Watching reruns can actually help restore willpower

Time to break out the DVDs! New findings out of SUNY Buffalo suggest that watching summer repeats of your favorite TV show may actually be good for you.

Ever since psychologists discovered that willpower was a finite mental resource, people have been looking for ways to tap into and restore it. Now, in a study recounted in the latest issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science, psychologist Jaye L. Derrick presents evidence that "familiar fictional worlds" can restore willpower — but not for the reasons you might expect.

Derrick recruited 207 participants for the first half of her study, and subjected them to a variety of attention- and self-control-depleting tasks. Participants were asked to write about a recent trip. The test group was asked to do this without using letters "a" or "i". (This type of writing exercise is known as a lipogram.) Test subjects were then asked to either write about their favorite TV show or list items in their room. Finally they were given a complex word-association task.

People who completed the lipogram and the neutral listing task showed decreased ability to direct their attention to the word association task. They also had more negative feelings about the tasks. The lipogram writers who wrote about their favorite TV shows, however, had nearly identical word association scores as those with the non-lipogram writing task. They were also in much better moods than the lipogram writers who did not write about television. Derrick's findings suggest that writing about a favorite television show can improve concentration, restore depleted willpower and improve mood.

Derrick then analyzed the language of the television essays to determine why television shows might restore willpower. Previous studies of language-use have shown that unconscious thoughts and feelings can be determined by considering word choice. Was it merely the act of thinking about something other than themselves that improved participants' willpower? Was it just thinking about funny or happy television shows that improved mood? Or was it something else? By comparing the television essays of the lipogram writers and the non-lipogram writers Derrick was able to determine that the lipogram writers, with their depleted self-control, were using lots of social words compared to the non-lipogram writers. This suggests that television can be a form of social surrogacy.

Researchers have shown in the past that positive social interactions can restore depleted willpower. But social situations can also be fraught with negative interactions that can have a depleting effect. Thinking and writing about a favorite television show seems to engage the same mechanism as positive social interactions, without the negative effects.

In a second study, Derrick demonstrated that people seek out what she calls "familiar fictional worlds" in real world settings, and investigated how that effected their moods. By having students fill out surveys about their feelings and actions on a day-to-day basis, Derrick was able to establish that those who exerted "effortful self-control" on day one, then interacted with a "familiar fictional world" on day two, had lower "negative mood" on day three than those who followed up their "effortful self-control" with "novel fictional worlds" or "escapism."

So how can this research be used in real life? The findings suggest that if you're facing a task that requires a lot of self-control — like starting a new routine, quitting smoking or dealing with a difficult situation at work — you'll feel better and have more willpower if you choose re-watching or re-reading favorite books than if you pick up new ones. Seeing as your brain associates this stimulus with social interaction maybe it would be best to pick your favorite shows with ensembles. Alternatively, you can use this study to justify extensive DVD collections, because you'll never know when you need a social surrogate pick-me-up.

Derrick's findings are published in the latest issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science.