If you were sitting in a room watching television with Megan Knowles, Franklin & Marshall's new assistant professor of psychology, you might think you were simply watching your favorite entertainment, sports or news program. But chances are that Knowles is more interested in studying you.
Knowles, who began teaching at the College at the beginning of this semester, brings an interest in parasocial interpersonal relationships to the Department of Psychology. Her previous research indicates that people sometimes form attachments to characters in television and other media, from Carrie Bradshaw's apartment in Sex and the City to the Friends' couch at the Central Perk.
"There are a lot of reasons why individuals might have favorite television characters," says Knowles, who co-authored Love Makes You Real: Favorite Television Characters Are Perceived as 'Real' in a Social Facilitation Paradigm in 2008. "While some people may simply like or identify with a character, others appear to derive a sense of connection from their favorite characters. These seemingly one-sided connections, or parasocial relationships, may form over time through exposure to the character's life, just as real friendships grow over time with shared experience.
"Not everyone forms these attachments, but to the extent that they are available, they can be of use to people as a social surrogate—bolstering people's sense of belonging after a social setback or rejection."
Knowles studies parasocial relationships as part of her broad interest in the "belonging needs" of individuals. She is particularly interested in the ways in which people cope with social rejection and ostracism.
"I examine the strategies people use to maintain a sense of connection after experiencing rejection, are left out of a group, get the cold shoulder, or otherwise feel alone," she says. "It seems that people are flexible social beings. After a social threat, people will consider the groups to which they belong as particularly 'groupy,' or meaningful, in order to satiate their social hunger."
Knowles completed her Ph.D. at Northwestern University after earning her bachelor's degree at the University of Kentucky. An avid traveler, she ventured to the Netherlands for a summer program in social psychology during graduate school. Following the program, she traveled around Europe on a rail pass.
"As a social psychologist, I found it interesting to be abroad as an American," Knowles says. "When you're in the minority, whether it is in terms of your nationality, gender, ethnicity or other characteristics, that social identity or characteristic is particularly salient."
On American soil, Knowles looks forward to exploring parts of Pennsylvania and New England. She has enjoyed getting to know the restaurants of Lancaster, including the Taj Mahal off Rohrerstown Road.
"I value good food, especially anything spicy," Knowles says. "Indian is my favorite, but I went through a Thai phase for a while. That was partly a result of having a half dozen Thai restaurants within walking distance in grad school."
Before arriving in Lancaster, Knowles spent two years at the University of Georgia. She found it difficult to teach classes of 300 students, not getting to know students' names—a problem she has not had since joining the College. "I knew most names after just two weeks at F&M," she says.
"The best thing about teaching at F&M is working with students on collaborative research projects and independent studies," she says. "As students run statistical tests on their data, I always feel a little anxious, thinking, 'Ooh, I hope it works.' I hope they find the outcome they predicted, but if not, you have to move on. That's the research process."