I presented this study at my first International Communication Association conference in May 2005. It was the first major study I did by myself in graduate school. I remember making these slides to show on a projector — there was no PowerPoint! I should probably revisit it. 

Identification with Favorite Media Personae: A phenomenologically-informed conceptualization of audience viewers’ reasons for identifying with mediated fictional and real individuals.


Purpose: To explore the hows and whys adolescents and adults identify with people they only know of through media consumption (i.e. media personae, either real or fictional).


  • Confusion as to what is this concept of identification, and how does it relate to/differ from: parasocial interaction, empathy, homophily, role models, etc.
  • Most of research has been conducted on children, taking Feilitzen and Linné’s bifurcation of similarity and wishful identification types.

Because of the Focus on Children:

  • Very few interview-based research approached, opting instead for scales and survey questions, both open- and close-ended
  • Focus for basis of identification been on appearance and overt behavior.

Reasons for Conducting this Study:

  • Applicability of identifying with media personae as a basis for identity formation, both personal and social.
  • Possibility of older individuals identifying based on more abstract levels of information, such as psychological (personality, attitudes, etc.) and situational.
  • Test of the occurrences of similarity and wishful identifications among older individuals, based on Feilitzen and Linné’s initial suggestions.
  • To gather interviews and thus more phenomenologically-informed data from a large group of individuals.

My Hypotheses:

  • H1: Adolescents and adults, if they do indicate perceived similarity between themselves and the persona, will be more likely to describe this similarity as being psychological or situational rather than physical or behavioral.
  • H2a: As per von Feilitzen and Linné (1975), adolescents and adults will be more likely to describe their identification with media personae as incorporating a desire to be even more like the person (wishful identification) rather than just a perception of currently being like the person (similarity identification).
  • H2b: As per Hoffner and Cantor (1991), adolescents and adults will describe their identification with media personae as incorporating both similarity identification and wishful identification.

Study 1:

  • Participants: 4 women and 3 men, ages between 19 and 29, 30-45 minutes semi-structured interviews
  • Main Questions:
    • “How would you describe yourself to someone who doesn’t know you?”
    • “If you had to describe this person (their selected media persona) to someone who doesn’t know him or her, what would you say?”
    • “What about this person makes you identify with them?”
  • Additional questions about parasocial interaction, role models, imitation, media use

Results Study 1:

  • All participants indicated they perceived the persona to be similar to them in some way
    • 1 purely Behavioral similarity
    • 6 on Psychological similarity, along with:
      • 1 Behavioral, 4 Physical, 5 Situational

“Joey Tribbiani” (Friends) “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.”

“Sailor Moon” (Bishojo Senshi Sailor Moon) “…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…”

  • 6 participants indicated the person served as an inspiration for their own lives, and often this discussion of inspiration was related to wishfulness.
  • The participants disagreed that they were directly imitating the characters, only that they were inspired by what the characters did.

“Emily Quartermaine” (General Hospital)  “…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.”

“Joey Tribbiani” “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.”

  • The person may be engaging in wishful identification with this individual because the persona is inspiring them to improve upon themselves in some fashion, either by becoming more like the persona or learning from that persona’s success or failures
  • H3: Inspiration will be more prevalent if a person describes their identification as being a desire to be more similar to the persona (wishful identification).

Study 2:

  • Participants: 207 individuals, as such;
    • 1 Child (12 years or younger)
    • 24 Teenagers (13 to 18 years old)
    • 130 Young Adults (19 to 29 years old)
    • 47 Adults (over 30 years old)
  • Questionnaire of 6 items, with both open and close-ended components
    • Open-ended components were thematically analyzed for presence of Similarity, Wishfulness, Inspiration and other themes.
  • Likert scale for agreement with statement, then request for explanation of answer to Likert scale
    • To measure Similarity: “I identify with this person because I see similarities between myself and he/she”, “I like to do the things the person does” and “I see a lot of myself in this person”
    • To measure Inspiration: “The person I identify with inspires me” and “I can learn how to handle things in my life by watching the person”
    • To measure Wishfulness: “I would like to be the person I identify with”
      • Found during coding, counter comments to this statements became a new theme labeled “Satisfaction with Self”, defined as any discussion of being content with oneself with little or no desire to be another person

Results Study 2:

  • Of the media personae named, 155 were real people and 52 were fictional characters.
  • Presence of Themes:
    • Psychological had the highest average presence, Behavioral had the second highest. Physical had the lowest average, with Situational slightly higher.
    • The Inspiration theme occurred in nearly 75% of the sample, whereas the Wishfulness theme occurred only about 50%.
    • Satisfaction with Self occurred less than 40% of the time.
  • Comparison of Similarity Themes:
    • Significant difference between Psychological over Physical (t=15.951, p<0.001), Situational (t=13.327, p<0.001) and Behavioral (t=4.319, p<0.001).
    • As the age group increased, the frequency of both Psychological and Situational themes tended to increase.
      • Support for H1.
  • Wishfulness Across Age Groups:
    • Young Adults had a slight tendency for indicating the Wishfulness theme (53%).
    • Teenagers were more likely to indicate the Wishfulness theme in their discussion of identification (75%).
    • Adults were less likely (42%).
  • Wishfulness vs. Similarity Identification:
    • Wishfulness was negatively correlated with Psychological, Situational, and the amount of Similarity themes.
    • Combined with age group distribution indicates wishful identification may peak during adolescence but then decrease while abstract similarity comparisons on psychological and situational factors may increase similarity identification.
      • Partial support for H2a.
    • Additionally, of the total number of respondents (n=207), 95 (46%) reported a pure Similarity identification without Wishfulness, 6 (3%) indicted a pure Wishfulness identification, and 106 (51%) indicated that both types of themes were present in their discussion of identifying with their chosen media persona.
      • Some support for H2b.
  • Wishfulness and Other Themes
    • Inspiration was more likely if the individual engaged in wishful identification with the persona than if just similarity identification.
      • Support for H3.
    • When Wishfulness was present in the responses, Satisfaction with Self occurred less frequently than expected, and this relationship reverses when Wishfulness was not present.

Theoretical implications:

  • 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 a source of inspiration, whom one aspires to be like.
    • von Feilitzen and Linné only applied their bifurcation of identification to children, whereas this sample consisted largely of teenagers, young adults and adults.
      • Teenagers could still be applied to the researchers’ hypothesis about older children, whereas the young adult and adult groups should be considered as a different group, as they are theoretically at the end stages of identity formation (Erikson, 1968; Marcia, 1993).
      • More research is needed focusing directly on teenagers.
  • Refocus from state of identification to process of identification
    • Related components discussed in this study indicate need to:
      • Further elaborate/differentiate the concept of the state of identifying with another; and/or,
      • Clarify process of identifying where the state is the end result

Proposal for a process of identification as involving:

  • Interaction between the identifier and identified wherein the identifier perceives some level of similarity with the identified (based on past, present and/or future self-concepts)
  • Then this interaction, dependent on mediating or moderating factors, produces within the identifier some level of desire to be even more similar to the identified, resulting in either:
    • Pure Similarity Identification: seeing the identified as similar to some present or past aspect of the self
    • Wishful Identification: seeing the identified as similar to some future potential or desired self
    • Should either past or present similarity perceptions be combined with future potential/desire, then both Similarity and Wishful Identification could occur
  • The outcome type of identification achieved would impact the effect the media persona and hence the media itself.

Identification Process.jpg
Limitations and Directions for the Future:

  • Limitations:
    • Participants’ discussions were not allowed to deviate into other possible definitions of identification.
    • Age group, ethnic and gender subsample sizes were uneven, preventing more rigorous statistical investigation and comparison
    • While intracoder reliability across time and test samples, external verification of presence and definition of themes should occur
  • Questions to ponder:
    • Does the proposed model for the process of identification occur regardless of who the identifier or identified are?
    • Do certain types of similarity (physical, behavioral, psychological, situational) impact the co-occurrence of wishfulness? Or is wishfulness related to the strength of the similarity?
    • What are the possible moderators between the occurrences of either similarity or wishful identification, and their co-occurrence?
    • Does having some level of both similarity and wishful components make some individuals more susceptible than others to the persuasion of a celebrity sales pitch?
    • How does the type of identification influence how likely an individual is to use that persona when they are developing their sense of self?


Abbreviated References

Cohen, J.  (2001).  Defining identification: a theoretical look at the identification of audiences with media characters.  Mass Communication & Society, 4(3), p. 245-264.

Erikson, E.  (1968).  Identity: youth and crisis.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Incorporated.

Hoffner, C. & Cantor, J. (1991).  Perceiving and responding to mass media characters (pp. 63-101).  In J. Bryant & D. Zillmann (eds.) Responding to the Screen: reception and reaction processes.  Hillsdale, NJ: L. Erlbaum Associates.

Marcia, J.  (1993).  The ego identity status approach to ego identity.  (pp. 3-21).  In J. Marcia, A. Matteson, S. Archer & J. Orlofsky (eds.).  Ego Identity: A Handbook for Psychosocial Research.  New York, NY: Springer-Verlag.

Perosanz, J. J. I. & Rovira, D. P.  (1998).  Validez y fiabilidad de una escala de empatía e identificación con los personajes (Validity and trustworthy of a scale of empathy and  identification with personalities.)  Psicothema, 10(2), p. 423-436

von Feilitzen, C. & Linné, O.  (1975).  Identifying with television characters.  Journal of Communication, 25(4), p. 51-55.

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