a new study, anxious people tend to form relationships with characters in television shows and films, more than others without anxiety.
In addition to forming relationships with characters, the study found that anxious people pursue new experiences and relationships within the story world on screen, reflect on events within the story world after watching, and feel that a story taught them something about the real world more so than those who were less anxious.
“Avoidant participants were the opposite, engaging less with stories,” study author Nathan Silver told us. “However, when participants were both anxious and avoidant, they engaged with stories to the greatest extent.”
The study, titled, A safe space for self-expansion: Attachment and motivation to engage and interact with the story world, was authored by Silver and Michael D. Slater. Silver explained that theorizing about why we engage with stories (losing track of time, vicariously experiencing what characters experience etc.) suggests that we do not only do this as a means of escaping the difficulties in our lives, but may also offer a way of expanding our experiences.
“As a result, the story world may offer an environment where people who feel particularly limited in their ability to pursue and satisfy their needs are able to do so,” Silver told us. “Insecure attachment represents a limitation to a nearly universal human need: intimacy.”
Attachment theory suggests that we cope with barriers to intimacy in two ways: We avoid it, or we become anxious and colloquially "needy", Silver explained. Anxious people may seek out emotional experiences as well as escape from the discomfort of needing constant validation, and thus find the story world to be an attractive destination. In contrast, avoidant people tend to avoid emotional experiences, and thus may also do so in the story world.
“However, when people are both anxious and avoidant they deal with an uncomfortable ambivalence towards intimacy; they want it, need it, and remain anxious without it, but they tend to self-sabotage their relationships out of mistrust and thus remain chronically unsatisfied in their need for intimacy,” Silver told us. “We suggest that these people may find engagement and interaction with the story world particularly attractive as it offers an environment to resolve some of that ambivalence.”
Silver says he chose to study this topic because people under stress engage with stories in different ways that can have important implications for how entertainment media affect people's attitudes, beliefs, and even well-being.
“Intimate relationships with others whether romantic or otherwise are a near universal human need,” Silver told us. “Understanding how barriers to intimacy influence our engagement with media is particularly important given the increased accessibility of media entertainment alongside a growing number of people who feel disconnected from others. That the inability to satisfy relational needs increases engagement with story-based media means this demographic is increasingly susceptible to the influence of that media, whether harmful or beneficial.”
To test their theory, Silver and Slater conducted a survey where they asked people how they tend to engage with stories: the extent to which they feel like they "get to know characters as they are as people" or "experiencing what it is like to meet people you otherwise wouldn't meet or have abilities you wouldn't otherwise have", and assessed their attachment insecurity via a questionnaire.
Though results were as predicted, Silver believes his study has important implications going forward.
“How to maximize positive effects and minimize negative effects of television and film are important goals of media scholarship,” Silver told us. “That those experiencing greater than average barriers to intimacy may be more susceptible to both influences has implications for both media-based interventions as well as the need for media literacy among at-risk populations.”
Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog: www.patriciatomasiblog.wordpress.com