Need willpower? Watch your favorite TV rerun

U. BUFFALO (US) — Watching reruns of a favorite TV show can restore the drive to get things done, especially for those running low on willpower or self-control.

“People have a limited pool of these valuable mental resources,” says Jaye Derrick, research scientist at the University at Buffalo’s Research Institute on Addictions. “When they use them on a task, they use up some of this limited resource. Therefore, they have less willpower and self-control for the next task. With enough time, these mental resources will return. However, there may be ways to more quickly restore them.”

One of these ways is to re-watch a favorite TV show, Derrick says. Doing so taps into the surrogate relationship people form with the characters in their favorite shows. The characters are comforting, mainly because we already know what they are going to say and do. All we have to do is sit back and enjoy it.

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“When you watch a favorite rerun, you typically don’t have to use any effort to control what you are thinking, saying, or doing. You are not exerting the mental energy required for self-control or willpower,” Derrick explains. “At the same time, you are enjoying your ‘interaction,’ with the TV show’s characters, and this activity restores your energy.”

In the first of two studies published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, Derrick asked half of the participants to complete a structured task which required concentrated effort. The other half were asked to complete a similar but less structured task that allowed them more freedom and required much less effort. Half of the participants were asked to write about their favorite television show while the other half listed items in their room (a “neutral” task).

The participants were then tested to measure any reduction or renewal of willpower. Those who wrote about their favorite television show (rather than listing items in their room) wrote for longer if they had done the structured task than if they had done the less-structured task, indicating that they were seeking out their favorite TV shows and wanted to spend more time thinking about them.

Writing about their favorite television show restored their energy levels and allowed them to perform better on a difficult puzzle.

In the second study, participants did a daily diary study. They reported on their effortful tasks, media consumption, and energy levels each day. If they had to do effortful tasks, they were more likely to seek out a rerun of their favorite television show, to re-watch a favorite movie, or to re-read a favorite book. Doing so, then restored their energy levels. “In other words, there was a measurable restorative effect from a familiar fictional world,” Derrick says.

But that doesn’t mean people should veg-out in front of any TV show.

“The restorative effect I found is specific to re-watching favorite television shows (or re-watching favorite movies or re-reading favorite books),” Derrick says. “Just watching whatever is on television does not provide the same benefit. And perhaps surprisingly, watching a new episode of a favorite television show for the first time does not provide the same benefit.”

Derrick explains that there is something special and comfortable about a “relationship” in which you already know what the other person is going to say and do, and all you have to do is sit there and enjoy it. In fact, the effects of this fictional “social surrogacy” may work better than actual social interaction with real people under some circumstances.

“Although there are positive outcomes to social interaction such as a sense of feeling of being energized,” says Derrick, “human exchanges can also produce a sense of rejection, exclusion and ostracism, which may diminish willpower.”

Derrick’s findings may dispel some notions that watching TV is bad for us.

“Watching television is not all bad. While there is a great deal of research demonstrating that violent television can increase aggression, and watching television may be contributing to the growing obesity epidemic, watching a favorite television show can provide a variety of benefits, which may enhance overall well-being,” she says.

Derrick’s new research will expand on these findings and examine other social consequences of television.

“Favorite television shows can actually increase people’s prosocial behavior. Specifically, after thinking about a favorite television show, people are more willing to forgive others, are more willing to help a stranger, and are more willing to sacrifice for their romantic partner,” she says.

Source: University at Buffalo