The Psychology of Binge-Watching

We live in a world of 140-character discussions and 20-second attention spans – a world where the content we consume mainly lists ranking the top 10 anything and everything. So, I wonder… Am I the only one that finds the phenomenon of binge-watching to be completely counterintuitive to this world of bite-sized, easily-digested information pellets?

361,000 people watched all nine episodes of the second season of ‘Stranger Things’ on the first day it was released.

The advent of OTT (over-the-top) streaming video services like Netflix and Hulu has spawned this newest consumer archetype. You put your keys on the counter after a long day at work and decide to watch the newest show everyone is Tweeting about. Fast forward to 11:30 PM and you’ve slaughtered seven episodes, milling that cliffhanger at the end of the last one, debating whether you can (or should) watch just one more knowing that you’ll be paying for it at work the next morning.

Chew on this: According to Nielsen, on the first day that the second season of Stranger Things was released on Netflix, 361,000 people watched all nine episodes. The question I’m trying to answer is simple: Why? A more complex way to ask it is perhaps “What is it about the human mind that predisposes us to the phenomenon of binge-watching and what is it doing to our minds?”

Why We Love to Binge-Watch

When you think about it, the reasons people like to binge-watch their favorite TV programs seem pretty obvious. We all just want a welcome getaway from our normal routines. But the psychology of it goes a bit deeper and there have been some interesting studies that have examined the phenomenon.

Study #1: We Like to be Immersed (and Even Emotionally Controlled) by Stories

In a 2008 study, Princeton University psychologist Uri Hasson observed brain patterns of participants shown four different video clips:

  1. Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm
  2. Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
  3. Alfred Hitchcock’s Bang! You’re Dead
  4. A 10-minute, unedited, one-shot video of a Sunday morning concert in New York’s Washington Square Park

Hasson wanted to see if viewers would respond similarly to the four clips. The results?

  • The concert clip resulted in only 5% similarity of response
  • Curb Your Enthusiasm came in at 18% brain response similarity
  • The Good, The Bad and the Ugly resulted in 45% similar response
  • The Alfred Hitchcock film elicited a correlated brain response of 65%

Hasson concluded from these results that the more “controlling” the film clip, the more attentive and responsive the audience was. In other words, if viewers were shown exactly what to focus on – as Hitchcock was a master of – it elicited a similar on-off response in the same brain areas.

That’s why people get reeled into watching dozens of episodes of their favorite shows. It’s really a testament to the quality of programming and the way studios have gotten really good at captivating audiences in the last twenty years – from the eerie characterization of Walter White in Breaking Bad to the never-ending, action-packed walkabout the cast is on in The Walking Dead.

Study #2: We Crave Long, Drawn-Out Stories as a Refuge from Our Daily Lives

In 2013, Netflix wanted to study the phenomenon of binge-watching and decided to send Grant McCracken, a cultural anthropologist, on a mission to “explore how and why binge-watching television is resonating with today’s viewers.”

“Getting immersed in multiple episodes or even multiple seasons of a show over a few weeks is a new kind of escapism that is especially welcomed today.”

McCracken joined families in their living rooms and found that 76% reported binge-watching as a welcome refuge from their busy lives. While nearly 80% reported that binging on a program was more enjoyable than watching single episodes spaced out a week at a time (20th-century viewing habits).

“TV viewers are no longer zoning out as a way to forget about their day, they are tuning in, on their own schedule, to a different world,” said McCracken. “Getting immersed in multiple episodes or even multiple seasons of a show over a few weeks is a new kind of escapism that is especially welcomed today.”

Study #3: We Like to Empathize with Others

Paul Zak, a neuroeconomist from Claremont Graduate University put together research to study storytelling and the science of empathy. Participants were shown a video about a boy with terminal cancer accompanied with the perspective of the boy’s father. While the boy was carefree and unaware of his fate, his father understandably found his last months with his son difficult and trying.

Subjects showed two primary emotions upon viewing the film – distress and empathy – as evidenced by raised levels of cortisol (stress hormone) and oxytocin (hormone linked to human connection and empathy) in viewers.

Subjects were also offered the opportunity to donate money to a charity that helps sick children, after the video. The amount of cortisol and oxytocin released in the subjects served as a predictor of how much subjects were willing to donate. Zak determined that empathetic feelings are a testament to our compulsions as social beings – even in the case of a fictional narrative.

Final Thoughts

Binge-doing anything seems to have a negative connotation – think binge-eating or binge-drinking. But if someone reads a captivating book for seven hours straight, are they “binge-reading”? No. They’re just reading.

Of course, when it comes to binge-watching, content providers are keen to know:

  1. If a free trial user signs up and binge-watches a program, how can they keep them as a customer after they’ve satiated themselves on that program?
  2. How can content providers best engage their binge-watching users with related content to reduce churn and increase audience lifetime value?

We have several Wickets in the Wicket Scorecard which help measure Active Fans and Active Bingers as well as the top Trial Drivers which illustrate what content is most successful at driving new trials, in addition to the percentage of users that binge, become fans, and convert to paying subscribers.

Ultimately, the Wicket Scorecard provides valuable insights to help content providers and video subscription services capitalize on the binge-watching user by presenting a new season, a new series or perhaps a movie – that has strong audience clustering with the content that they binged in order to keep that audience deeply engaged with the service and increase their lifetime value.

For a deeper dive on Turning Bingers into Fans, check out our article from last month.

Photos by Julian O’hayon & Sven Scheuermeier on Unsplash


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