It's all pure streaming bliss. That is, until I've come to the end—or the death—of the show, and the final credits roll, leaving me in a state of mourning. Then Netflix promptly tries to shove a new binge-able friend in my queue, but I'm simply not ready (leave me to grieve, would you!), and I have no idea what to do next. Should I eat dark chocolate and PTFO? Throw my laptop at the wall? Start a Pinterest board of the most iconic Nick and Schmidt moments? Dance to the Grey's Anatomy theme song in my underwear? You could say that I'm at a loss of the melodramatic variety.
Recently, after I once again fell into a marathon-streaming pit of despair after concluding a spur-of-the-moment rewatch of Stranger Things season one (yep, this post-watch sadness lends itself to movies and single seasons of shows, too), I decided that it was time to get to the bottom of the masochistic habit. "It's definitely something that is not just you, don't worry. There's definitely a lot of people who've had similar experiences, including myself," says San Francisco-based psychologist and neuromarketing expert Matt Johnson, PhD. And, he adds, Netflix (and Hulu, Starz, Prime Video, and their brethren) not only knows it, but is basically designed to make you fall into compulsive bingeing behavior.
But before delving into why we feel the urge to rewatch, first we have to know why we tune in (without time-outs) in the first place.
The psychological reason why we binge watch
Remember those days when you waited patiently for "9, 8 Central" to roll around so you could flip on cable and watch the next installment of Lost? Well since that's mostly a bygone era, content providers have to find novel ways to capture your loyal attention. "One such feature is the autoplay feature that comes on in Netflix. So you don't have to really even do anything," says Dr. Johnson. "The technology is designed in such a way where it has you craving more. It's happy to oblige those cravings by providing you with another episode." [Insert Black Mirror theme song here.]
"The technology is designed in such a way where it has you craving more. It's happy to oblige those cravings by providing you with another episode." — Matt Johnson, PhD, psychologist and neuromarketing expert
There's also a plot device at play here known as the "cliff-hanger effect," he says. For example (spoiler alert!), when Snape avada kedavras Dumbledore at the end of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and your heart shatters into a million pieces on Harry's behalf. Nowadays it's not uncommon for every single 60-minute installment to end on a note that can only be described as the "face screaming in fear" emoji, the result is general a "thank u, next" attitude as we queue up a shiny new episode.
But once we run out of storyline, we can no longer feed that compulsive behavior. And that's when we cease to feel for Harry at the climax of the sixth movie and instead start to feel like him.
The psychological reason why we binge watch...again…and again
Shows that you return to, like an ex whenever you feel a desire to rekindle the spark, play a slightly different role in your life than new viewing material, according to Dr. Johnson. "You're no longer watching to find out what's going to happen; you're watching it to experience a mental stimulation of the characters that you've come to care about." In other words, you're subconsciously chasing how you felt the first time you watched.
When you re-binge-watch, you're subconsciously chasing how you felt the first time around.
But since I'll undoubtedly fall into Netflix's expertly laid trap again (and again) in the not-so-distant future, I'm hoping to at least do so armed with tips to make my return from places like the Upside Down less detrimental to my mental health. To do this, Dr. Johnson recommends at least attempting to portion out the episodes. Tell yourself, "I'll watch one, then hit the gym" or "I'll watch two episodes while I'm meal-prepping for the week." Not only will this make the material last longer, but it'll also keep your mind more firmly planted in your honest-to-goodness reality.
Should that game plan fail, he says to have something (anything!) planned for right after you finish the show so you don't just stew in your sadness. And seriously, make it something you can't find in the "Watch it again" category.
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