Though binge-watching—and even the way we crave television at all—is a relatively recent phenomenon, the psychology behind why we become consumed in stories is actually a tale as old as time.
“With narratives—whether it’s books, movies, or a television series—it’s about a person’s experience of being completely immersed,” explains Anjan Chatterjee, a professor of neurology at Penn Medicine, whose areas of research and expertise involve the broad field of aesthetic experiences, whether it’s being immersed in art, beauty, architectural spaces, or narratives. “Binge-watching is a very recent phenomenon, but there has been research done on immersion in literature and other kinds of narrative forms such as movies, and to some extent video games. Binge-watching, and long serial television shows would be similar to those categories of experiences.”
When watching a show or movie, or reading a book that you just can’t put down, part of that “what happens next?” feeling comes from having put yourself in the role. “You forget about yourself as you’re immersed. With good writing, you are transported away from where you are. You could be on your couch, but you lose track of the physicality of where you are when you’re transported into the story,” Chatterjee explains.
In aesthetics in general, Chatterjee says there’s a tension between a desire for novelty and a desire for familiarity, and both things happen simultaneously.
Familiarity relates broadly to the idea that we tend to like things that are easy to understand. Early research on the concept – known as the mere exposure effect – was done in the 1980s. In these studies, psychologists showed research participants images similar to Chinese ideograms and asked them to rank the images in order of their preference. Subjects tended to prefer images they’d been exposed to previously – even if they weren’t aware of having seen them before.
“To some extent we gravitate toward people who walk, talk, and look like we do, so variability in our preferences comes in based on people’s background, culture, education, or experiences,” Chatterjee says. At the same time, though, really good writing of any kind allows us to bypass those barriers and get at something that’s common. He points to Shakespeare as a preeminent example. Though Shakespeare has little in common with most of our daily lives today, there’s something that allows readers to still enter into the story.
Regarding immersion in television and other media, Chatterjee says that to some extent, people end up being interested in different kinds of shows based on the familiarity of what they’re seeing. And in many cases, people who don’t gravitate toward the “must see” shows of the season may be experiencing barriers that prevent them from becoming immersed. Someone who moves to the United States from another culture, for example, might not be able to immediately immerse themselves in something because of unfamiliar cultural tropes, language barriers, or they are viewing people who feel different from them.
But, with the recent push for increased diversity in shows and movies, a range of points of view are being brought into the mainstream that are not from a monoculture, allowing more viewers to find commonality and breach the barriers to immersion more easily. Last summer’s blockbuster smash Black Panther is one example.
“With Black Panther, audiences were introduced to a black superhero in a film’s central role for the first time, and that provided a salient representation for a big swath of our culture that wasn’t prominent before,” Chatterjee says. “But, the movie also crossed over since the story itself was universal enough that viewers didn’t have to be black to enter into it or enjoy it.”
The ability to immerse ourselves in what is comfortable and familiar may also be what’s behind someone’s inclination to rewatch a show they’ve already seen – in some cases, many times before. But, as Chatterjee notes, that desire to go back and rewatch something tends to work best when its characters are people you want to hang out with. Syndicated shows – like Seinfeld, Friends, and even older shows like Cheers and I Love Lucy – are often the kind that people go back to because the characters are likeable. On the other hand, people are less likely to go back and rewatch a show that’s compelling while watching it for the first time, but the characters aren’t appealing. In those series, once our need for resolution is satisfied and we know how a situation is going to play out, there’s nothing to keep us going back for more.
In the study of aesthetics and immersion, Chatterjee says there is an increasing appreciation that it’s not just about pleasure and familiarity. Rather, if there is something that would otherwise be regarded as a negative emotion interspersed with pleasure, the story can become more moving and more powerful, which encourages people to become even more immersed in it.
Watching or listening to a show in which the characters are perhaps less likeable or that offers little sense of familiarity and comfort speaks to the concept of “simulation,” wherein we desire something that is novel, but from a safe place. When millions tuned in to the Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer or NPR’s Serial podcast, for example, many probably found it difficult to identify with accused murderers Steven Avery and Adnan Saed, and yet, both became culturally popular and received rave reviews from critics.
The same concept applies to why some people like to be scared, and others like to watch a tear-jerker. While people might flock to the theater for the latest horror film or tune in weekly for a series where characters are putting themselves in dangerous situations, most of us aren’t seeking nighttime trips to abandoned alleyways in reality.
“The number of situations you can find yourself in is limited, so storytelling is an accelerator that allows you to gain experiences and learn from them without having to physically go through the experience,” Chatterjee says. “Storytelling gives people experiences that might be advantageous – if what they’re consuming might be educational – or that might be dangerous – without them having to live through them.. Either way, the transportation and immersion is built on a background of safety. You’re at home, and that allows you the freedom to experience those emotions at the same time that you’re not afraid, or sad.”
Chatterjee says that while historically those negative feelings are resolved at the end of the story, what most series do to keep viewers coming back for more is to end an episode without a specific resolution, leaving us with these unsettled and negative feelings. To combat the feelings that you have to watch “just one more episode,” Chatterjee suggests reprogramming the way you consume television.
“If you’re clever about watching a series, you would stop in the middle of an episode, once a situation gets resolved and before the tension is jacked up again. We’re trained to watch an episode start to finish, but if you want to have control of your own watching, I would say abandon the episode structure and go with what’s going on in the story. When one particular series of tension-creating events gets resolved, that’s when you stop.”
Source: University of Pennsylvania