Angela DUCKWORTH: You know me, Stephen. I’m like, “Let’s hug. Let’s take a selfie.”
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DUCKWORTH: I’m Angela Duckworth.
Stephen DUBNER: I’m Stephen Dubner.
DUCKWORTH + DUBNER: And you’re listening to No Stupid Questions.
Today on the show: What does it mean to be friends with someone who has no idea that you exist?
DUCKWORTH: Instead of having a conversation with an actual friend, I’ll just listen to Stephen and Angela have a conversation with each other.
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DUBNER: Angela, a listener named Kaitlin writes to say that the highlight of her day is listening to this podcast on her walks. She writes, “It feels like hanging out with close friends.”
DUBNER: Oh, I was going to ask for your response. Your response was, “Aw!” That’s the opposite of my response, but okay.
DUCKWORTH: Yours is, “Ew!” No. Kaitlin, just so you know: “Aw!”
DUBNER: She continues: “My question is: how useful are these parasocial relationships in maintaining mental health?” So, Angie, before I continue reading the email, I think I understand this word from context, but can you define a word I’d never heard before: “parasocial”?
DUCKWORTH: I think the idea of a parasocial relationship is that it’s an asymmetric relationship. It’s one-sided. So, Kaitlin might feel like she’s hanging out with us, but we do not feel like — nor do we, in any sense — “hang out” with her.
DUBNER: Well, right now we are.
DUCKWORTH: Well, except for now. This is as good as it gets, Kaitlin.
DUBNER: So, she says, “How useful are these relationships?” And then she continues, “Or will my almost-daily rewatching of Friends and rereading of Harry Potter hinder my ability to form, quote, ‘normal’ relationships in the long run? Also,” she writes, “What does the research say about our friendships and emotional dependency with A.I., artificial intelligence? Do they count as parasocial relationships?” I think of the movie Her. Did you ever see Her, Angie?
DUCKWORTH: I didn’t. Is that the one where Scarlett Johansson plays, like, the equivalent of Alexa or something?
DUBNER: Yes, exactly.
DUCKWORTH: Sorry to, by the way, turn on a number of devices just then. A-L-E-X-A.
DUBNER: I’ve noticed that I can’t have a conversation around S-I-R-I anymore if I’m going to ever say the word S-E-R-I-O-U-S-L-Y. Or say the name of the company with whom I partner in producing radio, which is S-I-R-I-U-S-X-M.
DUBNER: So, S-I-R-I, if you’re listening, it’s a problem. We need to work it out. But that’s not what Kaitlin’s asking about. Kaitlin’s asking: Does a relationship with, let’s say, your A-L-E-X-A or S-I-R-I count as a parasocial relationship? She writes, “I don’t feel anything about Alexa or Siri, but perhaps a much more advanced robot of the future could be a friend.” So, Angela, in response to Kaitlin’s email, what does the research say about parasocial relationships?
DUCKWORTH: I remember a talk that one of my favorite researchers, Anuj Shah— He’s at University of Chicago in the Booth School of Business, and he’s a professor of behavioral science, and he is part of Behavior Change for Good, which, as you know, is a consortium of behavioral scientists that Katy Milkman and I gathered to do studies together. But in this particular conversation, Anuj was presenting new work which was inspired by his teaching during the pandemic. What Anuj said is that, when you are teaching on Zoom, you are in your living room, or in your kitchen, and life is going on in the background. And he observed of his students that, because they could now see some of his day-to-day life, they had this sense that he reciprocally knew them. In other words, there was this kind of automatic, reciprocal, like, “Well, since I know a lot about you, you must know a lot about me.” And he found this so interesting he decided to do research on it. He was just published this year in Nature, which is arguably the top scientific journal. And the title of his paper is “Knowledge About Others Reduces One’s Own Sense of Anonymity.”
DUBNER: Run that past me again. I like that, but I need to process it.
DUCKWORTH: Yeah. It’s a lot, and I want to unpack it a little bit, but the title is: “Knowledge About Others Reduces One’s Own Sense of Anonymity.” And I should say that Anuj did this in collaboration with a postdoc named Michael LaForest. They say: “Social ties often seem symmetric, but they need not be. For example, a person might know a stranger better than the stranger knows them. Here we show that, when people know more about others, they think others know more about them. Across nine laboratory experiments, when participants learned more about a stranger, they felt as if the stranger also knew them better. As a result, participants were more honest around known strangers. We tested this further with a field experiment in New York City in which we provided residents with mundane information about neighborhood police officers. We found that the intervention shifted residents’ perceptions of officers’ knowledge of illegal activity, and it may even have reduced crime. It appears that our sense of anonymity depends not only on what people know about us, but also on what we know about them.” So, Stephen, getting back to parasocial relationships: I think one of the reasons why somebody listening to a podcast like ours, or watching Friends or, you know, Cheers —which is something I watched a lot growing up — is that when we feel like we know a lot about Norm, or about Seinfeld, or about Stephen, or about Angela, we have this almost reflexive assumption that this is a two-way relationship. And I think it’s probably because, in most of human history, relationships were not possible in this parasocial sense. Relationships were just relationships.
DUBNER: So, this is a whole new dynamic that the human instrument is getting accustomed to now.
DUCKWORTH: Well, I guess you could go back to times where, say, for example, there was a royal family that everyone gossiped about. Clearly there’s an asymmetry there, right? Because people are not talking about your typical villager. But it’s so clear that they’re the royal family.
DUBNER: The demarcation.
DUCKWORTH: Whereas I think one of the features of Friends, or Cheers, or Seinfeld, or a podcast, including ours, is that we’re not at a different level. Right?
DUBNER: Well, I am. Let’s be clear.
DUCKWORTH: Except for King Stephen — and Queen Angela. But the point is, I think, it’s voluntary vulnerability and intimacy in a way that you don’t think that the queen and king did 500 years ago. So, it’s unprecedented, maybe.
DUBNER: I thought of an example that’s very different from this, but it’s intriguing to me, which is about the difference in the dynamic. We were doing a live show in Chicago once, and I want to say that this guy was an economist at a university in Indiana — forgive all the details I’m getting wrong here — but his research was about what I guess you would call “asymmetric sports rivalries.” And he’d actually measured, very intensely, how these asymmetries played out. So, for instance, Notre Dame is a big, and famous, and historically successful sports program, especially with football. And then they have all these other teams that they’ve played for years, and years, and years, and years. And those schools — let’s say Boston College, for instance. Boston College considers Notre Dame its No. 1 rival. Notre Dame considers Boston College its number — I don’t know — 37 rival. That’s what I got to thinking about when you were telling me about parasocial relationships, generally. But that’s a little bit easier to understand, because it sounds as though with the parasocial relationships, especially if they’re coming from media — let’s say it’s fiction, like Friends, or nonfiction, like a podcast — that you really do feel you form a relationship with these people. Are you saying, however, that the listener, or the viewer, will really cross the line and really think that the relationship is beyond virtual?
DUCKWORTH: I don’t know that people think, “Oh, my gosh, I thought we were best friends.” I think it’s just that there is something of a reflexive, like, “Well, if I know a lot about you, then you must know a lot about me.” That doesn’t necessarily mean that people are delusional.
DUBNER: Well, doesn’t it sound borderline delusional? Like, why would I think that you would know a lot about me?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, it’s on a continuum, I guess you could argue. Maybe we’re just using a heuristic. Generally, when I know a lot about you, you know a lot about me. But I remember when Princess Diana died, and there was such an outpouring of grief around the world. Do you remember when that happened? And there was just, like, piles of flowers, and people who actually felt genuinely sad for days or more.
DUBNER: I’ll be honest with you. I mean, this may make me sound more like a robot than a human. I just didn’t get it. I didn’t understand why people cared so much.
DUCKWORTH: Same. I was like, “Holy schmoley! What is going on with these people who are grieving like it were a brother or a sister?” But maybe, just going back to this new research, that typically when we know a lot about somebody and we have a lot of affection for them, typically it’s reciprocated. And so, there is kind of, like, a hijacking of your normal relationship responses. I don’t know about the devices. I think it’s different to talk about your A-L-E-X-A or your S-I-R-I.
DUBNER: There is a podcast called “Everything is Alive,” hosted by Ian Chillag. It’s scripted, and it’s really funny. He interviews inanimate objects. And he hires really good actors or comics.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, I’ve heard of this! He’d interview, like, a potato or something.
DUBNER: Exactly. A sock. A vending machine. There’s one— He interviews a baby’s pacifier, and it becomes pretty lewd pretty quickly, because the voice says, “Just imagine you’re putting me in your mouth and rolling your tongue around my contours.”
DUCKWORTH: There was this research that Nick Epley, who’s at University of Chicago — he’s a psychologist. He has worked on this kind of anthropomorphism, when we attribute human characteristics to inanimate objects. It was also work in collaboration with John Cacioppo. And John Cacioppo, you may know, was a psychologist who was really, like, the world authority on the psychology of loneliness. So, both of them were interested in this question, but I’m thinking about a paper that Nick published only a few years ago. Basically, what his research shows is that human beings do anthropomorphize. We do start to interact with our car or our cell phone in a way that is like a relationship. But what Nick wants to conclude is that human beings are — I do remember this phrase — “relentlessly social.” In other words, we have such a deep need to interact with other people that we will even do it with non-people.
DUBNER: Let me take a step back and just ask you: If you had to make two lists about intense parasocial relationships — the upsides and downsides — give me a few.
DUCKWORTH: The upsides and downsides of parasocial relationships. Let me first talk about the downsides because, in a way, those should be the more obvious ones. You know, I see how much time people are spending watching Netflix or Food Network, and they’re on their screens. They’re not only having parasocial relationships, but all of life seems to be more vicarious than it used to be. Like, there was a time when people bought Julia Child’s cookbook and made coq au vin for the first time. “Oh, my gosh. This is how French people eat chicken. It’s amazing. I can’t believe it takes a whole bottle of wine. I spent all day cooking, but then we had this amazing dinner party.” That’s life. Right? But now, you could just watch somebody else cook coq au vin on Food Network while you sit on the couch with your bag of Doritos. I know that sounds really judge-y, but I feel like so much of life is not going out for the walk yourself and seeing nature, but instead watching a nature documentary. You know, not cooking the coq au vin yourself, but watching somebody else cook it. And I hope that’s not what this podcast becomes. It’s like, “Instead of actually having a conversation with an actual friend, I’ll just listen to Stephen and Angela have a conversation with each other.”
DUBNER: I hear you. You do sound a little bit judge-y.
DUCKWORTH: I know. I sounded very judge-y.
DUBNER: But that’s okay. Look, I appreciate the candor. And I definitely identify with those instincts, but I also identify maybe a little bit more with the general economist instinct versus the general psychologist instinct, which is to say, “You know what? Preferences are personal, and they shift over time, and they’re also not necessarily for me to decide.”
DUCKWORTH: Like, what’s good or what’s bad.
DUBNER: Yeah. And, also, can I just say? I made coq au vin once, and it was a pain in the neck.
DUCKWORTH: I know. It really does take a whole bottle of burgundy wine, too, which is really expensive.
DUBNER: You should just drink it. You should just order KFC and drink the bottle of wine. You’ll be much happier.
DUCKWORTH: I don’t even like coq au vin.
DUBNER: So, for anybody that’s been persuaded somehow by Angela evangelizing for making coq au vin, I’m just saying, in this one rare case— You’re never wrong, Angie. In this one case, she’s wrong.
DUCKWORTH: Just watch Emeril Lagasse make it.
DUBNER: Order KFC, drink the wine. You’ll be much better off. Anyway, you were saying you wish people would take nature walks and make coq au vin. Okay. So, that’s the downside of intense parasocial relationships, is they may encourage you to substitute—
DUCKWORTH: It’s displacing actual life. Faux-life is not life. And faux-relationships are not relationships.
DUBNER: I don’t think anyone sensible would argue against that. However, can you imagine that there are pretty strong positive elements of parasocial relationships? I think back to research done by Emily Oster, who’s an economist now at Brown, about women in India who got access for the first time to television, and how that changed their status in their families and society, because they were able to see that women in other places were actually treated pretty well, and went to college, and had jobs. And so, if you happened to be in a family or a town where women were treated much worse than that, you could start to change your idea of how you should be treated.
DUCKWORTH: But that’s not parasocial relationships. That’s just, “I got to see another way of life.” How is that having an asymmetric, like, “I felt like we were friends”?
DUBNER: I see your point, but I could imagine that if I’m watching that T.V. show, I could think, “Oh, this person in a lot of ways is a lot like me, and I like her a great deal, and I would like to be like her. I should probably try to be more like her, because then we could be closer.”
DUCKWORTH: This also happened in Mexico, where they had a soap opera that was very much about showing people deliberately that, you — even if you’re poor — could learn to read a book, and so forth. But I think the research there did not conclude that it was all working on the active ingredient of parasocial relationships where people feel like they’re friends with the protagonist of the soap opera, but more just modeling. That role model gives you— The technical term is “self-efficacy,” but the lay term would be “confidence,” right? Like, you see somebody do something, and you can imagine yourself doing it. But I don’t think that’s parasocial.
DUBNER: Okay. I’m not giving up yet. So, you’re saying that doesn’t really count, but let’s imagine that I am an Archie Bunker-type. I’m an old bigot. And for those who are too young to know Archie Bunker, he was the lead character in a T.V. show called All in the Family. So, imagine you’re that kind of person, but you can fill in the blank. It can be any gender, any race, any social strata you want, who thinks that most people who are not like them are kind of rotten people. And then I start watching a T.V. show like, I don’t know, Modern Family.
DUCKWORTH: I love Modern Family.
DUBNER: So, I’ve actually watched an episode of Modern Family.
DUCKWORTH: Just one?
DUBNER: I don’t watch a lot of T.V., is my problem. You know why I watched it, is because Freakonomics was on it. It was in the first season.
DUCKWORTH: Wait, Freakonomics was mentioned? You had a cameo?
DUBNER: Who was the super-smart daughter?
DUCKWORTH: Oh, right. She’s supposed to be, like, the nerdy one. Gosh, I can’t remember.
DUBNER: I think they were at a swimming pool, and everybody’s jumping around having fun, and she’s sitting by the pool reading Freakonomics.
DUCKWORTH: Oh, my gosh. That’s so cool, Stephen!
DUBNER: Yeah, we’re in the top, like, 58 of nerd accoutrements in the history of nerd accoutrements.
DUCKWORTH: But your point was about Modern Family.
DUBNER: Yeah. Imagine there’s a real-life Archie Bunker type. And then, they watch a T.V. show that is created and performed by these people who are really, really, really good at making everyone likable and interesting. So, I’m watching all these different characters who are nothing like me in any way. These are people I would never intentionally want to socialize with. I would never invite them to my house, et cetera. But now, gosh, I really like them. That one’s really funny, that one’s really smart, that one’s really sassy. Couldn’t you imagine that sort of parasocial-ish relationship — and maybe it’s not exactly what we’re talking about — but don’t you think that could serve a really useful function?
DUCKWORTH: Yes, I do. I think that’s plausible. And I’m now looking at this article called “The Development and Influence of Parasocial Relationships with Television Characters: A Longitudinal Experimental Test of Prejudice Reduction Through Parasocial Contact.” So, this is basically your idea, yes? And it’s by one Bradley Bond at University of San Diego.
DUBNER: I love Bradley Bond.
DUCKWORTH: You love Bradley Bond! Bradley Bond loves you, Stephen. I’m sure. But essentially, this is a 10-week study, and it involves a sample of heterosexual participants who watch a television series with fictional characters who are gay, and the question is: What happens to your attitudes as you watch over the course of two months? And the bottom-line conclusion is — and I quote — “that audiences can develop socio-emotional bonds with out-group television characters” — out-group meaning not in the main group — “that can influence attitudes and behaviors much the same as direct, interpersonal, intergroup contact.” That’s some empirical support for your intuition that, maybe, feeling like we are friends with people that don’t actually know us? That could be used for good.
Still to come on No Stupid Questions: Angela shares a parasocial relationship of her own.
DUCKWORTH: I listen to you all the time, I watch documentaries about you. I know so much that there has to be something on the other side.
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Before we return to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about parasocial relationships, let’s hear some of your thoughts on the subject. We asked listeners to let us know how parasocial relationships have shaped their lives. Here’s what you said.
Sara LARIOS: Hi! I’m in a one-sided relationship with Korean music group BTS. I first became a BTS fan when my sister and her family moved to South Korea at the end of 2019. Initially, it was a way for me to connect with my nephews and nieces at a distance, but before long I feel like I’ve really become a true fan — part of the BTS army. We know their personalities, their likes and dislikes. I think it’s been a way for me to really cope with being away from my family over the last two years of COVID. I guess some people might think it’s embarrassing, but: BTS army all the way.
Russell SINGER: Hi, Angela and Stephen. This is Russell Singer. As a much younger graduate student studying transportation systems, I often found myself having imaginary conversations with Elon Musk to vet my ideas and plan my presentations. At the time, I looked up to him deeply for his engineering acumen and ability to accomplish things that many tried but no one was able. In more recent days, I’ve lost a modicum of respect for him based on certain comments and activities that he’s engaged in. I still sometimes have conversations with him in my head, but they tend to take on a more morally superior tone and be far less deferential.
Colleen MASSEY: For several years now, I have had a lovely one-sided relationship with singer-songwriter Jason Isbell, who shows up with some regularity in my dreams. My husband and twenty-something children think it’s hysterical. They’ll be like, “Oh, mom had one of her Jason dreams again.” They can laugh. These sporadic dreams make me feel connected to someone whose work I love and whose music makes me happy and inspired.
That was, respectively: Sara Larios, Russell Singer, and Colleen Massey. Thanks to them and to everyone who sent us their thoughts. Now, back to Stephen and Angela’s conversation about how modern media has created asymmetric relationships.
DUCKWORTH: I sometimes run into people who are strangers to me, but they stop me, and they say, “Oh, are— are you Angela Duckworth?” This may be because of our podcast. It may also be because I happened to give a TED Talk that many, many children have been forced to watch by their parents.
DUBNER: What’s the topic of this TED Talk?
DUCKWORTH: It’s G-R-I-T. But the point is: Oftentimes, in these very short interactions with strangers, there is, to me it seems like, a familiarity. It’s like, “Oh, my gosh, are you Angela?” And then I say, “Yes.” And then, you have immediately vaulted forward into a level of intimacy that is a little fast.
DUBNER: And how does that make you feel?
DUCKWORTH: It generally makes me feel, actually, very happy. You know me, Stephen. I’m like, “Let’s hug. Let’s take a selfie.” I’m flattered. I’m happy to race forward toward best friendship, but I’m guessing that you would not like it.
DUBNER: It’s a matter of degrees. I’m always honored and flattered when someone says they like me. I mean, who doesn’t like to be liked, or even acknowledged? The thing about you, though— I don’t think it’s so much about the parasocial relationship making you happy. I think you’re just pathologically happy, and that nothing can really disrupt.
DUCKWORTH: But I do think there’s probably some parasocial element. Look: let me turn the tables here. I know a lot about Taylor Swift. I have listened to Taylor Swift. I’ve gone to many Taylor Swift concerts. I feel like I’ve known Taylor since she was only a mini mega-star. This is now going back, like, 12 years, 15 years. And so when Taylor would put her hands together, and make it a heart, and look meaningfully out into the audience of tens of thousands of people, I feel like I experienced, on the flip side, what it felt like. Because, look, I didn’t delude myself into thinking that we were best friends, or that she would ever take my phone call, or that she even knew who I was. But there was a sense of, “If I know so much about you. And if I listen to you all the time, I hear your voice in my house, I watch documentaries about you — I know so much that there has to be something on the other side.” It’s not conscious, but it is a feeling of intimacy, and maybe for some people, it plays a bigger role than for others.
DUBNER: Hang on a second. I’m getting a text here. Oh, it’s from Taylor. We’re friends. She says, “Tell Angie I will hang with her anytime. T.S.”
DUCKWORTH: You know, Stephen, this is cruel.
DUBNER: Okay. So, here’s the thing. Kaitlin, who wrote this email, she said that when she listens to us, quote, “It feels like hanging out with my close friends.” And I found this piece from The Guardian last year titled “Tragic but True: How Podcasters Replaced Our Real Friends.” This is by Rachel Aroesti. She wrote, “Some of my friends have no idea I even exist. These are people I know intimately, extensively, profoundly. I know what they had for dinner last night, the petty arguments they have at home, their obsessions, their insecurities, their fears, what time they wake up in the morning—” I think if she listened to this show, she’d probably know all that about us. She said, “I want to hear it all. If this is beginning to sound slightly alarming, I should point out that they tell me all these things and try to make me laugh in the process. I think of podcasters as my friends, and I am not alone.” She writes that COVID-19 has accelerated the podcaster-friend trend. But, you know, I’ve had a conversation in the past with Rebecca, our producer, who I think has had similar-ish experience with podcasters becoming very important to her. Rebecca, are you hearing us?
Rebecca Lee DOUGLAS: Hi! Yes. I hear you. I’m right here.
DUCKWORTH: Hi, Rebecca!
DUBNER: Rebecca, is that true?
DOUGLAS: That’s definitely true. I would say that parasocial relationships have been very positive for my mental health in the past.
DUCKWORTH: Wait, your relationship with people who you’re listening to on podcasts?
DOUGLAS: Yeah. So, I think the strongest relationships like this that I built were when I was living in England. I was doing my junior year abroad at Oxford — the 2008-2009 academic year. And I went there, I was so excited, I thought I was going to have this amazing experience and meet all of these wonderful, British, academic friends. But I had a lot of difficulty making friends there, and I was really lonely. It was a lot of just sitting in my room or in one of the libraries, and writing and researching all day. And the days were short and dark. I ended up feeling really just sad, and empty, and tired. Later, I would find out that what I was experiencing was clinical depression.
DUBNER: Oh, I thought you were going to say, “What I was experiencing was England.”
DOUGLAS: Oh, yeah. The two go sort of hand-in-hand, don’t they? But one of the things that would help me was that I would take these really long walks with podcasts. So, I would listen to Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and Radiolab, and the Savage Lovecast. And so I felt really connected to the hosts of these shows. You know, they’re in your headphones. So, it feels like they’re talking to you. And I didn’t really have friends at Oxford, so it felt like, “Oh, I have these American voices in my head. We share a similar sense of the world.” I felt like, if we met up, they would want to be my friends. We had this similar sensibility, sense of humor. It was just, really, a relief. And laughter was a relief, because I didn’t laugh that often. So, I think it really got me through the pain and loneliness of that year. And then— It was so funny. I felt particularly attached to Jad Abumrad, the former host of Radiolab, and when I got my first internship at WNYC, I think in 2010 or 2011, I was walking down the hall, and I saw him coming toward me. And my instinct was immediately, like, “Oh, that’s my friend! That’s my friend Jad!” So, I was like, “Oh, my gosh, hey, Jad!” It was so embarrassing. And he was like, “Oh, sorry. Hi. Do I know you?”
DUCKWORTH: See? That’s what I mean, Stephen.
DOUGLAS: And then I had to be like, “Oh my gosh, no, you do not know him!”
DUBNER: So, did you eventually revert back to humans? Or is this still a major part of your, you know, friend circle?
DOUGLAS: I mean, podcasts are still a major part of my friend circle. But things got better at Oxford. The days started getting longer, and it was spring, and I met other human beings, eventually. I didn’t have to solely rely on my imaginary friends as my source of socialization.
DUBNER: I’m just curious to know, Angie, when you hear that story, that sounds like Rebecca kind of hacked parasocial relationships to serve as a really useful tool to get over a tough time.
DUCKWORTH: Took a bug and turned it into a feature. This is not at all kind of, like, “Oh my gosh, life is becoming too vicarious.”
DUBNER: So, when we’re talking about parasocial relationships, where do imaginary friends fall? And I’m not talking about for adults. I’m really thinking about children.
DUCKWORTH: Not all children have imaginary friends, but many, many children have imaginary friends for, actually, extended periods.
DUBNER: I had this great group of friends. They were actually a team that I called the “Nothings.” And this was whenever I was playing some game or sport. I would make them my opponent. And I would say they were my opponent in 95 percent of the games I played as a kid, because I was the youngest in a big family, but I was youngest by quite a bit. So, I was on my own a lot. And this team, the Nothings, they were like, um— You remember the Harlem Globetrotters and the Washington Generals?
DUCKWORTH: I only remember the Harlem Globetrotters. I do not remember the Washington Generals.
DUBNER: The Washington Generals were the team they always beat. And these were amazingly good basketball players, but they always lost to the Harlem Globetrotters. So, the Nothings were like the Washington Generals, in my universe. Now, I didn’t think about them as individuals, but they were a strong presence in my mind. And I know that many, many, many children — including my own kids — have had something like that. Doesn’t that seem like a really useful way to start to think about the contours of humankind, and who we’re friends with, who extends beyond our imagination, and so on?
DUCKWORTH: What you’re saying, I think, Stephen, is that maybe it is not a pathological thing to kind of practice relationships — either through an imaginary friend when you’re a little kid, or depressed in England — and you’re engaging in a “para” relationship. And “para,” I think the root word means “beside” — parallel, paranormal, parasocial relationships. But I think it’s possibly that the answer is: If.
DUBNER: The answer is “if”?
DUCKWORTH: Yeah, but let me say more.
DUBNER: Oh, sorry. No, I love the beginning of that sentence. I just got impatient to hear the rest of it.
DUCKWORTH: So, basically the idea is: Kaitlin’s question is, “How useful are parasocial relationships in maintaining mental health?” They can be useful if you are practicing certain things — like, maybe, children are doing with imaginary friends — you are using this opportunity to on-ramp on to different ways of thinking. But I think the “if” also cuts the other way, which is, like: If all you’re doing is having parasocial relationships and no social relationships, and if everything you’re doing is always at the level of imagination or vicarious experience, that’s where I start to be my cranky middle-aged self.
DUBNER: I think that is a lovely way of summarizing. And to Kaitlin, I would say, when you write that it feels like you’re hanging out with your close friends when you listen to us, to that, I would say you are wrong. We are not your friends, Kaitlin. But Kaitlin, we love you nonetheless.
DUCKWORTH: Great to end on a completely mixed signal, Stephen. Well done. Kaitlin, you can come over. We’ll have a glass of wine.
No Stupid Questions is produced by me, Rebecca Lee Douglas. Before we move on to the fact-check, we’d like to give listener Kaitlin the last word.
Kaitlin ZHANG: Thank you for answering my question. Stephen, I don’t know what you look like, so you’re totally safe for me going up to you in real life and badgering you. And Angela — yes to the wine. I’m happy to report that I’m going to hang out with my friends later, and I’ll try not to live my life through a screen. Love you both.
And now, here is a fact-check of today’s conversation.
In the first half of the show, Stephen references the work of an academic who studies asymmetric sports rivalries, but he can’t remember details about the person’s identity. Stephen was thinking of Joe Cobbs, a sports business professor at Northern Kentucky University who runs the website knowrivalry.com. Cobbs was a guest presenter on episode 17 of Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, a live game show that Stephen hosted from 2017 to 2018. Cobbs gave thousands of college football fans 100 “rivalry points” each, which they could then allocate to their team’s various opponents. As Stephen recalled, the most unbalanced rivalry was between Boston College and Notre Dame, with Notre Dame fans allocating an average of two rivalry points to Boston College and Boston College fans allocating an average of 74 points to Notre Dame.
Later, Angela says that University of Chicago psychologist Nick Epley writes that human beings are, quote, “relentlessly social,” and will socialize with non-humans objects if other people aren’t available. This doesn’t actually appear to be a phrase that Epley uses in his work. However, University of Utah’s Jesse Graham and New York University’s Jonathan Haidt have used this exact terminology in their work about social psychology and religion. So, it looks like Angela accidentally applied their words to Epley’s research.
Then, Alex Dunfy is the name of the nerdy middle child on Modern Family who chose to read Freakonomics during her family’s pool party. This scene is a part of the premiere episode of season three — not, as Stephen said, season one.
Also, Stephen says that the Washington Generals always lose to the Harlem Globetrotters. This is incorrect. Although it rarely happens, the Washington Generals have, on occasion, defeated the Harlem Globetrotters.
Finally, as you probably already know from the headline of today’s show, this is our 100th episode of No Stupid Questions! In celebration of this milestone, we’d love it if you’d leave us a review or tell a friend about the show. Let’s keep this parasocial program prospering!
That’s it for the fact-check.
Coming up next week on No Stupid Questions: Angela says she’s “addicted” to Diet Coke — but is she really?
DUCKWORTH: I don’t know whether I should or should not confess to you, Stephen, that while having this conversation, I am holding another adorable miniature can.
That’s next week on No Stupid Questions. For that episode, we want to hear about your experiences with addiction outside of the realm of substance abuse. Do you feel physically or mentally dependent on something that’s interfering in your life? It could be social media, or video games, or even pumpkin spice lattes. To share your thoughts, send a voice memo to NSQ@Freakonomics.com with the subject line “Addicted.” Make sure to record someplace quiet, and please keep your thoughts to under a minute.
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No Stupid Questions is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, People I (Mostly) Admire, Freakonomics, M.D, and Off Leash. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This show was mixed by Eleanor Osborne. Our staff also includes Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, Greg Rippin, Morgan Levey, Zack Lapinski, Julie Kanfer, Ryan Kelley, Jasmin Klinger, Emma Tyrell, Lyric Bowdich, Jacob Clemente, and Alina Kulman. We had help this week from Anya Dubner. Our theme song is “And She Was” by Talking Heads — special thanks to David Byrne and Warner Chappell Music. If you’d like to listen to the show ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. You can follow us on Twitter @NSQ_Show and on Facebook @NSQShow. If you have a question for a future episode, please email it to firstname.lastname@example.org. To learn more, or to read episode transcripts, visit Freakonomics.com/NSQ. Thanks for listening!
DUBNER: “I wonder if the queen is thinking about what I had for breakfast today.”
- Bradley Bond, professor of communication studies at the University of San Diego.
- John Cacioppo, professor of psychology at the University of Chicago.
- Joe Cobbs, professor of marketing at Northern Kentucky University.
- Nick Epley, professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago.
- Katy Milkman, professor of operations, information, and decisions at the University of Pennsylvania.
- Emily Oster, professor of economics at Brown University.
- Anuj Shah, professor of behavioral science at the University of Chicago.
- “Knowledge About Others Reduces One’s Own Sense of Anonymity,” by Anuj K. Shah and Michael LaForest (Nature, 2022).
- “Tragic but True: How Podcasters Replaced Our Real Friends,” by Rachel Aroesti (The Guardian, 2021).
- “The Development and Influence of Parasocial Relationships With Television Characters: A Longitudinal Experimental Test of Prejudice Reduction Through Parasocial Contact,” by Bradley J. Bond (Communication Research, 2020).
- “A Mind like Mine: The Exceptionally Ordinary Underpinnings of Anthropomorphism,” by Nicholas Epley (Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, 2018).
- “Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance,” by Angela Duckworth (TED, 2013).
- “How Soap Operas Changed the World,” by Stephanie Hegarty (BBC, 2012).
- “The Power of TV: Cable Television and Women’s Status in India,” by Robert Jensen and Emily Oster (The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2009).