Media Personae Identification: Early Thoughts

In the spring of 2005, I attended my first academic conference with a paper written primarily as a class assignment, but one that I expanded for this conference.  I used the ideas in the paper in my master’s thesis, but I have not had a chance to revisit them.  I hope to, and as part of that endeavor I include the paper here, drawing out snippets to illustrate the main ideas.

“Identification with Favorite Media Personae: A phenomenological conceptualization of audience viewers’ reasons for identifying with mediated fictional and real individuals.”

Despite the best efforts of communication researchers, the predictive ability of media exposure remains weak in explaining a range of possible behavioral and cognitive effects (Oliver, 2002).  Numerous theoretical, empirical and methodological explanations could be and have been explored to revamp the field of media effects.  Another approach is philosophical.  From a phenomenological standpoint, this means taking into account what the media content means to the people who actively choose to consume it; and one route to explore this connection comes with the recognition that people are drawn to those characters and stories that are meaningful to them and can be helpful to them in some way.

Taking into account how a person identifies with a media personality, such as a sports star, movie star, newsperson or some fictional character, may provide one such model for exploring the relationship between the media and possible media effects (Cohen, 2001).  The more one identifies with a persona, and the more important this identification is to the identifier, then the more influence the persona may have over the identifier.  This potential causality has been examined in numerous persuasion studies (such as Appiah, 2002).  Unfortunately, there is confusion in the field as to what exactly is identification with media personae and how to measure it (Cohen, 2001).  Additionally, most of the research on the concept deals with children, due to the concern of children imitating characters (Hoffner & Cantor, 1991), and does not address how and/or why adolescents and adults identify with people they see in the media, although research has been conducted on adolescents’ and adults’ identification and the result of such a parasocial interaction (Appiah, 2001).

The conceptualization of identification within the communication field is bifurcated by different theoretical approaches.  Kamler (1994), expounding upon Freud’s psychoanalytical definition, rationalized individuals who desire a certain feature identify with someone or something exemplifying that feature.  In other words, we identify with something we want to be, such as a popular jock or successful scientist, or with a person who represents where we want to be (Siegel & Siegel, 1954).  By identifying with this individual, one can learn what traits are necessary to become that person and internalize these traits to approximate this ideal.  Kelman (1961) stated an individual’s identification with another is based largely upon perceptions of similarity between the two people by the identifier.  These two conceptualizations share the idea that individuals identify based on some belief that the identified is similar to the identifier; however, they differ along a temporal dimension, in that Kamler’s definition is based on future possibilities of being similar, whereas Kelman’s definition is based upon past or present occasions of being similar.

 In von Feilitzen and Linné’s (1975) discussion of media personae identification research on children, they termed Kamler’s psychoanalytical definition “wishful identification,” while labeling Kelman’s persuasion definition “similarity identification.”  According to von Feilitzen and Linné, young children engage in similarity identification almost exclusively, while older children may be likely to engage in wishful identification.  The conceit was that both identifications typically do not occur at the same time with the same persona, at least amongst children.  Although there was no discussion as to which adolescents and adults would be more likely to engage in, the hypothesis may be logically extended, in that older individuals would be more likely to engage in wishful identification.  This hypothesis could be reasoned with the process of identity formation, as discussed by Erikson and Kamler, and there has been research on how adults are attracted to individuals possessing something they would like to have (Hoffner & Cantor, 1991).  Cohn (1999) differentiated wishful identification into either seeing that person as a role model for future general behavior (inspiration) or as an influence for more immediate specific behavior (imitation).  Thus, wishful identification may play a role in both identity formation and more immediate attitudinal and behavioral changes.

Not all conceptualizations of identification and the factors that constitute this process have bifurcated identification.  Hoffner and Cantor (1991) theorize that an initial perception of similarity with a persona could promote “a desire to be like them, possibly because certain similarities signal that it is both possible and appropriate for the viewer to become like the character in additional ways.” (p. 87).  Such a theory posits that a level of similarity identification could coexist with some level of wishful identification.  This conceptualization was echoed by Perosanz and Rovira (1998) as they created a scale to measure both similarity and wishful components of identification.  Thus there appear to be three separate ways of operationalizing identification.  In the relevant research that examined identification with media personae, either the process itself or the end result effects of this process, the three types were employed at separate times, which, according to Cohen’s (2001), has lead to the theoretical and empirical confusion in this field of inquiry.

In tape recorded sessions that ranged between 30 and 45 minutes, semi-structured interviews were conducted, using a series of questions as the basic foundation (Flick, 2002).  A semi-structured format was used to allow flexibility for asking subsequent, probing questions.  All interviews began with the same four questions, two of which were used to gauge perceptions of similarity, “How would you describe yourself to someone who doesn’t know you?” and “If you had to describe this person (their selected media persona) to someone who doesn’t know him or her, what would you say?”  In between these questions, participants were asked to name a persona with whom they identify.  They were then asked “What about this person makes you identify with them?”  Other trunk questions were used to elicit discussion on hypothesized factors of identification (such as parasocial interaction, as defined by Horton & Wohl, 1956), possible end results (such as imitation) and related concepts (such as role modeling), in an attempt to understand the confusion surrounding these concepts.  For the purpose of anonymity, all interviewees will be discussed using the name of the persona they chose.

A thematic analysis was conducted to ascertain the type and frequency of certain issues occurring in the participants’ dialogue.  These themes, a Wishfulness category and the four Similarity subcategories, were derived from the von Feilitzen and Linné (1975) definitions as well as psychological research on cognitive development (Hoffner & Cantor, 1991).  Physical Similarity was defined as any discussion of appearance, such as clothes, hair, skin, etc.  Behavioral Similarity was defined as any discussion of external behaviors or mannerisms, such as hobbies, conduct, etc.  Psychological Similarity was defined as any discussion of cognitive aspects, such as persona traits or attitudes, likes, values, etc.  Situational Similarity was defined as any discussion of events, circumstances or relationships in which the persona is involved; the focus was the individual’s interaction with the situation.  The Wishfulness category was defined as any discussion of a desire to be more similar, using such keywords as wish, want, hope, try, etc.  Other categories were developed inductively during the course of reading the material.


All seven participants indicated they did perceive the person they identified with to be similar to them in some way.  Only one was purely based on behavioral similarity, as the participant identified with any athlete in the media who engaged in the same sporting events.  The remaining six perceived the person to be similar based on personality traits (being easy-going, friendly, etc.).  Of these six, one also claimed behavior similarity (performing “stunts,”) four claimed physical similarity (appearance, age, gender, etc.), and five claimed situational similarity.

Situational similarity was evidenced by their seeing the person deal with similar life experiences.  For example, “Carrie Bradshaw” (Sex in the City) said she began identifying with the character when she saw similarity in how they have dealt with ex-boyfriends.  Then there is “Joey Tribbiani” (Friends), who said he related to the character because he was going through similar struggles.  “When he deals with problems or everyday life, in general, I see a lot of myself in him…He still gets by and makes it and that’s sorta been the story of my life.”  “Emily Quartermaine” (General Hospital) saw similarity in how the character coped with breast cancer, an issue that impacted her own personal life due to a friend contracting the disease.  A participant who identified two individuals, “Carson Daly” and “The Rock,” discussed how similar their career trajectories were to his own.  Finally, “Sailor Moon” (Bishojo Senshi Sailor Moon) discussed how they were both dealing with their friends’ perceptions of their abilities:

“…I think some of the thing of her being a double, being this superhero in disguise but also being this like normal…teenager just kind of, it sorta like plays on it that that’s who she is, but people don’t see it and they don’t believe it, and I think that could, that is me in a lot of ways, because only a very, very few people actually know me and understand me and know what I am capable of…”


While it was expected that each situational similarity would be unique to the participant, the important thing is the prevalence of such perceived similarity among this small group, where 5 of 7 indicated situational similarity, and it is reasonable the individual who identified with athletes did so because of the athletic and competitive situations in which they were engaged.

Wishfulness and Inspirational

All but one of the seven participants indicated that the person served as an inspiration for their own lives, and often this discussion of inspiration was related to some level of desire to be more like the persona.  The participants disagreed that they were directly imitating the characters, only that they were inspired by what the characters did, in a way similar to learning how to cope or become better because of their identification.  “Emily Quartermaine” appreciated her character’s ability to stand up for herself like the other women of the show, wishing to be more like this other person.  “…they say what they want to say, they stand up for what they believe in, they don’t back down.  I wish more people – I wish I could be more like that.”  “Emily” did not see this individual as a role model, which could be defined as the member of a group or an individual one aspires to be like (Siegel & Siegel, 1957; Gibson, 2004).

However, others did.  “Joey Tribbiani” described seeing the person he identified with as a role model as being a different kind of role model than the one admired as an ideal.

“Could be a role model, as a sign that if this person can do it I can do it.  Might be a different way of looking at a role model because, you know if you are seeing this guy as that type of role model, if he can do it I can make it, and if that’s your anchor of hope or determination factor…that’s totally different from looking at someone and being like, man, I want to be him.”


This definition of role model would be found in four other participants, as well as theme of wanting to be more like the person, which was absent with “Joey.”  A role model for these individuals is not an ideal to aspire to, but a persona so similar as to be used as a guidepost for one’s own direction, with the inspiration coming from “if he can do it, and I’m like him, then I can do it, too”.

“Carrie Bradshaw” saw the character as always doing the right thing, and this was important to her at this time because she was about to graduate and enter the working force.  “Sailor Moon” liked how the character accomplished gaining the respect and admiration of those who had thought of her as a “ditzy blonde.”  ” I don’t think I want to be like a superhero…I would rather people see that I am kind of capable, not kind of, I am capable of doing things.”  “Carson Daly” strives to be an actor, but is worried about not having chiseled features.  Seeing “Carson” as a “doughy” person, not classically handsome, helped him to not worry about such appearances hurting his career.  The participant who identified with athletes discussed how seeing them persevere in tough circumstances not only aided her in her own sports interests, but also served as inspiration for dealing with struggles at school and in having a dual nationality.

The survey was constructed to consist of items to measure perceptions of similarity, wishfulness and inspiration.  Each item consisted of a Likert-scale to measure endorsement of the theme in the item (1=Strongly Disagree, 5=Strongly Agree).  Questions 6 (“I identify with this person because I see similarities between myself and he/she”) and 8 (“I see a lot of myself in this person”) were written for measuring similarity.  Questions 7 (“The person I identify with inspires me”) and 10 (“I can learn how to handle things in my life by watching the person”) were for inspiration.  Question 9 (“I like to do the things the person does”) was for imitation, although subsequent qualitative analysis revealed a tendency for Behavioral Similarity answers instead.  Question 11 (“I would like to be the person I identify with “) was for wishfulness.  Each scale-item had attached a statement to elicit a written response to explain why the participant answered as they did to the scale-item.  The open-ended aspect of each item was included for exploring the participants’ precise definitions of identification.

An example of Physical Similarity was from “Nick Nolte” who said “He looks like nobody took him out of the dryer after it stop cycled.  So do I.”  For Behavioral Similarity, “Bridget Jones” (Bridget Jones Diary), said “While I do enjoy hanging out and spending time with my friends like Bridget does, that’s pretty much where our similarities in habits ends.”  For Psychological Similarity, “Corey Taylor,” from the band Slipknot, said “We both pretty much seem to be disgusted by everything.”  For an example of Situational Similarity, “Jerry” (Soul Food) said “She’s independent, divorced, she’s an attorney, has a nice house and car.  We have almost everything in common.”  The Wishfulness category resulted in codings such as from “Suzy Kolber” (ESPN), “Suzy Kolber has my dream job right now and I hope to one day get the job that she has.”  The Inspiration category was defined as any discussion of being motivated to thought and/or action with or without a discussion of active pursuit of that thought or action, using such keywords as inspire, motivate, encourage, etc.  For example, “Ashton Kutcher” said “He inspires me to be myself.”

The results of both the interviews and the surveys indicate that the process of identification among adolescents and adults is primarily a process of perceiving similarities between themselves and the persona.  These similarity judgments tend to be more on abstract psychological traits and attitudes (morals, politics, etc.), as well as behaviors and life experiences, than on more basic psychological traits (friendly, humor, etc.) and physical appearance.  This finding supports the first hypothesis that as individuals age, they are more likely to base their perceptions of similarity on more abstract and cognitively complex aspects of the other person; yet it would also seem to disprove the von Feilitzen and Linné hypothesis, as similarity themes were more common than the wishfulness theme.  However, at the same time, the majority of individuals also indicated a desire to be even more like the persona, with the persona being a source of inspiration for them.  Wishful and similarity identification co-existed in the majority of participants.  So while von Feilitzen and Linné (1975) would be correct in asserting that wishfulness is more likely among older individuals, as it peaked in this sample amongst the teenagers, Hoffner and Cantor (1991) would be as correct because perceptions of similarity appear to be feeding the desire to be even more similar, perhaps because the persona who is seen as similar is also seen as a source of inspiration, to whom one aspires to be like.

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