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Are We Tricking Ourselves Into Loving Bingeworthy TV Shows?

The idea of effort justification may explain why we overrate some shows.

Scene from Dark Season 3
Source: Netflix

I recently finished the final season of the byzantine time-traveling Netflix drama Dark. The show — sort of a mashup of Stranger Things and Back to the Future — is almost absurdly confusing in that it spans multiple time periods, each of which includes characters at different ages. Trying to keep track of it all can feel like a thrilling puzzle.

But it's all easily forgotten. Which is why, when the final season came out, I decided to re-watch the entire series from the beginning so that I could fully appreciate it all. But rather than rekindle my excitement for the show, I found that its spell on me had been broken. On second viewing, I found that I could keep most of the show's intricate plot in mind, and I ultimately concluded that a lot of it really didn't make much sense. It felt like Dark was less than the sum of its parts.

What spell had Dark cast over me in the first place? It may have been a version of what psychologists call cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance theory essentially says that when people become aware of the fact that they hold two inconsistent beliefs, or that their beliefs don't match their actions, this creates discomfort (dissonance) and they'll then try to reduce the discomfort.

In my case, I may have experienced a specific type of cognitive dissonance called effort justification. I put in a lot of effort just to simply understand what was happening on Dark; if by the end I thought the show was just okay, it wouldn't have seemed like it had all been worth it. But by the time I'd finished watching the show, it was too late to not watch it – the easiest way to reduce any feelings of dissonance would be to convince myself that it was better than it was, justifying my time investment.

This phenomenon was first demonstrated in a 1959 experiment by psychologists Elliot Aronson and Judson Mills. In the experiment, 63 college students were invited to join a sex discussion group. Due to the potentially embarrassing subject matter, some subjects were told that they had to complete a screening test before they were admitted to the group. The test involved reading obscene words and several graphic descriptions of sexual activity out loud. (Remember that this was the late 1950s, so people's propriety standards were higher than they are now.) A control group wasn't asked to complete the screening test.

Everyone was admitted to the group. They were all then allowed to listen in on a discussion that was already taking place. The subjects didn't know that they were actually hearing a recording of actors. What they heard was designed to be dreadfully boring and academic. Afterward, the subjects rated how interesting they found the discussion on several different scales.

The subjects who completed the embarrassing screening test rated the discussion about 17 points (out of a total of 210) more interesting, on average, than the control group, a statistically significant difference. The researchers reasoned that, because the screening test was so uncomfortable, the subjects who endured it convinced themselves that it must have been worth it by finding more things to appreciate about the discussion – perhaps exactly what I had done when watching Dark the first time around.

However, an alternative explanation for these results is that the subjects in the screening test group were using the test as a kind of social cue for how interesting the group was: more interesting groups are generally harder to get into.

But a 2005 experiment by psychologists Emily Klein, Ramesh Bhatt, and Thomas Zentall suggests that this sort of effect can happen even in non-social contexts. In their experiment, 32 college students completed a learning task that required them to look at a pair of shapes and simply choose the "correct" one – they gradually learned which ones were the correct ones after many trials. On half of the trials, they had to click the mouse once to start; on the other half of the trials, they had to click the mouse as many as 30 times to start. At the end of the experiment, the subjects ranked all of the shapes from most to least preferred.

On average, subjects ranked the shapes that they had to click 30 times to see as more preferred than shapes that they only had to click once to see. In other words, the more effort they invested seemed to predict how much they liked something as arbitrary as shapes.

Even if it's true that cognitive dissonance is causing us to overrate some of the shows we like, what should we make of that? For me, the biggest lesson is to appreciate shows for what they are, not for what we imagine them to be. The inscrutability of Dark made it seem important and profound, but that was probably just an illusion. Still, on the surface, it had compelling characters whose fates and relationships I cared about. I still think Dark is a great show, just not for the reasons that initially excited me.

A similar case is Lost, which aired from 2004 to 2010 and ultimately disappointed many of its devoted fans by failing to provide satisfactory answers to many of the questions it raised over its six seasons. But if you watch Lost without expecting any answers, it's a truly fantastic show full of memorable characters and thrilling moments.

Don't confuse the effort of solving a mystery with quality. But don't let a botched mystery prevent you from enjoying an otherwise great show.

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