Why, with an infinite Internet and five million cable channels, do we still find ourselves once again watching the Seinfeld episode about George's overstuffed wallet? It turns out that we may be seeking a convenient substitute for invigorating social interactions. An addiction researcher from the University at Buffalo recently began investigating some of the psychological impulses underpinning our love of reruns.
Jaye Derrick hypothesizes that returning to a familiar world and characters can be a way for people to replenish the reservoir of will in their psyche.
"Perhaps people turn to television not to 'zone out' or escape, as is often believed, but to replenish resources lost during exhausting activities," Derrrick writes.
In a paper recently published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, Derrick tested her theory. In one experiment, she asked half of a group of 205 people to complete a task that required concentration and effort -- writing about a recent trip without using the letters "a" or "i". The other half of the group wrote about a recent trip with no such restriction. Then she asked half of the entire group to write about their favorite television show, and the other half to perform a neutral task: listing items in their room.
She found that people writing about their favorite television show would write longer if they had been assigned to write the more difficult trip essay. Derrick says this indicates that the people who were depleted wanted to spend more time thinking about their favorite TV show.
The "restored" subjects -- the ones that wrote both the challenging trip essay and then wrote about TV -- also scored better on a word puzzle and were in a better mood than people who wrote the challenging essay and then merely listed objects in their rooms.
In a second study, Derrick asked 86 people to complete a daily diary detailing the effort they had to expend throughout the day, along with their energy levels and what sorts of media they consumed.
She found that people were more likely to reread favorite books and rewatch favorite shows and movies if they had to do something arduous.
The restorative properties of a favorite show, Derrick says, are like human social interaction, but less threatening because there is no threat of rejection or ostracism.
"When you watch a favorite re-run, you typically don't have to use any effort to control what you are thinking, saying or doing. You are not exerting the mental energy required for self-control or willpower," Derrick said in a statement on Thursday. "At the same time, you are enjoying your 'interaction,' with the TV show's characters, and this activity restores your energy."
SOURCE: Derrick, Jaye. "Energized by Television: Familiar Fictional Worlds Restore Self-Control." Social Psychological and Personality Science published online 8 August 2012.