Rationalizing Fiction Cues: Psychological Effects of Disclosing Ads and the Inaccuracy of the Human Mind When Being in Parasocial Relationships

Johanna Lisa Degen
Informing Science: The International Journal of an Emerging Transdiscipline  •  Volume 26  •  2023  •  pp. 085-101

Parasocial relationships are today established on social media between influencers and their followers. While marketing effects are well-researched, little is known about the meaning of such relationships and the psychological mechanisms behind them. This study, therefore, explores the questions: “How do followers on Instagram interpret explicit fiction cues from influencers?” and “What does this reveal about the meaning of parasocial attachment?”

With a billion-dollar advertising industry and leading in influencing opinion, Instagram is a significant societal and economic player. One factor for the effective influence of consumers is the relationship between influencer and follower. Research shows that disclosing advertisements surprisingly does not harm credibility, and sometimes even leads to greater trustworthiness and, in turn, willingness to purchase. While such reverse dynamics are measurable, the mechanisms behind them remain largely unexplored.

The study follows an explorative approach with in-depth interviews, which are analyzed with Mayring’s content analysis under a reconstructive paradigm. The findings are discussed through the lens of critical psychology.

Firstly, this study contributes to the understanding of the communicative dynamics of influencer-follower communication alongside the reality-fiction-gap model, and, secondly, it contributes empirical insights through the analysis of 22 explorative interviews.

The findings show (a) how followers rationalize fiction cues and justify compulsive decision-making, (b) how followers are vulnerable to influences, and (c) how parasocial attachment formation overshadows rational logic and agency. The findings are discussed with regard to mechanisms, vulnerabilities, rationalizations and cognitive bias, and the social self, as well as the ethics of influencer marketing and politics.

The contribution is relevant to relationship research, group dynamics and societal organizing, well-being, identity, and health perspectives, within psychology, sociology, media studies, and pedagogy to management.

Future research might seek to understand more about (a) quantifiable vulnerabilities, such as attachment styles, dispositions, and demographics, (b) usage patterns and possible factors of prevention, (c) cognitive and emotional mechanisms involved with larger samples, (d) the impact on relationships and well-being, and (e) possible conditions for the potential of parasocial attachment.

parasocial relationships, social media, intimate relationships, bonding, social media advertisement, rationalization, human mind, bias, social media communication
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