“Watching TV after work makes you feel ‘guilty and like a failure’,” says The Independent, citing a study looking at the concept of “ego depletion”.
Ego depletion is the idea that after a gruelling task your levels of self-control become drained. So after a hard day’s work, instead of going to the gym as you promised yourself, you spend the evening playing “Plants Vs Zombies” or watching repeats of “Mrs Brown’s Boys”.
Researchers felt that these procrastinations would cause feelings of guilt and shame. To test this hypothesis, they recruited 471 participants to take part in an online survey, either via a popular German gaming website, or directly through universities.
The survey involved asking people to say how strongly they agreed with 64 different heavily biased statements such as: “When I [watched TV/played video games] yesterday after work/school, I felt remorse.”
Unsurprisingly, the study reported that people used TV or video games to avoid doing other activities felt guilty about it. However, it is highly likely that this was due to the nature of these leading questions.
The study was also self-selecting, so results are not applicable to other populations who may use TV or games to relax.
A moderate amount of TV and gaming is unlikely to cause any serious problems as long as you balance it out with other real-world activities. Read more about how staying active can improve mental wellbeing.
Where did the story come from?
The study was carried out by researchers from Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz in Germany and VU University Amsterdam. Sources of funding were not reported.
The UK media have not discussed any of the limitations of this study but have simply focused on repeating the results without any critical analysis. They have also falsely implied that this study was able to confirm that watching TV or using video games causes feelings of guilt, when this type of study is not able to prove cause and effect.
It could have actually been the suggestive nature of the questions in the survey that made people report feeling guilty about their use of the media. The fact that the survey was self-selecting was also not discussed. University students and German-speaking fans of a video game website unlikely to be representative of the wider population.
What kind of research was this?
This was a cross-sectional study looking at TV and video game use, feelings of guilt, enjoyment and relaxation after working or studying during the day. This was performed using an online survey.
As this was a cross-sectional study, it takes place at one moment in time and thus cannot prove cause and effect, it can only show associations.
The researchers wanted to investigate the theory that people do not benefit from watching TV if they are “ego depleted”. This describes the emotional state a person is in after they have exhausted their willpower.
The researchers say this can occur after work from excessive self-regulation “found in making decisions, adjusting to social norms, avoiding mistakes”, and other tasks.
Previous research has found that the likelihood of giving in to fleeting desires increased with the number of acts of self-control that had been done during the day. One example given was from a study that found that people were more likely to choose chocolate than a fruit salad as a snack if they had previously been given a series of puzzles to do.
The researchers proposed that use of media is one such desire used as a pleasurable task to put off doing more meaningful activities that demand more input and effort.
However, this could be interpreted by individuals as a sign of failed self-control and induce feelings of guilt and shame; lessening the experience of media use being a pleasurable experience.
The researchers aimed to assess the potential association between feeling “ego depleted” and negatively viewing their use of the media, and then the effects of this media use and perception of it on ego recovery (from the stress and strain of the day) and ability to enjoy the experience. They chose two different types of media – interactive (video games) and non-interactive (TV) to test their theories.
For TV, they also looked at whether the choice of programme made any difference.
What did the research involve?
The researchers recruited 293 people from an online gaming site and 342 students of psychology and communication (279 from a university in Germany and 63 from a university in Switzerland).
People were then excluded from the analyses who had not worked or studied the day before the survey and who had not played video games or watched TV.
The researchers say that in order to keep the questionnaire short, people who had used both types of media were assigned to only ask questions about their use of video games or TV use:
- people who had been recruited from the gaming site and had used both media types were automatically assigned to questions about video game use
- students who used both were assigned to answering questions about their TV use
The participants were asked to fill out the following online questionnaires:
- State Self-Control Capacity Scale – 16 items to assess “ego depletion”, with responses from 1 (does not apply) to 7 (fully applies) for statements like “yesterday after work/school, I felt like my willpower was gone”
- Procrastination Scale – 5 items to assess the level of stalling or putting off other activities
- State Shame and Guilt Scale – 5 items, responding to statements such as “When I [watched TV/played video games] yesterday after work/school, I felt remorse”
- Recovery Experience Questionnaire – 16 items on recovery such as becoming relaxed
- Activation Deactivation Adjective Checklist – 10 items to assess levels of vitality, such as feeling energetic or sleepy after media use
- Enjoyment – 3 items
- Preference for challenging versus easy to watch TV – assessed using 9 items
They analysed the results to see if there was any evidence for their theory of an association between ego depletion, guilt about TV or video game use and lack of ego recovery in the form of relaxation.
What were the basic results?
Of the 653 respondents, 471 were eligible for the study and 61.8% of which were male. On average they had worked or studied for 6.5 hours the previous day, but this varied from half an hour to 16 hours.
Video game use was reported on by 262 people, who used it for an average of 2.6 hours (standard deviation (SD) 1.73). TV use was reported on by 209 people, and this was watched for on average 1.99 hours (SD 1.09).
The main results were:
- video game and TV use were associated with putting off other activities
- putting off other activities by using video games or TV was associated with feelings of guilt
- guilt was associated with a negative effect on the ability of the media to induce ego recovery
- guilt was associated with a negative effect on vitality
- guilt was associated with a negative effect on the ability to enjoy the media
- there was no difference in the results comparing use of video games or TV
- people who were ego depleted were less likely to watch challenging TV content compared to easy TV content
How did the researchers interpret the results?
They conclude that their “results suggest that ego depletion is associated with similar patterns of negative appraisal and reduced positive outcomes in terms of wellbeing and enjoyment both in the context of interactive as well as non-interactive media use”.
This cross-sectional study reported an association between use of video games or TV after working and feelings of guilt about doing so, which hampered the ability to enjoy it or recover vitality.
However, there were numerous limitations in the study design, which casts doubt on the validity of the associations reported.
The results may not be applicable to the general population, as this was a selective group of participants who were:
- active users of gaming websites
- students of human psychology
- able and happy to spend time filling out six questionnaires totalling 64 questions (which one could argue is another perfect way to avoid doing other activities)
There was a wide variation in the number of hours the participants had worked during the previous day, from half an hour to 16 hours.
It does not appear that potential confounding factors such as this were taken into account during the analyses.
The average age of the participants was not provided, nor were any other socioeconomic or demographic data.
There was no control group, as anyone who had not used either form of media was excluded from the study. People were only able to respond to either their use of TV or video games. We therefore can’t say whether use of one preceded another, how much time was actually spent on both or what the level of enjoyment or guilt was during that time.
The questionnaires were heavily loaded, suggesting that people should feel guilty for their TV and video game use and this would create a source of bias. Good surveys should address this issue with other questions to balance out their suggestive nature but it is not clear if this occurred.
There is also the possibility that the participants may have not answered truthfully, or skewed their answers in a way that was helpful, or even unhelpful, to the study organisers.
The questionnaires were self-reported and filled out online about the preceding day. This leaves room for inaccuracies in recall.
Overall, the results of this study are not reliable due to the extent of the limitations