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Can Reality TV Boost Self-Control?

Can Reality TV Boost Self-Control?Flipping through one of Psychology Today’s recent issues, my eyes focused on a short article “Just Give In. Five Indulgences that actually boost self-control” by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.

What are these five indulgences? Personally, I was hoping chocolate was on the list. (Unfortunately, it’s not!) McGonigal narrows it down to these five things: a single espresso, an afternoon nap, a snack, YouTube and reality television.

The author writes that “Willpower diminishes as the day wears on, but anything that reduces stress, boosts your mood, or recharges your energy can also reboot your self-control.”

Even “reality TV?”

Last night, after watching various contestants on a popular reality show sing for 90 minutes, I felt like falling asleep. Willpower? I must be watching the wrong program. Survivor might give me some energy: watching people trudge through swamps and sleep in tents, screaming at each other and falling in ‘love’ the next episode.

I kept reading, hopeful that the small paragraph devoted to the indulgence of reality television would explain our culture’s obsession with watching other people. People on a screen and not, say, upstairs in a different room or a phone call away.

“Willpower is contagious,” the author continues. “Many reality shows feature people working hard to overcome obstacles as they lose weight, face their fears, or organize their clutter.”

I paused reading and recalled a past co-worker who spent, unfortunately, at least 30 minutes every single day talking about her favorite show, The Biggest Loser. We worked side-by-side and so this was particularly irritating, but even more so was the fact that she spent time talking to me — and anyone else who would listen — about her diets. She had a new diet every week and none of them worked.

I guess the show’s “willpower” did not translate to her lifestyle. Sort of like how I can’t sing a note despite watching all of these silly singing shows.

The article concludes with “You can “catch” extra self-control just by watching someone pursue a goal.” Hmm. While the author of this article believes that television can boost willpower and productivity, I disagree. Watching television is a sedentary activity and it uses very few brain cells — feeding your dog uses more. [Ed. – Although it may be a common popular perception, there’s also little research that supports the idea that reality TV shows can help a person with their own willpower or act as a personal motivator.]

So, what’s the verdict? The reality is that watching reality television is a form of escape. I doubt it promotes “self-control” (am I the only one who eats dinner while watching television?) but it has ingrained its way into our culture.

That aside, watching the presidential debates far exceeds the drama I have witnessed in any episode of Survivor. In the end, ‘real life’ is reality.


McGonigal, K. (2012, August). Just give in. Psychology Today, 45(4):13.


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Can Reality TV Boost Self-Control?

NatalieJeanne Champagne

Natalie Jeanne Champagne is the author of The Third Sunrise: A Memoir of Madness. You can learn about Natalie and the book on her website at

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APA Reference
Champagne, N. (2018). Can Reality TV Boost Self-Control?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 27 Nov 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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