The findings, by Sophia Moskalenko of the University of Pennsylvania and Steven Heine of the University of British Columbia, are presented in a paper published in the January issue of the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.
"We each have ways in which we like to perceive ourselves," said Moskalenko, a doctoral student in psychology at Penn. "In many cases self-image is carefully constructed and zealously guarded, and it's difficult to experience a conflict between who we are and who we would like to be. Television appears to be an effective means of reducing awareness of how we are falling short of our own standards."
In a study of undergraduates' viewing habits after receiving either positive or negative results on an intelligence test, subjects who received poor scores watched television longer and waited longer before averting their eyes from the screen. Those who fared well on the test watched for only 2.46 out of a possible 6 minutes, first looking away after 11 seconds, while those who did badly watched for 4.03 minutes and did not avert their gaze for 72 seconds.
"To the extent that television provides escape from feelings of inadequacy, it follows that people should be especially likely to seek television-watching opportunities when those inadequacies are made salient," Moskalenko said. "People were more likely to watch television when they were feeling bad about themselves and were less likely to watch it when they felt good about themselves, indicating that people actively seek situations to manage their current levels of positive self-feelings."
In three other experiments, undergraduates perceived less challenge to their chosen self-image after watching television, a finding that held whether subjects viewed neutral programming such as footage of waterfalls against a backdrop of soft classical music or more evocative programming featuring sad music.
Theories of self-awareness suggest that a person can be focused either on himself or on the events occurring around him. An outside stimulus, especially a relatively dynamic one such as television, can draw a person away from painful self-analysis, Moskalenko said. People exhibit relatively higher positive feelings when in a state of subjective self-awareness and, when forced into a state of objective self-awareness, make efforts to direct their attention away from themselves.
"Studies have shown that the average American watches 16 to 26 hours of television per week," Moskalenko said. "Sometimes it may serve to distract us from the fact that we're not the people we want to be."
Moskalenko and Heine's study was funded in part by a start-up grant from Penn's Department of Psychology.