Why We Can't Resist Binge Watching TV


We're Wired To Find Out What Happens Next

No matter how you watch TV, whether on a 30-inch flat screen, tablet, or smartphone, the phenomenon of "binge watching" has taken hold of viewers all across the country. Thanks to the onslaught of recording features on your TV and convenient functions on your favorite streaming services (like the postplay feature on Netflix that lets you watch the next episode as the credits scroll on the one you just watched), we're spending less time watching our favorite shows on a week-to-week basis, and more time watching entire seasons in one sitting.

A study done by Harris Interactive showed that 61 percent of 1,500 people surveyed online reported to regularly binge-watch on Netflix. A similar study by McCracken suggests that the reason behind consuming our entertainment in such a dense way may not only be for convenience's sake, but is actually a preferred method: approximately eight out of 10 people found binge-watching a TV show to be more enjoyable than watching a single episode at a time. But what about sitting on our couches for eight hours, immersed in Walter White's downfall, is so addicting? Psychologists are saying that our brains are wired to enjoy this kind of obsessive consumption.

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We Feel For The Characters

One reason why we're so invested in our favorite TV shows is because our brains are designed to empathize. "Cognitive empathy," which describes how our brain can adopt another's emotions and perspectives, plays a big role in the way we connect with what we see on screen. Neuroeconomist, Paul Zak, explored this connection by showing participants in his study a video of a father with a young son who is diagnosed with cancer, offering both the happy and unaware perspective of the boy and the grief-stricken perspective of the father. Zak found that distress and empathy were the two emotions most expressed by the participants upon watching the video. This was supplemented by blood samples taken of those involved in the study before and after the viewing. Levels of both the stress hormone, cortisol, and a hormone linked to human connection and compassion, oxytocin, were found to increase in participants after they watched the video. Additionally, researchers asked participants to donate to a charity after the viewing. They found that the amount of cortisol and oxytocin produced in participants positively correlated with the amount of money they would donate to a charity, which was presented to them after the video.

Zak's findings showed that we're not just being entertained when we watch TV, we're connecting on an emotional level. Our bodies are telling us that we actually care.

We're Suckers For A Good Story

Sure, we're invested in the characters of our favorite TV shows as if we know them in real life, but what makes watching one episode after another something we can't stop doing? Psychologist, Uri Hasson, sought out to find out what exactly is behind the addictive quality of binge-watching. Founding the idea of neurocinematics, which examined how TV and film influence our brain, Hasson conducted a study that showed participants different clips. One of which was a ten-minute clip of an outdoor concert in New York’s Washington Square Park. Another was from Alfred Hitchcock’s Bang! You’re Dead. Hasson then examined the participants’ brains based on intersubject correlation (ISC), meaning which parts of your brain are showing activity and how many are doing so simultaneously. The more regions in our brains that are being active at the same time, the more focused on a stimulus we are—that is, something is grabbing our attention!

Among the participants, Hasson found that watching the clip of the concert in the park elicited an ISC of five percent, while Hitchcock’s film left viewers with an ISC of 65 percent. While the clip of the park concert gave viewers more leeway in deciding where they would place their attention (the music, the dancers, the audience), the Bang! You’re Dead clip controlled what the participants were looking at, what they were predicting to happen, and most importantly, what emotions they were feeling. The way Hitchcock did this was simple: he told a story. Where concerts and museums are typically designed as open-to-interpretation types of entertainment, long-form narratives—as told through TV shows—are what gets us hooked.

According to recent data, Americans are now spending an average of five hours a day watching television. Is binge-watching the culprit? The next time you take residence on your couch, try watching just one episode of your current TV obsession and decide for yourself.

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