Can Listening To Podcasts Provide Social Fulfillment?

Many people compare the experience to spending time with a familiar friend. But is there an actual social connection?
Podcasts provide a source of entertainment, education and introspection to accompany us as we commute to work, clean our homes or engage in other mundane tasks.
F.J. Jimenez via Getty Images
Podcasts provide a source of entertainment, education and introspection to accompany us as we commute to work, clean our homes or engage in other mundane tasks.

These days, it seems like everyone and their mother has a podcast. In the podcasting boom of recent years, we’ve seen a rise in true crime series, news recap shows, nostalgia-baiting rewatches, call-in advice programs and more.

Popular podcasts have been adapted into books, films and television shows. And podcasting is even central to those that weren’t adaptations ― like Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building,” which revolves around three neighbors who bond over their love of a particular podcast and decide to create their own.

The appeal of podcasts is easy to understand. They provide a source of entertainment, education and introspection to accompany us as we commute to work, clean our homes or engage in other mundane tasks.

Many people also compare the experience of listening to their favorite podcast to hanging out with a familiar friend. This is especially common for formats that involve multiple hosts in conversation with each other.

But can listening to podcasts actually provide a sense of social fulfillment on par with spending time with loved ones? We asked experts to weigh in.

There is an undeniable element of social connection.

“Listening to a compelling podcast can absolutely provide a form of social fulfillment,” said Meg Gitlin, a New York City-based psychotherapist. “These conversations, especially those with multiple hosts, can be incredibly dynamic and thought-provoking,”

Podcast listeners who tune in regularly might develop a familiarity with the hosts’ personalities, daily routines, personal preferences and opinions. Popular hosts tend to be relatable and likely attract fans with similar worldviews. The result is that listeners feel affirmed and have a sense of intimacy.

“Podcasts may be particularly likely to foster these types of feelings because they tend to feature more naturalistic conversations and dialogues,” said T. Makana Chock, a media psychologist and communications professor at Syracuse University. “It may feel as if you were listening to your friends talking to each other.”

A study published in 2022 concluded that podcasts can provide educational and social fulfillment, helping people satisfy that deep human need for connection with others. The informal and intimate nature of the discussion especially appeals to those who feel a strong need to belong.

“Podcasts can make us feel like we are a part of a great cocktail party conversation or a fly on the wall,” said Sue Varma, author of “Practical Optimism” and a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at New York University Langone Health. “Humans are drawn to people talking ― we want to be in the know. Podcasts can make us feel like we are a part of something bigger. We feel like we are being included. Feeling like we belong, like we matter, is one of our fundamental needs.”

But this experience comes with limitations.

“It is important to acknowledge there are limitations to the kind of socialization provided because the listener isn’t actually part of the conversation,” Gitlin said. “They may feel they are intimately involved in the podcasters’ lives, and yet, they have no voice and, thus, no real relevancy in the conversation. The podcasters may care about the issues and how they impact people’s lives, but there is no real relationship with the listeners themselves.”

Instead, many listeners form parasocial relationships with their favorite podcast hosts. These are inherently one-sided relationships that people develop with media figures, celebrities or even fictional characters.

“You aren’t able to get complete social fulfillment because you, as the listener, aren’t sharing anything about yourself or what you’re going through,” said Kati Morton, a marriage and family therapist and author of “Are U Ok? A Guide to Caring for Your Mental Health.” “Feeling known by someone is what actually gives us that true fulfillment. What it can offer is a reminder that we aren’t alone and another resource for insights and guidance. It’s not the same at all because there isn’t any actual conversation, connection, or genuinely feeling known by another person.”

The 2022 study highlighted research showing that listeners form stronger parasocial relationships with podcast hosts who share personal information, show authenticity and unpredictability and use a more intimate communication style.

“However, parasocial relationships are no substitute for real social relationships. They lack the benefits of true intimacy and friendship,” Chock said. “And there are some risks of people dismissing their own opinions or beliefs in favor of those of podcast hosts or prioritizing their parasocial relationships over their real ones.”

Morton emphasized that these parasocial relationships offer a false sense that you truly know the podcast host when they are, in fact, a stranger.

“Just remember that they are entertaining or possibly educating you,” she said. “You most likely don’t know who they are in their real life. Meeting people in person, getting to know them, and allowing them to get to know us is what true connection and social fulfillment are all about.”

There are limitations to social connection you can gain from listening to others have a conversation on a podcast.
10'000 Hours via Getty Images
There are limitations to social connection you can gain from listening to others have a conversation on a podcast.

A healthy balance is key to tapping into the social value of podcasts.

“I don’t see any downsides to turning to podcasts for social fulfillment as long as people can see the difference between this and a real mutual relationship,” Gitlin said. “There is value in both, but they are not interchangeable.”

During times of great joy and hardship, sharing these life moments with loved ones is an important way to connect with others. But plenty of people would prefer to spend the mundane hours of their commutes listening to a podcast rather than having a phone conversation with a loved one, Gitlin added.

“This is because, in most situations, being a bystander requires less energy, and they feel that by listening, they are expanding their knowledge base or confirming their previously held beliefs ― both of which are affirming experiences,” she explained. “Everyone knows that a short chat with even the most well-intentioned loved ones can be irritating, needy or display a myriad of other not-so-pleasant attributes.”

Listening to a podcast can be a way to stave off feelings of isolation without expending much emotional energy, particularly for those who struggle with their relationships. Chock noted that this experience might create feelings of safety, as you aren’t likely to be rejected by a voice on a podcast.

“Listening to people chat on a podcast can give you a chance to observe and learn from others’ social interactions,” she added. “Many of these platforms also provide opportunities for fellow fans and followers to interact with each other in actual social relationships. People may listen to podcasts together or discuss them with their friends.”

Therein lies the ultimate social benefit of podcasts: Inspiring new conversations and ways to connect with others in a genuine, two-way relationship.

“I often encourage clients to listen to podcasts as a means of expanding their worldview, looking outwards from themselves and finding interesting things to discuss in situations like dates,” Gitlin said. “People get so caught up in their bubbles and don’t realize how attractive it can be able to speak intelligently about things that are outside their day-to-day.”

Try to view podcasts as a supplement to real social interactions rather than a replacement. If you find that you’re relying on podcasts more than people for that kind of connection, it might be worth bringing up with a mental health professional. Remember that both can be fulfilling ― but in separate ways.

“I think podcasts are a great means of discovering interests,” Gitlin added. “Personal growth is always a focus in therapy, and if podcasts can help people connect both within and outside of the experience of listening, then everyone is a winner in my book.”

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