A lonely child might invent an imaginary friend, but for adults, reprieve from loneliness comes from a less creative source: television. New studies find that humans are sating their craving for friendship by forming relationships with the people on TV.

In a new article from the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Jaye Derrick and Shira Gabriel of the University of Buffalo and Kurt Hugenberg of Miami University examine the "Social Surrogacy Hypothesis," which posits that humans are using their TV sets as a substitute for human interaction. What they found was that people become more emotionally invested in watching television when they felt a need to belong to a social group:

The authors theorized that loneliness motivates individuals to seek out relationships, even if those relationships are not real. In a series of experiments, the authors demonstrated that participants were more likely to report watching a favorite TV show when they were feeling lonely and reported being less likely to feel lonely while watching. This preliminary evidence suggests that people spontaneously seek out social surrogates when real interactions are unavailable. The authors also found that participants who recalled a fight with a close person in their lives wrote for significantly longer about their favorite TV show than a non-favored TV show. It appears that experiencing a lack of belonging actually caused people to revel in their favorite TV shows, as though the parasocial relationships with TV characters replaced the flawed relationships that had been recalled.

The results suggest that humans are inclined to form one-sided, parasocial relationships with people and characters on television, and that being able to spend time with those characters without the possibility of rejection fulfills a primal need to socially connect to others, even if that connection isn't interactive.

So what effect, I wonder, does canceling shows have on the human psyche? Do we unconsciously feel that a trusted friend has been ripped from us, and does not being able to spend time with them make us more lonely?

[Scientific American]