I've written a chapter about community in my forthcoming book on reading US romance as political fiction so I immediatedly followed the link when Merrian Weymouth tweeted
Interesting to think of 'social surrogacy' & apply it to readers relationship with books & rom genre gloms & series https://t.co/n8EpBnrUh4
— Merrian Weymouth (@MerrianOW) December 4, 2015
and it was indeed interesting and it led me to the original academic research, in which the authors
argue that [...] commonplace technologies, such as narrative ﬁction, television, music, or interactive video games, can [...] provide the experience of need fulﬁllment. We hypothesize that the facsimiles of social contexts presented in these technologies may be used to satisfy the fulﬁllment of belongingness needs. Just as Harlow’s (1958) infant monkeys experienced succor from cloth surrogates, satisfying belongingness needs, so too may beloved books, television programs, movies, music, or video games potentially serve as "social surrogates," leading to an experience of belongingness even when no real, bona ﬁde belongingness has been experienced. (Derrick, Gabriel and Hugenberg 352)
common themes in [...] narratives are social (Hogan, 2003), and strong initial research demonstrates that narratives engage people in social processing (Mar & Oatley, 2008). For example, engaging in narratives leads to an increase in thoughts and emotions congruent with the ones presented in the narrative (Oatley, 1999), and exposure to narratives is related to more sophisticated social skills and abilities (Mar, Oatley, Hirsh, de la Paz, & Peterson, 2006). Indeed, Mar and Oatley (2008) argue that one core function of narratives is to mentally simulate social interactions, potentially facilitating subsequent social behavior. (353)
They also offer a hypothesis which, if applied to fiction, may partially explain why so many readers describe some books as "comfort reads":
If favorite television programs can yield the experience of belonging, we hypothesized that [...] events that typically elicit belongingness needs (e.g., threats to a relationship, a rejection experience) would elicit a desire to experience a favored television program. (353)
That said, the experiments described in the article provide little support for extending the hypothesis to books. If anything the people studied were less likely to read an "old favorite" than a new book (355) but they weren't necessarily readers who had "comfort reads": they were
Seven-hundred and one undergraduate students (233 men, 322 women, and 146 participants who did not indicate their gender; mean age=18.86) (354)
who were much more likely to turn to music, TV and movies.
Derrick, Jaye L., Shira Gabriel and Kurt Hugenberg, 2009. "Social Surrogacy: How Favored Television Programs Provide the Experience of Belonging". Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 45: 352-62.