It's easy to get sucked into Law and Order reruns. After all, an iteration of the show is on at basically any given time. And then, before you know it, you're watching three hours of Olivia Benson, Lenny Briscoe, and Ice-T, and you’ve neglected to do work, like you wanted. Despite your frustration at yourself in that moment, one study indicates that your TV-watching has actually been beneficial for your health and psychology, by boosting your self-control.
The study may sound contradictory, but it is actually in keeping with previous research, which indicates that we have a finite supply of self-control in our systems. For example, if you avoid eating a donut at the office, you may be more likely to stop and get fast food on the way home. One key to replenishing the reserve of self-control is through social interaction – but depending on the people with whom you interact, those effects may be negated. Stressful social interactions can deplete self-control even further.
Jaye Derrick, from the University of Buffalo's Research Institute on Addictions, describes watching reruns as providing "social surrogate restoration." In her article published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, Derrick describes two different studies.
In the first study, 205 study participants were asked to write a short 10- to 12-sentence essay describing a recent trip that they took. Some were allowed to write it however they chose; the others were not allowed to use the letters a or i, meaning that they had to use high amounts of self-control. Then participants were allowed to write about their favorite television shows or the items in their apartment. Lastly, they were all given clues with three words and asked to give a fourth. For example, if "stomach," "home," and "sea" were given as examples, the fourth was "sick."
Though they were more fatigued by the first assignment, participants wrote a lot more on their favorite television programs than the other group if they were given that task. Unsurprisingly, neither group was more motivated than the other to list the items in their apartment; those lists were roughly the same for each group.
For the third task, with the four words, people who had been ordered to list the items in their apartment were able to find the fourth word less often and reported being more irritable at the end of the test. Meanwhile, for people who wrote about their favorite television shows, that assignment put their self-control amounts at previous levels. Describing their favorite fictional world and characters in television also restored their moods as well.
The second experiment asked 86 people to maintain a daily diary of their thoughts, feelings, and activities, which confirmed for Derrick that people seek refuge in fictional worlds.
While Derrick says that watching TV is not the optimal way to boost your mood – physical exercise and reading can have the same effect – it certainly contradicts your aunt Rhonda's judgment that television is a waste of time.