sealPurdue News

October 15, 2002

Purdue professor offers food for thought in 'Refrigerator Rights'

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Want to know who your friends are? Just check the refrigerator.

The authors of a new book contend that "refrigerator rights" – the type of warm relationships that allow free reign over the contents of a friend's refrigerator – may be disappearing under the chilling effects of pop culture.

Glenn Sparks, Purdue University professor of communication, contributes his expertise alongside Will Miller in "Refrigerator Rights," a book that explores the loss of close relationships in America. In their new book, to be released Nov. 5 by Penguin-Putnam, Sparks and Miller explain how refrigerators are gauges of relationships and why the number of Americans who have refrigerator rights is decreasing.

"Refrigerator rights refers to the deep intimate connections that we have with friends, family and spouses," Sparks says. "Our argument is that life in American culture has changed in a very significant way in the last 50 years. The average American moves every five years. What impact does that have on interpersonal relationships?"

The authors explain how a mobile society, an emphasis on individualism and the effects of mass media contribute to the loss of close relationships. The book also offers suggestions on how people can transform their isolation into connections, such as how to re-establish vital social networks, reach out beyond one's immediate family and balance self-care and care for others.

"The topic is accessible for the average reader," Miller says. "'Refrigerator Rights' touches on a significant issue for the lives of many modern Americans."

Miller, pastor of counseling at University Church at Purdue, is a nationally recognized media personality from his tenure as the resident television therapist on Nick-At-Nite and as the talk show host of NBC's "The Other Side." Miller, a psychotherapist, ordained minister and standup comic, coined the term refrigerator rights.

Sparks, an expert in the effects of mass media, teamed with Miller about four years ago. They published a scholarly journal article about media impact while they were working on "Refrigerator Rights."

The first theme explored in the book is how a mobile American society prevents people from establishing or preserving close relationships.

"Geographic mobility has threatened us because we move away from people so frequently, or they move away from us," Sparks says.

The 2000 census recorded about 290 million Americans. In 2000, more than 43 million of those people moved.

"That doesn't sound like too many, but what you really need to consider is that this is happening every year," Miller says. "Between March 1998 and March 1999, 42.6 million moved. In the last decade 15 to 17 percent of our population has moved every year. That number is even higher in the 20- to 40-year-old bracket."

As people find themselves farther from family or moving away from close friends, they seek something to fill the void. Often, many turn to the programming on their televisions to find comfort in characters on sitcoms or reality shows, Sparks says.

The characters and personalities created by the mass media, and their impact on interpersonal relationships, is the book's second theme. Individuals who lack people to share refrigerator rights often substitute with the media, Sparks says.

"There is a lot of evidence that some people become unusually involved with personalities from the media," he says. "Media is such a part of our environment that we are not trained or encouraged to think about the media as a separate component of life."

Evidence of this trend is found in Internet chat rooms. Anecdotal research shows that people can be highly emotional or overinvolved in the lives of people they don't know or those who don't even exist, such as daytime soap opera characters. During Sparks' research, he witnessed Internet users defending or exchanging cruel words about made-up characters' actions.

The third theme explored in "Refrigerator Rights" is the strong value our society places on individualism.

"There is the American norm to succeed, and to do that we believe we must isolate ourselves," Sparks says.

Sparks and Miller will sign books at 7 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 8, at Barnes & Noble Booksellers in Lafayette, Ind. They also have guest appearances scheduled on national talk shows.

Writer: Amy Patterson-Neubert, (765) 494-9723,

Sources: Glenn Sparks, (765) 494-3316,

Will Miller, (765) 497-3725,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

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