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Pop Culture

The Science of Watching TV On Repeat

Are you caught in an endless loop of re-watching the same TV shows and movies? Your brain is trying to tell you something.

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I am unable to re-watch the final episode of Sherlock. Yet, I can and have watched the show’s second season’s first episode multiple times. When it comes to movies, I can re-watch a classic 90’s romantic comedy over and over again, but give me a true story saga that breaks my heart, and once is enough.

As it turns out, a lot of people who have anxiety, love to re-watch shows. There are people who actually welcome spoilers and enjoy reading plotlines before watching something new. But why?

A study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, examines the effects of re-consumption experiences on the brain. Cristel Antonia Russell and Sidney J. Levy, the study’s lead authors, found that “Consumers who chose to repeat hedonic experiences even just once are expressing and affirming their individual experience and its special meanings to them.”

This meant that consuming content that we’ve watched before over and over again, also coined as “experiential control” by the study’s authors, can be an extremely calming and therapeutic experience. ‘Experiential control’ provides ‘emotional regulation,’ meaning since you’ve already seen the film multiple times, you’re aware of how the story ends. This results in already knowing how you’ll feel when it ends. Whether it’s happiness, relief, sadness, or anger, this emotional protection is what makes us feel safe in our re-watching adventures. It’s comforting. The characters whose stories we trust and immerse ourselves in, soothe the anxiety and stress that we often feel.

Horror movies can also polarize people who tend to be more anxious. Some tend to love the adrenaline horror movies produce, but others stay far away from them. Margee Kerr, a sociologist who studies fear and author of Scream: Chilling Adventures in the Science of Fear, has this to say about fear-inducing movies that are capable of speeding up your heart rate:

“Some might make a positive meaning out of that ― they feel really alive, are grounded in their bodies, almost like how you feel after a really intense yoga class or something that focuses all attention into your body. “For other people, they might interpret that almost like a panic attack, where they’re feeling a sense of loss of control over what their body is doing.”

If you belong to the latter group of people, feeling emotions akin to a panic attack can be, well, terrifying. It is much easier to commit to stories that feel lighter, more comedic. The stories that we are already certain will satisfy us, that we often crave. It’s undeniably comforting to know that you are about to watch a film in which the storyline excites you, the production enraptures you, and the ending inspires you.

This may be why I enjoy watching the cinematographic masterpiece that is Pride and Prejudice over and over again, but I cannot get myself to watch that final episode of Sherlock. The latter deals in themes that trigger my anxiety.

A 2019 study conducted by the University of Waikato in New Zealand had nearly 1,400 participants across six studies watch graphic video footage, sometimes preceded with warnings, sometimes not. The warnings reduced the upsetting impact of the videos, but the size of this effect was “so small as to lack practical significance” — and this was true regardless of whether the participants had a history of trauma. With trigger warnings hardly making a difference for first-time viewers, I struggle to see how it would help quell my anxiety when watching a second time. The truth is, some stories, no matter how brilliantly written, can evoke feelings that you do not want to experience more than once. It is fear of the known.

In other cases, it’s the feeling of nostalgia that keeps us mesmerized by what is on the screen. What do you watch for a feel-good night? The Lion King on repeat anyone? Movies and characters that hold a piece of magic, or feel like a warm hug, are powerful. Being able to sing every lyric, act every scene out verbatim, and not stress over a cliffhanger ending: that’s solace, at least to those who appreciate nostalgia. Clay Routledge, professor and psychological scientist at North Dakota State University studying human motivation, conducted a study where he states:

“Nostalgia increases general well-being but also positively impacts motivation-relevant affects. For instance, nostalgia increases optimism, inspiration, social efficacy, and feelings of purpose in life. In addition, as people get older, nostalgia makes them feel youthful and more optimistic about their health. People’s written accounts of nostalgic memories also frequently contain themes of appreciation for both the past and hopefulness for the future. In short, nostalgia promotes the types of affective states that mobilize the self for action.”

Our emotional connection to characters and their plots can affect our ability to re-watch something. I know that I could watch Ocean’s 8 again and again because – spoiler alert – after watching it once, I have the comfort of knowing that even with such a high risk yet intricately woven plan, the heist will eventually be successful. The anxiety that often comes with the prospect of an ambiguous ending is gone. For me that is comforting. Sarah Heilbronner from the University of Minnesota’s Department of Neuroscience says our responses to certain stimuli can trigger stress levels—and our hormones.

“A lot of things in psychology, follow an inverse U shaped curve, the most famous being the Yerkes-Dodson curve. On the y-axis, we have performance, and on the x-axis is what we’d call arousal (how hyped up you are.) So let’s say you’re trying to do a crossword puzzle and you’re sleepy, or you don’t care very much – your performance is going to be very low. This would be the lower-left corner of the curve,” she says. “When you increase your arousal and start to be in a more alert state, you will do better at the crossword puzzle. But as you move along the curve, on the opposite side, you start to get a stress response. So if you become too hyped up, too worked up (experienced by people with test-anxiety), it would actually interfere with how well you do at the puzzle. These stress levels are regulated by both hormones and by neurotransmitters.

“So that’s a version of what I had to guess is what’s going on when people re-watch television shows,” she continues. “You’re not exactly ‘performing’ when you’re watching a television show; at least, you think you’re not. But when you’re engaging with a TV show, my guess is, in some ways you are performing. You cognitively follow the plot, you’re trying to follow the characters, it is somewhat cognitively taxing. You could think of that as being performance or gathering information – where people seem to prefer to gather a medium amount of information. If it’s too much you just get overwhelmed by the uncertainty, and if it’s too little you’re bored. It does seem as though there’s evidence that we like things that are a middle stimulation, a middle amount of interesting. And I feel like for a lot of people re-watching TV shows, it that middle amount of interesting, the middle part of the Yerkes-Dodson curve.”

In a way, re-watching something gives us a sense of control over it. When we feel distressed, we are able to go back to the moments in television and cinema that bring us happiness and warmth. We are able to watch something that helps us shift our perspective, something that makes us feel the way we want to, when we want to. In Jaye L. Derrick’s study, published in Social Psychological and Personality Science, she wrote, “Media use can have unexpected psychological benefits. Television, movies, and books can be more than leisure activities; in some cases, they fulfill needs, like restoring self-control.” For some, this feeling of having a greater degree of control is empowering.

On the other hand, the phenomenon of mere exposure effect does a lot to explain the psychology behind wanting to watch movies and shows over and over again. Mere exposure effect means the more you see or hear something, the more you like it. In other words, we tend to like things more when they’re familiar to us. Famous mere exposure researcher, Robert Zajnoc conducted the original demonstration study of this effect.

Robert Zajonc showed his participants images that they didn’t already have extreme reactions to (e.g., foreign words, Chinese characters, or faces of strangers). These participants were asked to just rate how pleasant the images were. Now, some of the participants were seeing the image for the first time when they rated it, but other participants had already seen the image before. Some people had seen it just one time, some people had seen it a few times, and some people had seen it as many as 25 times. The results were clear: The more they had already been exposed to the image, the more they said they liked it.

Perhaps then, it is our exposure to the same content over and over again, that creates a stronger connection to the movie or show, and compels us to watch it again and again. Heilbronner agrees:

“We often enjoy being around other people and seeing social stimuli. I wonder whether the predictability of what happens in the course of the TV show that one is re-watching activates part of the brain that is associated with social reward. Because you know that nothing unexpectedly bad will happen. It does feel as though over time, the more you watch them, they are not just characters, but friends or acquaintances. It stimulates the way going out to lunch with your friend would be. That’s not so much the case as when you’re watching the first or the second time. As you become exposed to them more and more, they start to seem more like a social group figure that you’re interacting with. It raises those parts of the brain that are responding to social reward while dampening the ones associated with social anxiety.”

Keeping the mere exposure effect in mind, it becomes apparent that the more you watch something, the more you enjoy it, become attached to it, and the harder it becomes to stop watching it. Re-watching something and becoming familiar with it, makes it less nerve-wracking and far less unpredictable. In this case, doing away with the fear of the unknown.

To know that something as standard as your Netflix watch list could be an extension of your personality in more than just your preferred movie genre is a wonderful yet curious occurrence. Perhaps with a little more thought, you will realize that your watching habits reveal a lot more about you than you ever anticipated.

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