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Watching TV: Why We Love to Binge

We almost can't help ourselves when it comes to watching one more episode.

If you have ever watched three or more episodes of a series in a single day, congratulations! You are a binge-watcher. But if you think that makes you special, sorry. You share that experience with 92% of the people who participated in a 2015 TiVo survey. Ninety-two percent!

Binging like this is something new. We do it more than ever because shows are offered up to us in ways they never were before. We don't have to wait for the networks to release their episodes one at a time, a week apart. Netflix will dump the entire season of House of Cards (and all its successors) all at once. And even when episodes are doled out more slowly, we can wait until all of the episodes are available for the season, and then watch them. Thirty percent of the people in the TiVo survey did that.

So easy access to lots of episodes of the same show, all at once, is one of the reasons we binge-watch. We do it because we can. But what really draws us to it, psychologically?

Here are some of the most compelling psychological reasons for our love of binging:

1. In experience-sampling studies, in which people are beeped at random times throughout the day and then report what they are doing and how they are feeling, TV-time turns out to be a good experience. As Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi have noted, "Within moments of sitting or lying down and pushing the 'power' button, viewers report feeling more relaxed." Turn the TV off, though, and that relaxation vanishes as quickly as it appeared. We know that's going to happen. That keeps us watching just one more episode, and then another after that.

2. In the days of one episode a week TV, when viewers could only see episodes when networks made them available, scripts were written differently. Each episode needed to be more self-contained, to accommodate viewers who may have missed some of the previous episodes and had no way to catch up. Now, viewers can find all of the available episodes and watch them one after another after another. Writers know that, and they write for it, creating storylines that keep you riveted, with cliffhangers and compelling and sometimes complex story arcs.

3. The best of the new shows are like the great novels that keep you up all night (or potato chips—you can't eat just one). The writing seems to be getting better and better and better, and great actors and actresses who once would have shunned the small screen are now embracing it.

4. It is not just the content or the quality acting that grabs us—it is also the form. Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi believe that humans have "a built-in sensitivity to movement" that was essential when we needed to notice predators before they killed us. Once that "orienting response" gets triggered by the movements on TV (especially the sudden and novel ones), "the brain focuses its attention on getting more information while the rest of the body quiets." Who wants to give that up after just one hour?

5. Research suggests that "cuts, edits, zooms, pans, sudden noises" keep us focused on the screen. If those kinds of features are not overdone, they may even improve memory for what just happened. Great directors know how to control attention, create expectations, and manipulate emotions. TV types seem to be getting better and better at this; it is not just Alfred Hitchcock and the movies where viewers can find great techniques these days.

6. If your life is particularly stressful or depressing, or even if it is just boring, what could be more tempting than curling up on the couch and watching hour after hour of TV that is so engaging, it makes you forget everything else?

7. Down with the barriers! Network TV has traditionally been quite timid about the kinds of themes it would address. Not so on cable! And now, as more and more taboo territory is breached, that emboldens even more breaching, and even network TV is becoming more daring. We are getting not just glimpses, but long, nuanced, in-depth examinations of lives and worlds we never saw on TV before. Some people who never thought their lives would light up any screen now have a popular, multi-season, award-winning shows that are all about them (for example, Transparent).

8. Another reason for our embrace of binging is something that has changed markedly in just the past few years: There's not much shame in it anymore. Sure, we know at some level that sitting in front of the TV for long stretches may be making us fatter, and we should be doing something more productive, or interacting with real humans, or spending some time outside. But you know what? Who cares. That seems to be the prevailing attitude. In 2015, only 30% of people had a negative view of binging, compared to more than half just two years previously. Regret is down, too. In a different survey, 73% said they felt good about their binging.

TV was already wildly popular even before the modern age of binging. As Kubey and Csikszentmihalyi noted in 2003, "Television is the world's most popular pastime. On average, individuals in the industrialized world devote three hours a day to the pursuit – half their leisure time and more than any single activity except for work and sleep." To today's bingers, a mere three hours must seem quaint. As Kali Holloway noted in her Alternet article, "The reasons you can't stop binge watching," Americans are spending more and more time watching TV, even as they area also spending more time at work. Watching TV via the internet soared by 388 percent in just one year (from 2013 to 2014).

Holloway, like so many others who talk about our TV habit, acknowledges what we are missing when we watch way too much TV, and she mentions the health risks, too. Binge-watching, she notes, "can get out of control, leading us down a perilous path of procrastination and failure (not to mention lost sleep)." But, she adds, "that seems true of nearly any activity we indulge in without some measure of moderation." What's more, there's a whole lot of great TV out there, that's well worth our time, and that's what people are watching – "a bonafide art form."

[Note. Want a break from TV? Take a look at How We Live Now: Redefining Home and Family in the 21st Century. It was named to the Kirkus list of Best Nonfiction Books for 2015.]

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