By Shailendree Wickrama Adittiya
The end credits roll in and the icon that usually pops up, taking you to the next episode, is missing. You have reached the end of yet another TV series and get suggestions for what to watch next. Instead, you browse all your options, and after some scrolling and clicking, end up on a series you have rewatched more times than you would like to admit.
This is something some of us have found ourselves doing, especially in the last two years. In fact, Netflix even has a “watch it again” category that makes it easier to find those TV series that we keep returning to.
The most obvious explanation for this would be that we would rather watch something we enjoy for the nth time than watch something we may not enjoy, just like how the known devil is better than the unknown angel. This would apply to shows like Schitt’s Creek, that continues to attract new and old viewers, two years after the series came to an end.
Then there are shows people hate but continue to watch, whether it’s because they have invested too much time in the show or because their hearts say yes even though their brains warn that the angry-Tweeting is not worth it. This includes shows like Gilmore Girls.
According to data published by Nielsen last year, The Office, Grey’s Anatomy, Criminal Minds, NCIS, and Schitt’s Creek were the top streaming content of 2020 from acquired content. The top ten list also included shows like Shameless, New Girl, and Supernatural.
Nielsen stated that it was not only original shows that were most viewed on streaming platforms. “While original content can generate buzz and draw in audiences, library content is what viewers find comfort in, watch casually and often return to. Simply put, they’re known quantities,” they said in a statement, adding that these are the shows that viewers will turn to, “as they already have established connections with audiences and provide easy viewing, especially when the hunt for new content to binge may be daunting”.
Whether you have your reasons or just can’t stop yourself from watching the same show for the third time this year, the psychology behind watching the same shows multiple times is one that has been explored.
Cognitive load, which is the amount of working memory resources used, might be one reason, as suggested by Associate Professor of Psychology in the US Dr. Jennifer Fayard. In a 2021 article on the topic, she explained that most people experienced a heavier cognitive load than before in the previous year. This is because people had to keep up with more information and make more decisions during the pandemic.
“Unfortunately, our working memory is a limited resource, and there comes a point at which we simply cannot deal with anything else,” Fayard wrote, adding that a heavy cognitive load could make us turn to familiar and loved TV shows over new shows where we do not know what to expect.
Watching a movie or TV series is a way for us to relax and take our mind off things. It is a form of entertainment. When we are stressed out or overwhelmed with work and the things going on around us, we find ourselves turning to the comfort of a TV show. However, when watching a new show, effort is required to remember new characters, keep track of the developing plot, and absorb any unexpected plot twists. This can be more than what we have the capacity for, especially when we are processing everything going on around us while also keeping up with our studies or work.
In such situations, it is understandable that we would turn to an old favourite, where the plot and characters are known to us. There may be things we notice now that we didn’t before, but in general, there is nothing new to learn or understand about these shows. This makes them an easier watch.
There is also the sense of safety we get from watching something we know the final outcome of. If you consider a show like Schitt’s Creek, even if you forget smaller details about the plot, you will know how things end for the Rose family. This makes rewatching the show a safer option than watching something that has just been released.
Psychologist Pamela Rutledge was quoted as saying: “It can become really therapeutic, especially if you are feeling anxious. Watching the same piece multiple times reaffirms that there’s order in the world and that it can create a sense of safety and comfort on a primal level.”
There is also the mere exposure effect to consider. This is a psychological phenomenon that has been studied for decades, with some of the earliest known research being conducted in the late 1800s. However, more recent studies are linked to Robert B. Zajonc, who identified the mere exposure effect in 1968.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), the mere exposure effect is “the finding that individuals show an increased preference (or liking) for a stimulus as a consequence of repeated exposure to that stimulus”.
The APA goes on to say that this effect is most likely to occur when there is no pre-existing negative attitude toward the stimulus object.
Simply put, we may show a stronger liking for things, and in this context, TV shows that we have been exposed to repeatedly. This could be why we also sometimes order the same dish every time we visit a particular restaurant or keep returning to the same book, even when there are so many unread books gathering dust on our shelves.
There could thus be several reasons why we turn to the same things, whether it is with food, music, books, or movies. Perhaps it is the mere exposure effect at work or perhaps it is due to cognitive load. These factors could be linked as well, but the next question is if it is necessarily a bad thing that we keep returning to the same TV shows, especially when there are so many new shows we could be watching.
The answer comes down to the individual, of course, and how rewatching the same show affects them. However, in terms of nostalgia alone, it isn’t a bad thing. As Professor of Social and Personality Psychology Constantine Sedikides said: “Nostalgia makes us a bit more human.”