The Restorative Power of Good Old TV

The "social surrogates" we know and love can play real roles in reconstituting willpower and reducing anxiety.


"I'll be there for you." [NBC]

Surpassing the Mediterranean diet, self-control has become health's latest panacea -- allowing us to lose weight, save money, and eat healthier. The favored metaphor claims that willpower acts like a muscle that can be strengthened with repeated use. But it can also be depleted by engaging in effortful tasks.

In the paradigm's most famous study, subjects who weren't allowed to eat a cookie placed right in front of them gave up much sooner on challenging math problems than the control group that was allowed to eat the cookies.

It may be surprising to learn that social interactions also influence our self-control, and as anyone who's attended a Thanksgiving dinner can attest, it can go either way. Energizing encounters replenish our finite amount of willpower, while forms of effortful emotional regulation such as rejection, exclusion, and having to bite your tongue can actually deplete willpower, forcing you to reach for the Scotch by night's end.

An ideal solution would offer the self-control benefits of positive social interactions without the potential downsides of actually mingling with people. According to a new study published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, one such ideal solution is engaging with the social surrogacy provided by "familiar fictional worlds," such as watching reruns of favorite TV shows or rereading beloved books.

In the first experiment conducted by Jaye L. Derrick, an addiction researcher and psychology instructor at the University of Buffalo, subjects were asked to do a task intended to deplete willpower: They had to write about a recent trip, but weren't allowed to use the letters a or i. Then the subjects either wrote about a favorite TV show or listed items in a room. The subjects who wrote about their favorite show subsequently performed significantly better on puzzles (Remote Association Tests, specifically). RAT performance was felt to be indicative of replenished energy, including willpower and creativity.

A second experiment used a daily diary to examine the effects of favorite fictional worlds in action. For two weeks, subjects were asked how much self-control they had to exhibit that day, what activities they were involved in, and a general question about their mood. Here, subjects were more likely to seek their favorite fictional worlds if they also had to engage in particularly effortful tasks, and in so doing, regularly reported less anxious moods.

Interestingly, the benefits weren't seen in everyone who watched a favorite TV show -- only to people who were watching an episode that they'd already seen.

"I was expecting that new episodes of your favorite television show would have the same effect as reruns, but it does not. I think the reason that this effect is only in reruns is that you don't have to do the mental acrobatics of trying to figure out what's going to happen next in the plot. There is something here about familiarity that's important [to self-control]."

If you're just seeking to meet a need to belong or sense of social connection, you might be able to get away with watching a new episode of your favorite television show, says Derrick, "because it's like hanging out with your friends. But self-control is only restored when you're rewatching something."

A notable distinction was that general escapism -- defined as watching whatever was on TV -- didn't provide any self-control or social surrogacy benefits.

Our need to belong, can also be fulfilled through other forms of one-sided social surrogacy, known broadly as parasocial interactions (with pets, pursuing a relationship with God, even eating comfort food). Whether or not hanging out with your dog can replenish self-control, though, has yet to be tested.

"It wouldn't surprise me to find out that it helps restore self-control. Assuming that you have a well behaved pet."