Sep. 26, 2012 at 8:46 AM ET
You've seen this episode of "Seinfeld" approximately eleventy billion times, and yet you're still glued to the TV. You (and your housemates) may think you're just being lazy, but a new study suggests that you're doing something useful: watching reruns of our favorite TV shows actually replenishes our self-control.
Jaye Derrick, research scientist at the University at Buffalo's Research Institute on Addictions, had a hunch that watching TV is doing something more for our brains than turning them to mush. Specifically, she wanted to see whether the restorative powers of watching a familiar TV show might have any effect on our reserves of self-control.
Because self-control comes in limited quantities. It takes a lot of mental energy to refrain from calling your partner a jerk or eating a second slice of chocolate cake -- and as you exert yourself, self-control depletes, past research has suggested.
People restock their reserves in many ways and Derrick believed that watching TV or a movie or reading a book might re-establish self-control because it stands in as a social surrogate. Chatting and sharing some laughs with friends provides a positive social event that boosts moods and restores diminished self-control. Derrick suspected that retreating to a familiar fictional world could provide the same benefits as those real life experiences.
Derrick asked subjects to take a daily survey for two weeks, where they answered questions about stress, effortful self-control, fictional world use, and mood. They also noted if they retreated to a familiar fictional world, such as a rerun or a re-read of a book. The results revealed that people escaped to a fictional world to find relief from stressful situations and when they encountered a favorite repeat of a TV show, movie, or book it built up their self-control.
“Part of it is sitting there watching these social characters we enjoy and kind of living in the moment a bit,” explains Derrick. And watching these familiar faces feels as reinvigorating as hanging out with a loved one.
She suspects that people enjoy re-watching or re-reading because they feel comfortable with the plot and characters—and they don’t have to exert any extra effort. When people see a new episode of a much-loved show they invest mental energy into following the plot, wondering about twists and turns.
“We have to do all this extra effort when [watching or reading] a new TV show, new movie, or new book. If we have seen it before we can just enjoy it,” Derrick explains. “A positive mood is energizing.”
As someone who found herself in front of the tube re-watching some of her favorite shows, Derrick feels happy that TV viewing has a positive side.
“I am hesitant to make this into a prescription [because] we don’t know what the potential long term effects are, but what the research suggests is that [watching] favorite episodes can be beneficial.”
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