Texas Tech University

Studies show that some regular Dr. Pr. Phil viewers may develop what is called a parasocial relationship, or a special connection with someone they see on television.

A plethora of daytime television talk shows are broadcast every day throughout the United States on a variety of subjects, some of which go almost beyond the unbelievable.

Rarely is the value of any of these shows more than sheer entertainment, exposing drug problems, marital problems or which of three men is the father. Getting actual help from any of these shows is probably the furthest thing from a viewer's mind.

But the “Dr. Phil” show might be the exception. New research performed by a professor in the Texas Tech University College of Media & Communication shows those who watch Dr. Phil are more apt to seek treatment for mental health issues for both themselves and their children than those who do not watch the show.

Eric Rasmussen
Eric Rasmussen

Eric Rasmussen, an assistant professor in the area of public relations, collaborated with David Ewoldsen at Michigan State University on the project. Through an online survey of more than 300 people with children ages 8-17, they found people who regularly watch Dr. Phil were more likely to seek professional help for a mental illness – and do so for their children as well – because they felt encouraged by the trained psychologist after watching him deal with similar mental health issues on his show.

“Many people with a diagnosable mental disorder don't obtain professional personalized treatment, so they turn to things in the mass media like Dr. Phil or self-help books,” said Rasmussen, whose research specialty is children and mass media. “Our study shows the more people watch “Dr. Phil,” the more they develop a parasocial relationship with him. It's a media-mental health professional and TV viewer-patient relationship. That eventually leads to intentions to seek treatment for oneself and one's child.”

Developing the relationship

Phil McGraw is a native of Vinita, Oklahoma, who earned his doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of North Texas in 1979. He got his start in television as a weekly relationship consultant on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in 1998 before launching his own program, which is syndicated worldwide,  in 2002.

Dr Phil

On the show, Dr. Phil offers advice through what is called “life strategies,” taking experiences from his life to cover a variety of topics and offer therapy sessions. It is his dealings with people on his show who identify as having some form of mental illness that was most intriguing to Rasmussen and Ewoldsen.

They sent out an online survey asking people how much they watched “Dr. Phil.” It wasn't a requirement to watch the show in order to take the survey. The only requirement Rasmussen put forth was those taking the survey had to be a parent of a child between the ages of 8 and 17. Participants also were not asked about how much they watch similar shows.

What they found was those respondents who regularly watch “Dr. Phil” develop what is called a parasocial relationship. A parasocial relationship occurs when a person feels as though they have a special connection with a character in the media, such as a television star or athlete.

“It's like when you go to a normal doctor you develop that sense of trust, that feeling of thinking you have a special connection with that person,” Rasmussen said. “This happens with people with athletes and actors they see on television. If people watched a TV show like “Friends” back in the day, they develop that parasocial relationship with the characters to where when it finally goes off the air, people feel that sense of loss as if they have lost a friend.

Watch TV

“It's kind of like a quasi-friendship, almost.”

Rasmussen said the survey found people who watched “Dr. Phil” regularly develop that parasocial relationship with him, mostly due to two factors. The first is he is a genuine person, not an actor playing a part, and second, he often looks into the camera, speaking to the television audience directly.

Through that electronic interaction, Rasmussen said, viewers see people on his show who have similar problems as they do, and by Dr. Phil helping those people on his show, viewers feel empowered to seek treatment not only for their problems but for those of their children as well.

Rasmussen warns, however, that people need to make sure the relationship doesn't go further than that, forcing the media mental health professional to walk a fine line.

“The American Psychological Association has these rules that media psychologists aren't supposed to lead viewers to believe they are developing a professional relationship with viewers,” Rasmussen said. “But there is a relationship going on between Dr. Phil and his viewers. One of the things I worry about is media mental health professionals need to be clear that you are not their counselor, you are not their psychologist. You're just people in the media talking about these issues.”

Rasmussen feels Dr. Phil does a good job of explaining to the audience, both in studio and watching on television, that they are just discussing the issue while encouraging them to seek professional help if they feel it is necessary.

Seeking help

Even though some psychotherapists have criticized the “Dr. Phil” show over the years for handing out advice that was too simplistic or ineffective, Rasmussen's research shows regular viewers of the show were more apt to seek treatment for themselves and their children once they saw people with similar problems receive help from McGraw on the show.

“The relationship in a normal doctor-patient setting leads to a belief that, ‘Hey, I have the ability to treat my mental illness or have the ability to find help,'” Rasmussen said. “And they think when they go look for help that it will work. It starts with the “Dr. Phil” show, leads to the parasocial relationship and that leads to self-efficacy beliefs that I will find treatment for myself and for my child if I suffer from that mental illness. And that leads to intentions to seek treatment. Intentions are probably the biggest predictors of actual behavior.”

Rasmussen said that pathway, from Dr. Phil to the parasocial relationship to perceived efficacy to intentions to seek treatment, was performed for not only the adult taking the survey but the child as well.

Rasmussen noted that because this is solely survey-based research it does not necessarily establish causality, but that the theoretical mechanism involved can show that, statistically, it is all related.

Part of the survey also included a video clip from the show that was shown to determine if viewers get the same empowerment to seek treatment from watching just one episode, but they did not, meaning the empowerment comes from watching the show over time.

Rasmussen also feels Dr. Phil's background as a trained psychologist gives his show and the advice he gives on it extra credence that might not be found on other shows.

“I don't know if he's currently licensed to practice, but at one point he was, and I think he's not afraid to say he's a psychologist,” Rasmussen said. “He has that credibility of being a psychologist, whether or not he's a licensed practitioner in whatever state he is in.”

The next step in the research is to find out if the “Dr. Phil” show actually changes behavior, to discover how many of those surveyed who said they felt empowered to seek mental health treatment actually went to a trained psychologist or psychiatrist. But to do that, he said, he would need to bring in a mental health professional to assist with further questions that delve into the actual mental health issues.

Right now it just changes intentions,” Rasmussen said of the show. “But does the ‘Dr. Phil' show or other media mental health professional that people watch or listen to, does it change their behavior? Are people actually walking into a doctor's office from this? That is the next step.