There's a Scientific Reason We Watch the Same Things Over and Over
Whenever I meet someone new, one of the first questions I like to ask them is "What's your 'any time' movie?" You know, the movie that you'd watch any time, anywhere—the one that still keeps you entertained no matter how many times you've seen it. Your any time movie can be different from your favorite movie. It's just easy to watch, and you can put it on and pay as much or as little attention to it as you want. The same goes for "any time" TV shows—the ones you put on when you just need something to watch but don't really want to think about it too much.
And if you're wondering what both of mine are, they're How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days and Gilmore Girls.
So why do we rewatch the same things over and over again when we're in the age of streaming and there's plenty of brand-new content to explore? Well, it's apparent that streaming itself has made it easier to watch old shows and movies on loop. But what's happening in our brain when we turn to something we know the ending to and can quote word for word? Where's the entertainment in that?
Determined to find a scientific answer, I turned to Krystine I. Batcho, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Le Moyne College and an expert in nostalgia. She gave me some insight into why we gravitate toward the familiar by rewatching and what some of the drawbacks are to it.
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This makes sense because you can put something on in the background while you're doing something else and still know exactly what's happening. "The familiar requires less of us in order to be enjoyed," Batcho says. "For example, when we watch old shows or films, we already know a great deal about the main characters. Our knowledge of the character's personality and usual habits allows us to anticipate behaviors and follow plots easily without needing to exert much cognitive effort to process it."
You know the plotlines, and most importantly, you probably have an attachment to the characters, which can be comforting, like seeing an old friend. "Loyalty to shows is often more about following the characters (as in Grey's Anatomy)," Batcho explains. "Fictional roles can elicit feelings similar to those associated with actual friends or family members. For many people today who are coping with relationship difficulties, the feelings aroused by familiar, predictable characters can feel supportive and comforting."
Rewatching can be so nostalgic and bring up some good memories, Batcho says. For me, when I watch Gilmore Girls, I think about being in high school and obsessing over each episode with my friends. It brings me back to a time when things were oh so much simpler. Maybe whatever you like to rewatch makes you feel the same way, too.
"Some people might benefit by feeling the good feelings they had when they had watched the show in the past with friends or loved ones," she explains. "Memories of good times can elevate our mood in stressful or sad times, and they can remind us of the support and love others have for us."
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"Such memories can inspire us to reach out again to old friends or family members for support or just to feel appreciated and not so 'alone,'" Batcho explains. "Research has shown that nostalgic reverie can be associated with strengthened social connectedness, deeper feelings of pro-social emotions such as empathy, and a better sense of our authentic self. Knowing that many other people watched and enjoyed the same show we have places us within a social group, even beyond the individuals in our personal sphere." You might see others posting about rewatching the show or movie on social media and feel a sense of community.
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The familiar—whether it's a show or movie or something in real life—can make you feel in control because it helps you predict or anticipate the future, Batcho explains.
"Today, the rate of change has accelerated to such a degree that it can make some people feel they might be losing control over many things (e.g., technological and scientific progress)," she says. "Hanging onto the familiar can anchor us to what we know and enhance our perceived control. Similarly, changing social norms and customs, especially with the advent of social media and cyberspace, have raised issues of trust and confidence in the longevity of relationships. Reminders of familiar relationships, even those that are fictional, can reinstill optimism in faithfulness and loyalty."
The Downside of Rewatching and Binge-Watching
There's a downside to binge-watching something you've seen over and over (and even new shows, too). Batcho says it can lead to satiation, and the enjoyment of the familiar can become boring and uninteresting. It can also narrow our attention and might inhibit creativity.
"Narrowed attention can result in our not noticing other things that deserve or need our attention," she explains. "Narrowed focus is seductive because it entails less cognitive work. Repetition might be enjoyable, but it isn't likely to prompt creative or original thought. Technology has made binge-watching, retro-programming, and spin-offs possible. One might wonder if overindulgence might inhibit the development of novel, creative products."
But while there are a few downsides, binge-watching or rewatching is fairly harmless. It can be a healthy way to cope with stress, disappointment, or loss. "It can serve as a bridge between leaving someone or something in the past and moving on to the next step in life," Batcho adds. "It would become unhealthy if it becomes so excessive that someone becomes reluctant to let go and return to the present and future. The risk of getting 'trapped in the past' is very low. It is more likely for someone who has become isolated, discouraged, or depressed."
To avoid that pitfall, human interaction is required. So maybe it's just sending a text, making a phone call, or sharing a binge-watching session with someone else to stay in touch with reality.
Next up: This Is Why We Believe in Superstitions, According to a Psychologist
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