Arya Stark, played by actress Maisie Williams, has become a fan favorite in 'Game of Thrones' final episodes. Arya Stark, played by actress Maisie Williams, has become a fan favorite in 'Game of Thrones' final episodes. Arya Stark, played by actress Maisie Williams, has become a fan favorite in 'Game of Thrones' final episodes. (Photo: Helen Sloan / HBO)

Science explains why you'll get sad when 'Game of Thrones' goes off the air

Having withdrawal from your favorite TV show? A social psychologist explains why.

"Game of Thrones," which debuted back in 2011, will air its final episode Sunday night – bringing to a close our long fascination with the Lannisters and the Starks. Many will be hosting epic finale parties.

With 121 million viewers, the series finale of "M*A*S*H" is still one of the most-watched television shows in American history. Since then, we’ve said goodbye to many beloved shows including: "Friends," "Seinfeld," "The Sopranos," "Breaking Bad." With each one, we feel like we are losing a close friend.

Fans have had a mixed reaction to the evolution of Daenerys Targaryen, played by actress Emilia Clarke. Fans have had a mixed reaction to the evolution of Daenerys Targaryen, played by actress Emilia Clarke. (Photo: Helen Sloan / HBO)

For fans of TV shows, seeing their favorite fictional characters walk off into the sunset can be just as hard as saying goodbye to a real-life friend. Spend enough time with a character from "Game of Thrones" or "Mad Men" in your living room, and when they leave it can actually cause you to feel sad. That is the finding of research by Professor Jonathan Cohen of the University of Haifa in Israel, who studies people's friendships with TV characters. Yes, that's a real field of study.

Our connections with any fictional character – from Harry Potter to Arya Stark – are called "para-social" relationships. "We tend to develop relationships with these characters, and they develop more over time," Cohen told From The Grapevine.

Kit Harrington's Jon Snow is one of a handful of characters that have survived the entire series – well, except for that one time he died. Kit Harrington's Jon Snow is one of a handful of characters that have survived the entire series – well, except for that one time he died. (Photo: Courtesy HBO)

Research in this area dates back to the 1950s – with the advent of television – when Americans began to feel a sense of connection to the people on their TV screen: Newscasters and talk show hosts, singers and sportscasters. Later, this evolved into relationships with fictional characters from TV shows.

Take, for example, one of the most popular sitcoms of recent memory. More than 52 million Americans watched the finale of "Friends" on May 6, 2004. Cohen's research found that fans of the show felt the most intense break-up with Rachel. "She was also perceived to be the most popular," explains Cohen. "And people had the strongest relationship with her."

Further research indicates that fans often give Rachel and other fictional characters they care about the benefit of the doubt, just like they would a real friend.

Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) on 'Friends'Research found that fans were saddest about breaking up with Rachel (Jennifer Aniston) on 'Friends' after the show went off the air. (Photo: Courtesy Warner Bros. Television)

"The most important thing to remember," explains Cohen, "is that para-social relationships are not a compensation mechanism for lack of other relationships. People who have good, strong relationships also have many para-social relationships."

That's comforting news to fans of "Game of Thrones" who will, barring reruns, no longer be able to visit with their favorite characters anymore. That is, until the much talked about "Game of Thrones" spinoff shows come to fruition.

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Science explains why you'll get sad when 'Game of Thrones' goes off the air
Having withdrawal from your favorite TV show? A social psychologist explains why.