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Binge-Watching Everything Is Messing With Our Heads

The psychology behind your obsession with finishing that season of 'Black Mirror.'
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In 2018, there’s little respite from the onslaught of shows, movies, think pieces, and streaming videos. Even if you crawl under a rock, you’d probably eventually be disturbed by the persistent ping! of notifications from your phone alerting you to the content your friends are creating and consuming. So how do you deal? You dive in. You scroll through, and you hit “Watch next episode” without a moment’s hesitation. Welcome to the era of constant content.


Lamenting the addictiveness of smartphones and social media is so 2007—Apple and Facebook own your soul (and have for quite some time now)—get over it. Sean Parker, one of Facebook’s early investors recently told Axios that the platform was specifically designed to prey on our need for validation from one another—the need for that validation being one of our greatest psychological weaknesses.

But there’s an even more insidious psychological weakness that social media platforms, streaming services, and even publishers eagerly take advantage of: our inherent need for completion. As human beings, some experts believe that we seriously struggle with unresolved storylines or communications, which frequently drives us to binge on books, shows, and movies. In order to find closure, we doggedly keep engaging, reading, and watching until we’re at a satisfying stopping point.

Matt Johnson, a professor of psychology at San Francisco’s Hult School of Business is focusing on that very concept. Johnson says everyone’s definition of a “binge” differs. By his reasoning, when you set out to watch three episodes of The Crown and only just watch those three episodes, that’s technically not a binge, even though it objectively seems like a lot of time spent in front of your TV. But, if you allotted yourself one episode of House of Cards and then watch four hours’ worth—delaying your plans to walk your dog and do your laundry—then you’re in binge-watching territory. You’ve put your need for completion (i.e., your need to find out who Frank screws over next) over your day-to-day priorities.


Of course, online streaming services like Netflix and YouTube add fuel to our binge-consumption fire with their “post-play features” which give default options to load the next episode or video without ever having to lift a finger. It seems like a convenient option, except it’s designed, again, to exploit our psychological weakness. “We have a bias to accept the status quo, according to the law of least mental effort. That means if something is set up as the default, we’re much less likely to go against that option,” Johnson says. The post-play feature is especially powerful because most episodes leave off at a cliffhanger (much like the chapters of many fiction books).

For most people, this triggers the Zeigarnik Effect, a technical term for our need for completion. “If we’re interrupted, we fixate on the moment at which we were interrupted. For example, if there are two or three potato chips left at the bottom of the potato chip bag, you’ll eat those chips just to finish the bag, even if you don’t actually want them,” Johnson says. “Totally regardless of how much you enjoy something, our need for completion keeps us going.”

It’s arguable that our drive to completion isn’t a wholly negative trait (Think: commitment and how that’s not always a bad thing), but Adam Altar, a psychologist at NYU’s Stern School of Business has researched the happiness we sacrifice because we live in a world in which we can’t put down our screens. “The experiences we enjoy today are created without stopping cues, which, historically, told us that it might be time to move on to the next experience,” he says. “TV episodes ended and we’d wait a week for the next one; newspapers and magazines were finite; and so on.” Today the experiences we enjoy are bottomless, he notes. Netflix automatically plays the next episode and all episodes land simultaneously. You can read the news indefinitely. Even at night as you wind down, social media feeds scroll on in until your eyelids get heavy and you end up accidentally dreaming of some almost-stranger’s pug.

And it's not always an on-screen plot that functions this way. After graduating from college, When Sruthi Narayan, a 25-year-old from Cambridge, Massachusetts, graduated from college, she realized that she had lost the ability to read at the pace she used to––school had left little time for pleasure reading. To get back into regularly reading, she set targets for herself: 35 books in 2015, 50 in 2016, and pushing herself to read more than 50 books last year. “Some months became a blur [of reading] as fast as possible and hit whatever goal I set that year," she says. “I would prioritize getting to the last page over reading leisurely and with any intentionality.” She describes the need to meet her reading goals and blow through book after book as panic-inducing, as if there were a ticking clock behind every word challenging her to finish the book at hand so she could embark on a new one.

At the end of 2017, Narayan began to realize that she was struggling to remember details from many of the books she’d read in the past two years––she’d met her goals and made it to the bottom of the proverbial bag of chips, but she hadn’t enjoyed getting there.

Will we ever choose to consume culture with the goal of internalization and growth over our drive for completion? We just might not be built that way anymore. The turning point occurs when we realize that we’re actually less happy with the understanding we sacrifice by burning through books and seasons of TV. In 2018, Narayan has resolved to set no goals for her reading. She’s made it through two books in January, and says the experience has felt luxurious and enjoyable. Whether or not it lasts is another question. Like most of us, she’s not just fighting nature, she’s fighting Netflix—and that’s no small undertaking.

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