The Psychology of Binge Watching

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The Sunday after the season finale of Game of Thrones felt so odd.  Half of me felt really sad that 9:00 PM didn’t bring with it 50 minutes of intense drama, gore, and tension that had come the previous nine weeks.  The other half of me also felt relieved, like a job had been finished and I was free to become unglued to the sofa the night before the work week started. All week I thought to myself how strange it was to not have a show that I was looking forward to.  Sure, this summer I was a Bachelorette and So You Think You Can Dance watcher, but those are garbage and fluff that I don’t spend too much energy thinking about.

This Friday night when Netflix personally recommended that I should try to watch Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, I took them up on their suggestion for my viewing pleasure. And I am so happy that I did! I mean, I have needed a new comedy in my life, and here it is! Friday night was then spent saying every 20 minutes, “Just one more?” Until it was way past bedtime and we were almost done with season 1.  Trust me; it took a lot of restraint to turn off the TV at a still reasonable hour and delay finishing the season the next night. It would have been so easy to binge watch all 2 seasons.  I know a thing or two about binge watching.  My husband and I watched the first 2 seasons of Homeland in less than a week.  I watched all of Masters of None in a single day when I had the flu.  Binge watching is fantastic, that is, until the show is over.  And then you are left feeling empty and looking for your next fix.

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This morning I found myself with a little time on my hands.  I was ordering a few things off of Amazon, when I saw another recommendation for my viewing pleasure.  Downton Abbey. Now, everyone I know watched Downton Abbey when it was on and they were addicted.  I’ve always thought one day I would watch it, and so this overcast morning I decided maybe today was my day.  So I watched the first episode.  And then I rationalized that my to-do list could wait just one more hour, and I watched the second episode.  And then I forced myself to turn it off.  And now here I am, pacing, contemplating the predicament in which I now find myself.   I mean, there are 6 seasons. That is a full time job of watching if I binge my way through this show.  And it is the start of the new school year.  The time where our family schedule explodes into crazy busy after a carefree summer.  But Downton Abbey is so, so very good.  UGH.

It got me thinking about what it was like when binge watching wasn’t an option. I remember being 8 when Anne of Green Gables aired as a mini series in 1985.  I LOVED Anne of Green Gables, and it was torture waiting an entire week to see the next segment.  But it was delicious anticipation, and gave ample food for my imagination.  I would spend lots of time during the week analyzing the plot, the characters, and praying that Anne would finally fall for Gilbert.  Looking back now, I think having to wait and wonder was really good for me in many ways.

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And research would agree with me, that delaying gratification is a good thing.  Studies show that children who learn to delay gratification do better in school and have less behavior problems.  It is because having to delay gratification helps us strengthen our impulse control.  And having strong impulse control is essential to living a successful life.  We need impulse control to manage our spending and plan for financial goals.  We need impulse control for anger management so we can have good relationships.  You get the picture, there are a million different reasons why this is a crucial skill.  When it boils down to it, practicing the patience of waiting is a good thing. No matter how hard it is.

As a Psychologist, I’d also like to make the argument that binge watching shows has the negative side effect of increasing our anxiety while simultaneously decreasing our ability to tolerate anxiety.  Binge watching can be used as a form of ‘rescue anxiety,’ which is a negative coping strategy. What I mean by rescue anxiety is something we do to distract us from our current worries.  By binge watching a series, we have to decide that we will do something (work, phone calls, studying, paying bills) later or not at all so we can stay put and watch the next show.  That decision gives us permission to avoid/delay doing what is stressing us out, so it rescues us from our current state of anxiety.  Yet it doesn’t make the anxiety go away, it just quiets it for a time and makes us feel like we are fine even though we have not dealt with what needs dealing. And then when the next show is done, worry rears its big ugly head stronger than before.  Now we have less time to study for that test.  The deadline for work is still moving closer but you’ve not spent any time on it yet.  You are going to bed late and so you will not be on your best game tomorrow. The more we rescue ourselves from anxiety, the more we want to rescue ourselves from anxiety! Binge watching has a very addictive feel to it, and the pull to watch just one more keeps us running for the remote and running away from important parts of life.   The more we avoid the hard parts of life, the less we feel we can handle the hard parts of life. There probably is a very distinctive difference between healthy binge watching and unhealthy binge watching.  Maybe the right question to ask yourself is are you binging for the right reasons?

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So back to my dilemma. To binge watch or not?  Is it really that bad to have the guilty pleasure of binge watching a great show?  Maybe not.  But I have 52 hours of Downton Abbey to catch up on.  52 hours.  I think I am going to make a rule for myself, no more than 2 episodes a week.  And only if my to-do list is clear and I can sit in good conscious knowing I’ve got some time to spare for entertainment. At that snail’s pace, it will take me at least 6 months to finish the series.  But I really am okay with that.  And I encourage you to do the same.  Pace yourself.  Practice patience.  It may seem like something as small as binge watching Netflix should not have such a profound impact on our impulse control, but what if it does?  And what if slowing your speed of watching actually increases your pleasure while watching?  Imagine how much more you may enjoy seeing what plays out if you’ve been anticipating and pondering the plot for 7 days instead of the 20 seconds it takes for Netflix to start the next episode?  And how much better it will be if watching feels like a reward after a day of good work done instead of a secret hideout from impending doom. I challenge you to give it a shot and see for yourself.

1 COMMENT

  1. I agree that not binge watching does give you lots of time to enjoy the painful anticipation. But i have encountered one side effect:

    I like watching TV shows & googling them (you know, so I can analyse the episodes with the fandom), but I can’t seem to Google the older episodes without encountering spoilers! Ugh it takes more self control altogether to just not Google them.

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