Low Self Image? Avoid Mirrors, Watch TV

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You’ve just found out that you’ve done badly on an intelligence test. Very badly, in fact. Your self-image has just taken a major hit. How do you cope?

Well, if the TV’s handy, you’ll watch it. Of course, you might have watched it anyway, but now you’ll watch it longer and a lot more intently than you would have had you not faced such convincing proof of your imperfections. And after a while, you will feel better.

This is not just speculation. It’s quite well documented in a new article titled “Watching your troubles away: Television viewing as a stimulus for subjective self-awareness,” based on a series of studies carried out by a Penn doctoral student and a former Penn professor of psychology.

“People actively seek television as a stimulus to distract themselves from the failures or concerns that they might have at the moment,” says Sophia Moskalenko, a fourth-year doctoral student in psychology, who collaborated with Dr. Steven J. Heine, a former Penn psychology professor now at the University of British Columbia. “People are made to feel better about themselves insofar as they perceive less discrepancy between their actual selves and their idealized selves, and they feel less like they’re not meeting some criterion or some standard when they’re watching TV.”

In their article, which appeared in the January issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, Moskalenko and Heine noted that their aim was to “explore how television serves the important role of escaping the self.” While the content of the show being watched is not irrelevant, they point out, “very often entertainment is sought out not for its emotion-eliciting value, but rather for its ability to attract our attention.” That mechanism, they argue, “taps into the basic appeal of drama: distraction from the self.”

Some studies have already suggested that television is used for “mood-management,” and have concluded that people who are not satisfied with themselves are more likely to watch TV. But the direct relationship between television-watching and improved self-image had not been explored.

Moskalenko and Heine began by having two groups of undergraduates at Penn and Bryn Mawr fill out questionnaires about themselves—20 questions about how they ideally would like to be, and another 20 about how they actually regarded themselves. Half of the students answered the “actual self” questions before watching a very neutral six-minute nature video; the other half answered those questions after watching it. Those who answered the questions before had “significantly larger actual-ideal discrepancies” —and a poorer self-image—than those who answered those questions after watching TV.

In another test study, three groups of Penn students took an intentionally skewed intelligence test, some randomly selected to score highly and some to score poorly. (The third, a control group, received average scores.) They then had to grade their own tests—whereupon they found out how their “performance” compared with those of other University students. Following that, they were told to watch a video, and were observed on a hidden camera from an observation room.

The results were striking: Those who scored highly on the rigged intelligence test “watched significantly less television” (147 seconds) than did either the control group (206 seconds) or the “failure” group (242 seconds). Furthermore, those in the “success feedback” group were “quicker to look away from the television” (10.8 seconds) than those who received no feedback (19.8 seconds) or those who received failure feedback (71.9 seconds).

“People apparently make efforts to focus their awareness away from their self, and to a convenient target like the television, when they are made aware of how they fall short of a standard,” Moskalenko and Heine wrote. “In contrast, those who have succeeded appear quite content to spend their time contemplating themselves and are more likely to avoid stimuli that might distract them.”

Their studies, they concluded, provide “the first experimental evidence that television viewing is associated with enhanced positive feelings about the self.” 

“I never intended to say that it was just television,” Moskalenko adds, noting that some similar studies have been done using computer games. (Books are a different story, partly because they require so much more effort to read.) Nor did the study intend to examine the effects of different kinds of television programming.

“I’m sure people can relate to coming home from work, turning on the TV, and not even caring what’s on,” she says. “You need that kind of distraction to allow you to feel more laid-back and more capable of dealing with reality.”

While acknowledging that such TV-enhanced positive feelings could be interpreted as a form of psychological opium, Moskalenko points out that people may need that sort of thing to survive in today’s society.

“I hope this gives a positive spin to the whole ‘opium to the nation’” perception of TV, she says. “Because you’re overloaded with information and problems, and you need something to distract yourself. There’s a book by Roy Baumeister called Escaping the Self. He makes the pretty convincing point that modern society is putting the individual in this very demanding position of having to be alone with the self a lot and stand up to all kinds of standards. He says that’s one explanation for alcoholism and suicide and all kinds of addictions—just trying to escape from this burden.” 

So—better TV than crack cocaine? “Everything in moderation,” says Moskalenko. “If you spent 30 hours a week watching television, that’s not good. But it’s a better choice of distraction than drinking or taking drugs.”

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