March 11, 2014

Why We're Wired to Binge-Watch TV

In this day and age of microblogging, distracting smartphones, 140-character tweets, and compulsive multitasking, it seems a little backward that one of the top post-workday hobbies of young folks is to become completely engrossed in the complicated storylines of Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, and House of Cards for hours on end.

A new type of consumer has evolved in recent years—the love child of the Couch Potato and the Channel Surfer, raised by streaming devices and nurtured by entire seasons of shows available at the click of a remote.

For just a few dollars a months, subscribers to Netflix, Hulu Plus, and Amazon Instant Video have access to thousands of streaming movies and TV shows updated regularly. And with Netflix’s new post-play feature, which prompts viewers to play the next episode just as the credits of the last one begin rolling, it’s easier than ever to succumb to the captivating lure of Walter White and Frank Underwood.

Indeed, the birth of the “binge-watcher” has been an intriguing, unexpected development in the past five years. Neuroscience, it turns out, can partially explain the phenomenon.

British psychologist Edward B. Titchener (1867-1927) might argue that we become glued to complex, emotionally-charged stories because of our ability to recognize the feelings of others. A newly-identified phenomenon at the time, Titchener coined the term “empathy” in 1909. In addition to identifying others’ discomfort or elation, the branch of “cognitive empathy” examines how humans can also adopt others’ psychological perspectives, including those of fictional characters. It’s such a universal emotional state that psychological tests (through the use of puppets, pictures, and videos) have even been developed to study empathy in preschool-aged children.

Neuroeconomist Paul Zak of Claremont Graduate University set out to examine the science of empathy in storytelling. He showed participants a video about a young boy with terminal cancer, seemingly joyful and completely unaware of his fate. We get the father’s perspective, too—although he tries to enjoy his last months with his son, he finds it impossible to be happy.

Zak found that subjects commonly elicited two emotions after viewing the video: distress and empathy. When a blood sample was taken from participants before and after viewing, both cortisol (a stress hormone) and oxytocin (a hormone associated with human connection and caring) levels were higher after the video. While cortisol was correlated with ratings of distress, there was a strong relationship between oxytocin and empathetic feelings. 

After watching the video, participants were also given the opportunity to donate money to a stranger in the laboratory, as well as a charity that helps sick children. In both cases, the amount of cortisol and oxytocin released predicted how much people were willing to share. Zak concludes that these empathetic feelings (that we also, apparently, act on) are evidence of our compulsions as social beings—even when faced with a fictional story.

So it’s clear that humans connect emotionally with stories of their kin. But what explains the binge? Or why, according to Netflix, did three of four members who streamed the first season of Breaking Bad finish all seven episodes in one session?

Psychologist Uri Hasson of Princeton University pioneered the new field of “neurocinematics,” or the study of how TV and film interact with the brain. In a 2008 study, Hasson and colleagues showed participants four clips while they had their brain imaged via fMRI: Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Alfred Hitchchock’s Bang! You’re Dead, and 10-minute unedited, one-shot video of a Sunday morning concert in NYC’s Washington Square Park.

Hasson wanted to determine the inter-subject correlation (ISC) across all viewers’ brains to examine how similarly they’d respond while watching these four very different clips. The Washington Square Park video only evoked a similar response in all viewers in only 5% of the cortex, while Curb Your Enthusiasm and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly came in at 18% and 45%, respectively.  The Alfred Hitchcock film, however, elicited an ISC of 65%.

In other words, compared to the other films, Bang! You’re Dead was able to coordinate the responses of many different brain regions, resulting in simultaneous “on” and “off” responses across all participants 65% of the time. Hasson concluded that the more “controlling” the clip—in other words, showing the viewer exactly what they’re supposed to pay attention to—the more focused the audience.

While the one-shot park clip allows viewers to attend to anything they find interesting, Hitchcock was a master of orchestrating everything: what you’re watching, what you’re thinking, how you’re feeling, and what you predict will come next. In the same way, modern-day TV writers and directors can engage viewers worldwide with the flash-forwards of LOST, gruesome Game of Thrones action, or the eerie exchanges between Breaking Bad’s Gus Fring and Walter White.

In a study by Harris Interactive on behalf of Netflix released in December, 61% of 1,500 online respondents claimed to binge-watch Netflix regularly (defined, modestly, as watching at least two or three episodes successively every few weeks). Three quarters of them reported having positive feelings toward the behavior.

Netfix sent cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken into the homes of TV streamers to find out why.  McCracken found that 76% report bingeing as a welcome refuge from their busy lives, and nearly 8 in 10 people agreed that binge-watching a TV show makes it more enjoyable than watching single episodes. Despite our hectic, digitally-driven lifestyles and 140-character social interactions, McCracken concludes that we’re actually craving the long narratives that today’s good television can provide. Instead of dealing with the day’s stresses by zoning out, we’d rather become engrossed in an entirely different (and fictional) world.

A new report shows that the average American watches over five hours of television daily. This statistic comes at the same time that we learn how sitting is slowly killing us, and that sedentary time in older age puts one at a significant risk for disability. 

To ensure that you’re not binge-eating and binge-sitting while binge-watching, perhaps you could do like Claire Underwood did for Frank and set up a nifty little rowing machine in front of your screen. Because for the same reasons we’re wired to binge-watch TV, our brains also crave a good workout session.


A version of this was originally published at The Conversation UK.

Image credit: Aaron Escobar, Pete Souza, Bryan Gosline (Wikimedia Commons)

Hasson, U., O. Landesman, B. Knappmeyer, I. Vallines, N. Rubin, and D.J. Heeger. Neurocinematics: the Neuroscience of Film. Projections 2(1): 1-26 (2008).

Zak PJ, Stanton AA, & Ahmadi S (2007). Oxytocin increases generosity in humans. PloS one, 2 (11) PMID: 17987115 The Conversation


  1. which also explains addiction to soap operas - its the same thing

  2. Watching on commercial-laden networks is annoying at best when I am concentrating on a dramatic show. Dramatic stories interspersed with "buy me now" adverts does nothing to enhance the experience. Rather, I find it more difficult to hold onto the story's thread. Couple this with waiting at least a week between episodes with long-running story arcs and it's a recipe for forgetful watching, at least for me.

  3. 5 hours of TV per DAY for the average American?! That's 35 hours a week!! Wow. I personally believe that time would be far better spent learning new skills, engaging in new leisure activities, and making meaningful connections with other human beings. I'm so thankful I don't own a TV and the extent of my watching is streaming documentaries or TED talks online. :)

  4. Interesting. I had to examine my own tv hours on a February 2013 post. The result, wayyyy too much!


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