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Why Rewatching TV Shows Feels So Good

These days, many are tuning in to their old favorites rather than new shows.

Key points

  • Many people have been rewatching familiar TV shows instead of new ones in the last 15 months.
  • This may be a result of us having a higher cognitive load than normal.
  • New shows present unexpected twists and turns, while familiar shows give our brains a rest.
  • The mere exposure effect explains why we tend to like stimuli (including TV shows) we've had prior exposure to more than new stimuli.
HQuality/Shutterstock
Source: HQuality/Shutterstock

What’s your comfort show?

I saw this question in a meme recently, and it got me thinking about my TV watching habits as of late. The answer to this question came easy: It’s New Girl. It’s not my favorite show—that honor belongs to Seinfeld—but it’s definitely my comfort show. And I know this because I’ve watched the whole seven-season series from start to finish three times over the course of the pandemic, bringing my grand total of full series views to four. It was what I watched in the evenings when I wanted to unplug. It was what I had on in the background while grading papers. In fact, it’s on in the background as I write this post.

I’ve watched very little that was new to me since March 2020. In addition to my comfort show of choice, I’ve rewatched Breaking Bad, Gilmore Girls, Schitt’s Creek, Outlander, and Arrested Development. This was pretty unusual behavior for me compared to my pre-pandemic habits, but as I read the comments on the aforementioned meme and asked around on the internet and in person, I realized I was not alone.

During lockdown, it seems everyone was binge-watching something. But why are we watching New Girl for the fifth time rather than trying something new? The pandemic brought anxiety and uncertainty, and in such times, we crave ease of processing, a sense of control, and the warmth of familiarity.

*Note: The following piece contains spoilers about the TV show New Girl, so if you have not watched the show but plan to, now is your chance to look away!

Easy Listening

In the last year, most people have experienced a heavier cognitive load than before. Cognitive load refers to the amount of stress put on our working memory, and during the pandemic, we had to keep up with more information and make more decisions (and more crucial, potentially risky decisions) than we normally did.

Unfortunately, our working memory is a limited resource, and there comes a point at which we simply cannot deal with anything else. Increased Zoom meetings, divided attention, unfamiliar and changing work conditions, balancing work and childcare, and other concerns zapped most of our processing capacities. Under a heavy cognitive load, we might turn to shows we’ve already seen and loved instead of new ones so that we don’t have to pile anything else onto our mental plates.

Watching something new inherently involves thinking—there are new characters to learn, plot threads to remember, predictions for what will happen, and the possibility of an unpleasant turn. But there’s no guesswork, cliffhangers, or stressful anticipation when watching an old favorite—for example, we know that Nick and Jess will get together, and even when they break up, we know it will work out in the end—which makes it easier for our tired, overloaded brains to process.

Old Shows Restoreth My Soul

There is also some evidence that when we are stressed and overloaded, watching TV can be restorative. Specifically, research indicates that watching familiar TV shows has been shown to restore our feelings of self-control after a period of exertion, and also that we tend to prefer familiar shows when we feel depleted. As before, watching a familiar show helps our brains take a load off, but in addition, we may be intrinsically motivated to watch familiar shows because watching something that we know we already like may serve as its own reward.

New Is Good, but Familiar Is Better

While new experiences can be exciting, they can also be stressful. Research continually provides support for something called the mere exposure effect. Basically, the more times we have been exposed to something, the more we tend to like it later on. This happens because experiencing something previously increases something called perceptual fluency, or the ease with which we can process information, in subsequent experiences. When something is easy to process, it tends to make us feel positive emotions, which in turn make us like the object more.

That means when I watch New Girl for the fourth time and know exactly what’s coming, my brain has to do zero work to figure out what’s going on. And my brain, just like yours (and everyone else’s for that matter), is lazy, and having to do no thinking whatsoever makes it happy.

Next time you find yourself tuning in to your go-to show and wondering if you’re in a rut, feel better knowing that someone else out there is also watching Friends for the 87th time. Watch unapologetically, for familiarity is your friend.

And before you ask, Netflix, yes, I am still watching. Lay off me already.

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