Why Being a Hater Feels So Good

A psychologist explains why we like to follow shows, movies, or people we can’t stand.
why we hate watch tv movie social media explained by psychology
Admit it—you just can’t look away. Photo: Carole Bethuel, Netflix

Insightful dialogue, nuanced characters, stunning imagery—these are all things that we prize in films and shows that make for great entertainment. But we also have stuff like Emily in Paris, Sharknado, and Too Hot to Handle, which, for all intents and purposes, also make for great entertainment. Instead of watching these productions for inspiration, chances are, we might be watching them to cringe.


This is called “hate-watching,” which Oxford Languages officially defines as the “activity of watching… for the sake of the enjoyment derived from mocking or criticizing.” It’s a real, ongoing trend. Emily in Paris, for instance, is generally derided on social media, but is one of Netflix’s most watched shows (Over 58 million households started watching the series in its first 28 days on the streaming platform), with a third season on the way

Turns out, many of us love to hate. And with the rise of social media, this manifests in the people we follow, too. Can’t get your eyes off a TikToker who pisses you off? That’s hate-following

“There have always been mediums for this detached form of hating or hating from afar,” JR Ilagan, a clinical psychologist based in Manila, told VICE. “The hate that we’re referring to here is more [toward] public content, public personas, and so on.”

Ilagan explained that hate-following is a more recent development; one that brings the public personas we used to hate on a little closer to home. But sometimes, this can also apply to friends who, for some reason, are much more annoying online. Watching these people could do more than just make your eyes roll. They could make you scoff, feel secondhand embarrassment, or exclaim: “Who does he think he is???” And yet, we keep scrolling for more. 


So why do we intentionally make ourselves feel these things? And why are hate-watching and hate-following so addictive? Ilagan said we can approach these questions through a biopsychosocial lens, which, as the name suggests, takes a look at the biological, psychological, and social factors of a certain phenomenon. 

Here’s why we derive so much pleasure from so much cringe. 

Biologically, hating makes us feel good

“Hate, love, and enjoyment are strong emotional responses. And sometimes, when we find ourselves experiencing strong emotional responses [even] in the absence of an actual threat, neurotransmitters are being secreted by our brain,” Ilagan explained. 

These neurotransmitters are usually serotonin, dopamine, and oxytocin, famously “happy hormones” that promote positive feelings. This would explain why hating makes us feel good, physiologically. For instance, Netflix reported a rise in popularity for reality TV shows in several countries when pandemic lockdowns were at their peak in 2020, while many people were looking for things that could give them comfort.


Other studies find that people are happier when they are able to feel emotions, even if those emotions are unpleasant. If you come across a post of a mean “pick me girl” dancing to Louis Theroux’s “Jiggle Jiggle,” for example, you would feel better throwing your phone against a wall. This is the same reason toxic positivity is toxic—because you’re suppressing emotions that need to be felt. There’s nothing cathartic about saying, “Well, but her dance was good!” 

“You could almost say that it could be addicting to experience these again because it feels good on an emotional level,” Ilagan said.  

Psychologically, we like comparing ourselves to others 

On the psychological level, Ilagan said that hate-watching or hate-following can prompt us to compare ourselves to what or who we’re watching, which can either make us feel better or worse. We can do this with characters in shows or films, but social media has become the primary platform for this because humans are naturally voyeuristic. We’re hardwired to snoop into other people’s lives, and in effect, size each other up. 

There are two ways we compare ourselves, Ilagan said. Upward comparison is when we compare ourselves to people who seemingly have it better. This could incite jealousy, which could prompt hate as a protective response. “Oh, this person is doing better? Well, I don’t like what they’re up to.” 


On the flip side, downward comparison is when we compare ourselves to people who seemingly have it worse, or whose posts can incite that secondhand embarrassment or cringe that we all know and love. It’s like watching a train wreck—it hurts to look but it makes you feel better about yourself. “Phew, wasn’t me!” 

Socially, hating is a bonding experience

How often after watching a terrible show do you go online to read the tweets? Maybe you go off on a rant in a forum dedicated to hating on that show. Or maybe, you invite your friends over to watch the show together.

“I mean, it’s fun to hate people together,” Ilagan said. “You have a common enemy, I guess you could say.” 

It’s the reason people can gather in endless viewings of The Room, dubbed the Citizen Kane of bad movies,” to quote the obscure script and throw spoons at the screen.

Gossiping, Ilagan said, is also a bonding experience—one that’s essential to the development of communities. Anthropologists and historians have found that gossip is “part of the glue that holds society together.” Some people take this very seriously and even flash their phones on TV screens so friends can watch the Instagram Stories of a person they hate together. 


Does hate-watching or hate-following make me a bad person?

According to Ilagan, it depends. There are two kinds of haters in this regard—those who stumble across content that is genuinely bad and hate on it, and those who find something to hate no matter what the content is. If you’re part of the former camp, don’t worry, “hate is valid,” Ilagan said. 

In a world that prizes excellence and achievement, it’s normal to criticize when you’re presented with a body of work that is unapologetically sub-par, to say the least. The same can be said for what you see on social media. 

“The reason a lot of people feel cringe is because sometimes what people do online, what people project in their public presence, is pretty ridiculous,” Ilagan said. “[On social media], there’s normally an expectation that the content and media would be self-aware. In other words, check your privilege, or know the situation that you’re in [before you post].”

Ilagan said that what you do with the hate also matters. Are you self-aware enough to admit that you’re just feeling a little bad about yourself and need something to feel better, or are you going to set out to cancel this person? 

Hating becomes unhealthy once it turns you into a hateful person, like if you start seeing disingenuity in other people even when it’s not presenting itself, or you begin spewing hateful comments when it’s totally unwarranted. If that’s the case, maybe a social media break isn’t a bad idea.

But good news, haters: Being a hater is totally normal. Sometimes, we’re just bored and want to feel something. 

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