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Watching Your Favorite TV Show Can Boost Your Willpower

A familiar plot and characters you love restore energy and increase motivation.

As TV’s new fall season rolls out, consider this a public service message: you might want to stick with the reruns.

As improbable as it sounds, two new studies in Social Psychological and Personality Science report that watching reruns restores willpower. One study was an experiment and the other a naturalistic study in which people reported their daily routines and energy levels. The first study found that writing about a favorite TV show helped people stick longer at a difficult task. The real-world study found that watching reruns helped people recover from a hard day and boosted their energy.

Interestingly, watching a new episode of a favorite show did not have the same effect. It had to be an episode the viewer had already seen.

The scientists who conducted the studies speculate that a familiar episode is soothing, and fills our need for social connection (without all the energy-sapping demands of actual social interaction, or even the stimulation of a new plot). This is consistent with research on how anything that reduces stress, improves mood, or creates a sense of social support can increase willpower. But even though it fits the theory, there's something very odd about prescribing time on the couch with punchlines you've already heard, and mysteries you've already solved.

And yet, when I first read about this study, I felt happily vindicated. I don’t watch that much TV, but when I do, I overwhelmingly prefer episodes I’ve already seen. This is even more true if I’ve had a long day of travel or have been teaching for 10 hours straight, and couldn’t carry a conversation even if I wanted to.

[My drug of choice is the ABC rom-com/detective series Castle. I got hooked because the show’s hero was a procrastinating author. At the time I discovered the series, I too was struggling to meet a book deadline. There’s one 2011 episode, “Cops and Robbers,” I’ve probably watched 10 times.]

I know I shouldn’t choose which studies to blog about based on the degree to which they defend my own questionable habits, but hey, I’m only human.

And if you really want encouragement to breakout the Lost DVD collection or queue up the first season of Friends, consider this: In a press release from the University of Buffalo, the paper’s lead scientist, Jaye Derrick, claims that reruns can even make you a nicer person. Although not part of the latest studies, Derrick says she’s found that just thinking about the characters on a favorite TV show makes people more forgiving, more likely to help a stranger, and more generous to their romantic partner.

As I write this, it’s almost 10 p.m. in California, and ABC is airing a repeat of the season four finale of Castle. So I’m signing off for a little science project.

Kelly McGonigal is a psychologist at Stanford University. Her latest book is The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It. She is also the author of Yoga for Pain Relief and The Neuroscience of Change.

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