Listening to Podcasts Might Help People Fulfill Their Social Needs, Study Finds
Forming a parasocial relationship with podcasters led people to experience a heightened sense of social engagement.
“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… If this is beginning to sound slightly alarming, I should point out that they tell me all of these things,” Rachel Aroesti wrote in The Guardian, referring to the way she feels about the podcasters behind her favorite podcasts. “I think of podcasters as my friends — and I am not alone.”
Published in PLOS One, a study found that listening to podcasts might help fulfill people’s social needs. With podcasting having grown over the years, researchers decided to investigate whether podcasts were beginning to satisfy the innate human need for social connections. “In relation to the amount of research on social media use, there wasn’t much on podcast listening… As an avid podcast listener myself, I wanted to know more about who listens and what they get out of it,” Stephanie Tobin, from the School of Psychology and Counselling at the Queensland University of Technology, who co-authored the study, noted.
To arrive at the findings, the researchers recruited more than 300 participants — while it is a rather small and largely cis-gendered dataset, it included individuals from different parts of the world. The participants were asked to fill out questionnaires that quizzed them on their podcast-listening habits, besides assessing the extent to which they felt — and searched for — meaning in life.
The researchers found that listening to more podcasts also predicted a greater sense of meaning in one’s life. Forming a parasocial relationship — a one-sided psychological attachment people form with actors, influencers, and even fictional characters — with podcasters also led people to experience a heightened sense of social engagement and relatedness, which was defined as the “basic psychological need for social connection and belongingness.”
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Research suggests that in the digital world we currently live in, our chances of entering into parasocial relationships are steadily increasing. Especially so, in the aftermath of the pandemic-spawned social isolation, and the era of the chronic loneliness epidemic. That has, naturally, led to people increasingly gravitating toward podcasts to fulfil the social voids they may be experiencing in their lives.
“The pandemic has, no doubt, expedited the podcaster-friend trend… [We had] audio shows fill[ing] a hole in our lives, providing companionship that is increasingly difficult to distinguish from the real thing,” Aroesti added. “The pandemic also meant that most friendships were conducted exclusively through technology, blurring the lines between podcasters and acquaintances even further.”
However, it is pertinent to note that the pandemic didn’t bestow podcasts with the ability to attract people into parasocial relationships with their hosts. The fact that one could listen to them on the go — almost as though they were chatting with a friend during a long drive — strengthened the sense of camaraderie people felt toward podcasters. Further, as a paper from 2019 had noted, “Listeners may also see [podcasters] as more trustworthy because the hosts care for listeners’ wellbeing and how to educate them well.”
In a way, podcasts have, indeed, helped people fulfill their social needs. But, only to a certain extent, according to a Reddit user, who says, “It’s like supplements, you don’t want to replace actually eating with supplements for your life… Parasocializing is good if you struggle to find like-minded people but not as an end one should settle for it.”
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For people struggling to make friends in the real world, though, podcasts can be one way to dispel the gloom of loneliness. Moreover, among those struggling to find validation for their marginalized experiences within their social circle — due to racism, classism, ableism, and other forms of bigotry — podcasts can be a source of comfort.
Another Reddit user points out, though, that this can, on occasion, trap people in echo chambers. But that’s not the only danger that blindly trusting a podcaster can pose. “There’s a populist appeal to figures like Joe Rogan [a famous podcaster with a colossal following]. They’re eminently affable men with cool guy personas that one might be able to picture themselves having a beer with. They’re open-minded enough to accept anything and come to a decision themselves,” The Swaddle had noted earlier. “But herein lies the fatal flaw — there’s an inherent self-aggrandizement in the notion that a single person is in possession of all the knowledge, facts, and critical thinking skills to be able to weigh arguments with each other in a subject they’ve not encountered before. It dismisses the idea of expertise or interpretation — in one fell swoop undermining academics, scientists, and journalists who do the work of reporting, fact-checking, and analyzing for us.”
In other words, podcasters — and the faith reposed in them by loyal audiences — possess the dangerous ability to peddle misinformation.
In many ways, then, it’s important to remember that there’s a difference between experiencing a sense of camaraderie and belonging with one’s favorite podcaster, and actually assuming one is friends with them. After all, it’s often a podcaster’s job to perform relatability to draw in more viewers like ourselves.
Devrupa Rakshit is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. She is a lawyer by education, a poet by accident, a painter by shaukh, and autistic by birth. You can find her on Instagram @devruparakshit.