The psychology of podcasts and how they satisfy our need for connection: New research

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podcast The psychology of podcasts and how they satisfy our need for connection: New research

What’s your favorite podcast?

I’m a big fan of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History, How Did This Get Made? about the worst films ever made, and several others. 

Whatever podcast gets your ears buzzing, new research is showing that listening to podcasts is deeply linked to our need for human connection and social bonding. 

New research explains podcast popularity

New research from the Professors Stephanie J. Tobin and Rosanna E. Guadagno entitled “Why people listen: Motivations and outcomes of podcast listening” discovered fascinating motivations of why people tune in to podcasts.

As Guadagno and Tobin note, podcasts have been linked in past research to a desire for belonging and acceptance. 

These needs are also strongly connected to regular and heavy users of social media. 

These two professors wanted to find out if it’s true, and what it means. 

Their study encompassed 306 individuals who were paid to take part and answered questions about their personality and how important belonging and social connection is to them. 

Research participants were asked about how closely they followed, discussed and cared about podcasts they listened to as well, and this was put together with the individual’s traits and motivations for listening to podcasts. 

The results found “initial evidence that listening to more podcasts and socially engaging with podcasts are associated with greater presence of meaning and forming parasocial relationships with hosts is associated with a greater sense of relatedness.”

Meet the pod people

In addition to a desire for connection being involved in listening to podcasts, they also drew in those who were more curious and wanted to find out more about life and the world. 

The need to belong to a group was not as important to those who loved podcasts in this study, but relatedness, or the desire to relate to the host and the subject matter was highly important. 

The bond with the host means a lot to those who listen to podcasts, as these professors found. 

Podcast listeners feel a need to connect over subjects they find interesting, and podcasts provide an ideal platform to do that. 

This research isn’t only interesting, it’s also very applicable to people’s daily lives. 

Indeed: podcasts are extremely popular, and that’s not just a rumor. 

In fact, according to the website PodcastHosting, “55% of Americans have listened to at least one episode of a podcast, and about 37% say they listen to a podcast at least every month.”

This popularity is very much related to the psychology of podcasts and how they satisfy our need for connection.

It all starts with the podcast host, or hosts. 

Their job is to choose a subject they’re passionate or knowledgeable about (hopefully both) and then share that with the audience. 

By building a genuine connection with the audience, the host becomes trusted, loved and followed. 

By showing that he or she actually cares, respects and wants to talk directly to the audience, the host creates a real connection. 

The host-listener relationship is the first key of the successful podcast and the first clue of how a podcast satisfies our need for connection. 

As Ahmed Kareh notes for Forbes

“Podcasts are a great medium to be authentic and to connect with your audience. 

“Think about it: Wouldn’t you be more loyal to a brand if it could show you that it has experts who care about you?”

Podcasts promote affiliative connection with the host

Podcasts tend to promote affiliative connection which is often lacking in other areas of people’s lives. 

Affiliative refers to the desire to bring together or relate in ways which increase understanding, wellbeing and useful connection. 

Recent research from Omnicom Media Group in a large survey found this backed up while looking at the growth in podcast popularity. 

What they discovered is that while people do use social media to connect and interact, they find it often leans toward the sensationalized, negative and argumentative.

Podcasts, by contrast, are more affiliative and about learning together and connecting with a host who wants to find out new information, laugh, cry or investigate while you tag along as a listener. 

The audience is all listening in to these audio files, participating in an auditory egregore that brings both meaning and resolution, often dragging out answers over a number of suspenseful podcast episodes and segments. 

As Edwin Wong writes at Vox

“When comparing social media to podcasts, our social feeds naturally dominate on the ability to connect us with other people – with over 83% of respondents saying social media connects them to other people – but only 30% find social media inspires or motivates them, compared with close to 70% of podcast listeners.”

Let’s get chemical

When you listen to a podcast, you’re accepting an invitation into somebody else’s reality. 

The host or hosts invite you in and begin sharing a story, meditation exercise, debate or interview that draws you in and engages you. 

You’re not physically in a studio with anybody, nor are you engaging in a community event, and yet you may well feel that you’re part of something or at the very least taking part in something meaningful with the host. 

As your brain follows a storyline or narrative, you are stimulated in many different neurological areas, producing engagement and wellbeing.

There are chemical reasons for this, and it relates to what type of podcast you’re listening to. 

1) Meditation and wellness

Chemically speaking, listening to a relaxing meditation or wellness podcast you enjoy results in a release of endorphins as well as oxytocin. 

These are happiness and bonding chemicals: in fact oxytocin is known as the “love hormone” and is emitted by the pituitary gland. 

In other words, when you listen to a chill podcast you love, you get a nice buzz and feel a sense of joy and belonging. 

Guided meditation podcasts are extremely popular and are spreading like wildfire for precisely this reason:

People love ratcheting down the tension of a busy day and feeling like they are participating alongside a like-minded host who shares their spiritual and self-development goals. 

2) Comedy and upbeat podcasts

When you listen to a funny podcast, your brain is lighting up in all sorts of helpful ways.

Specifically, this gets your cerebral cortex and frontal lobe to do a happy dance and lowers your cortisol levels. 

Cortisol makes you stressed. Less of it helps you be less stressed. 

When you laugh at a funny podcast, you’re sharing a humorous moment with the host.

This lowering of cortisol combined with a sensation of sharing a funny moment is a win-win:

It’s a bonding experience combined with a chemical spa day. 

3) True crime and dramatic or news podcasts

When it comes to true crime and more news-based or dramatic podcasts, they also tap into our need for connection. 

As you follow the story arc of the crime story or the news, your brain’s medulla oblongata starts cranking out adrenaline as well as endorphins. 

This is especially true when the crime is getting close to being solved or clues are popping up. 

Dopamine and serotonin may also start being produced as resolution approaches and the podcast gets good. 

You enjoy the drama, because it has a purpose and the fight or search for solutions gives you a renewed sense of purpose. 

You follow the story with interest and attention to details, absorbing the narrative each step of the way or rewinding if you miss a bit while you were chopping carrots for dinner.

You’re hooked!

‘Dude have you heard of this new podcast?’

There’s a reason some people can’t stop talking about their favorite podcast and recommending it: 

They’re genuinely hooked and they want to share the enjoyment they experience with others. 

As Hannah Malach writes

“Endorphins affect your brain similarly to opioids, meaning they can be slightly addictive. 

“This type of podcast can also lead to the production of dopamine and serotonin.”

The podcast phenomenon 

Guadagno and Tobin’s new research is fascinating and important to look at in our busy digital age. 

Why are people so hooked on podcasts and how much has to do with a need for connection? 

It turns out quite a bit: 

All kinds of people from every walk of life listen to podcasts and love them, but the biggest podcast lovers were those who were curious, wanted to learn, were internet-savvy and were interested in connecting with a subject and host they found engaging. 

The results show that podcasts tap into our desire to learn in a collaborative setting. 

The host-listener relationship is key, as is the listener’s potential openness about going on an auditory journey to discover new things and learn. 

Guadagno and Tobin have showed how the appetite for podcasts isn’t going away anytime soon and is only likely to grow. 

Whether it’s comedy, true crime, science, education, health and wellness, meditation, philosophy, spirituality or about sexuality, podcasts have the potential to open our eyes in ways that change our lives. 

They also show the continuing power of the voice in a visual age. 

In a time when everything has become about screens and visual content, more and more people are choosing to slip in their headphones, close their eyes and hit play. 

Paul Brian

Paul R. Brian is a freelance journalist and writer. His book Cultworld was published last year. Follow him on Twitter @paulrbrian and visit his website at www.paulrbrian.com

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