At the end of a long workday I often have two options: I can meet some friends for a drink or go home to a rerun of Mad Men. More often than I care to admit, I’ll skip my social engagements for the company of Don Draper and Peggy Olson. Spending time with my favorite TV characters seems to improve my mood and help prepare me to take on tomorrow.
A study recently published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found that watching TV reruns or rereading a favorite book can indeed help restore self-control. “There’s something about reading, seeing or hearing a story that seems to be particularly compelling for people,” says State University of New York at Buffalo social psychologist Jaye L. Derrick, author of the study. “If you watch reruns, that’s not something to feel bad about. There’s a reason we do that.”
Exercising self-control — such as regulating emotions or controlling thoughts — is a finite resource, and doing it too much can make us feel depleted. In need of ways to restore this resource, sometimes we turn to relationships with real people, but while these can be energizing, they also require effort.
Derrick’s study tracked participants outside of the lab, by having them keep a daily diary. The results showed that people selectively sought out familiar fictional worlds versus similar activities that involved an unfamiliar fictional world. Watching a movie for the first time or whatever was on television at the time fit into the latter category.
“This research seems to show that people can derive some of the same benefits of relationships with real people from viewing and thinking about their favorite shows and TV characters,” says Brian Lakey, a professor of psychology at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan.
Some researchers question how this benefit would extend to people in compromised mental states. Francesca R. Carpentier, a professor of journalism and mass communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill considers how these findings would be applied to people with affective disorders, such as depression. “Basic mental exhaustion is a characteristic of those with depression and people who are in a perpetual state of depleted self control might not act in the way that researchers found,” says Carpentier. She cautioned that for these people, the media might not do the trick. Watching television instead of socializing might mean fewer chances for other people to recognize that they might need help, she said.
Derrick herself was careful to point out that these results should be viewed with caution. While her research was able to show a short-term benefit of a familiar fictional world on restoring self-control, further investigation is needed to better understand the how long the restorative effects last in people, she said. But in the meantime, I’m going to watch my Mad Men reruns and enjoy all of the restored self-control that comes with them.