Episodic memories: The psychology of ‘box set bingeing’

I apologise in advance for the somewhat arguably frivolous nature of my blog but earlier this week I was interviewed by my local radio station (BBC Radio Nottingham) about the seeming increase in ‘binge watching’ of DVD box sets of television series. I have to admit that one of the reasons that I did the interview (even though I have not personally researched the topic) was that this is actually something I do myself. Also, I often appear on my local radio station talking about excessive use of technology and this topic loosely fitted that criterion.

I did actually check on a couple of academic databases to see whether there was any scientific research on ‘binge watching’ of television of box sets (but unsurprisingly there was nothing specific). I have written academic papers on various technological addictions (including addiction to watching television). However, one of my research colleagues (Dr. Steve Sussman) recently published a paper (with Meghan Moran) on television addiction in a 2013 issue of the Journal of Behavioral Addictions. Based on a review of the academic literature they claimed that 5% to 10% of the US population is addicted to television (although much of this depends on how ‘addiction’ is defined in the first place). Sussman and Moran’s review concluded that:

“There does appear to be a phenomenon of television addiction, at least for some people. TV addicts are likely watch TV to satiate certain appetitive motives, demonstrate preoccupation with TV, report lacking control over their TV viewing, and experience various role, social, or even secondary physical (sedentary lifestyle) consequences due to their out of control viewing. These consequences are in part contextually driven, due to amount of viewing time contrasted with competing time demands…Much research is needed to better understand this addiction which prima facie seems relatively innocuous but in reality may incur numerous life problems”.

In addition to reports of television being potentially addictive, the concept of bingeing has been applied to other behaviours including ‘binge drinking’ and ‘binge gambling’ (a topic that I have written on academically – see ‘Further reading’ below), although the binge watching of DVD box sets is highly unlikely to cause too many negative side effects apart from (maybe) a lack of sleep (that may impact on work productivity).

So why might people engage in the binge watching of television box set? Obviously – at a basic level – individuals do not engage in repeated leisure behaviours unless they are psychologically and/or behaviourally reinforced (i.e., rewarded) in some way. People watch particular shows because they like the show and experience emotional connections that may lead to a change in mood state. However, this goes for any leisure behaviour and is not specific to binge watching television shows. When it comes to ‘box set binging’, I think there are many possible reasons both psychological and practical (most of which I can say I have personally experienced so there’s probably good face validity for all these reasons):

  • A sign of the times: Over the past couple decades, the way we experience our disposable leisure time has dramatically changed. All my children are the archetypal ‘screenagers’ that spend a disproportionate amount of their leisure time sat in front of screen-based technology (and to be honest I am no different). Technological excess has arguably become the norm and ‘binge watching’ of television (via ‘on demand’ services and/or DVDs) is simply a sign of the times.
  • Instant gratification: Another noticeable change that has occurred over the last couple of decades is a move towards what I describe as ‘instant culture’ in which individuals expect to receive instant gratification in almost any situation. Almost everything that we want and/or desire can be done at the click of a button. Who wants to wait up to a week to find out what has happened in your favourite television drama shows? Watching episode after episode of a television show inhibits the frustration we might feel having to wait hours, days, and in some cases weeks for the resolution of a ‘cliffhanger’. In short, binge watching (DVD and/or television ‘on demand’) box sets provides instant ‘closure’ to a drama that increases emotional involvement.
  • No adverts: On a very practical level, one great thing about television box sets is that they don’t have any adverts. Most hour-long television shows on commercial channels include 15 minutes of adverts. Personally, I love the fact that I can watch episode after episode knowing that the only breaks will be of my choosing.
  • The ultimate in personal choice: Television viewing has evolved considerably over the last decade. When I grew up as a child and adolescent there were only three television channels and I had to watch whatever my parents watched (or what they would let me watch). It was also a very passive experience. We now have almost unlimited choice to watch whatever we want, when we want, and how we want. DVD box sets are the ultimate in personal choice. No more sitting through dross to get to the television programme you really want to watch.
  • Completist/collector heaven: Anyone that is a regular reader of my blog will know that when it comes to collecting (especially music) I am a completest and aim to collect everything I can that relate to the artists I love and admire. (For instance, have a read of my blog on the psychology of Hannibal Lecter where I describe how I have acquired all the books and films on Hannibal Lecter including the latest 12-episode television box set that I sat and watched in a couple of sittings including all the DVD extras). The DVD box set is part of the whole collecting experience.

As a psychologist, I would also argue that my DVD box set collection says something about me as an individual – it is an extension of the self. My favourite box sets (e.g., The Sopranos, Prison Break, 24, Columbo, Hannibal, DexterThe West Wing, etc.) are all regularly re-watched. I once spent a whole weekend while my children and partner were away watching every episode from every series of Prison Break). It was a guilty pleasure that happens only occasionally and that I loved doing.

Bingeing on box sets shares many psychosocial commonalities of the collecting experience. In a 1991 issue of the Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, Dr. Ruth Formanek suggested five common motivations for collecting that I think mirror the kind of people that can be engrossed in watching their favourite television shows. These were: (i) extension of the self (e.g., acquiring knowledge, or in controlling one’s collection); (ii) social (finding, relating to, and sharing with, like-minded others); (iii) preserving history and creating a sense of continuity; (iv) financial investment; and (v), an addiction or compulsion. Formanek claimed that the commonality to all motivations to collect was a passion for the particular things collected. I would argue this holds for binge watching too.

In her book Museums, Objects, and Collections, Dr. Susan Pearce argues collecting falls into three distinct (but sometimes overlapping) types. As Professor Kevin Moist summarized in a 2008 issue of the journal Studies in Popular Culture:

“One of these she calls ‘souvenirs’, items or objects that have significance primarily as reminders of an individual’s or group’s experiences. The second mode is what she calls ‘fetish objects’ (conflating the anthropological and psychological senses of the term), relating primarily to the personality of the collector; the collector’s own desires lead to the accumulation of objects that feed back into those desires, with the collection playing a central role in defining the personality of the collector, memorializing the development of a personal interest or passion. The third mode, ‘systematics’, has the broader goal of creating a set of objects that expresses some larger meaning. Systematic collecting involves a stronger element of consciously presenting an idea, seen from a particular point of view and expressed via the cultural world of objects”.

When it comes to DVD box sets, I appear to most fit the second (i.e., fetish) type. The box sets that I collect are an extension of my own personality and say something about me. My tastes are diverse and eclectic (to say the least) and range from the obvious ‘classic’ series (Columbo), the not so obvious (A Very Peculiar Practice), and the arguably obscure (Spiral). Unless ‘binge watching’ of television series ever becomes problematic, it is unlikely to be a subject of academic research but that won’t stop me in engaging in my guilty pleasure.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Belk, R. W. (1982). Acquiring, possessing, and collecting: fundamental processes in consumer behavior. Marketing Theory: Philosophy of Science Perspectives, 185-190.

Belk, R. W. (1992). Attachment to possessions. In: Place attachment (pp. 37-62). New York: Springer.

Belk, R. W. (1994). Collectors and collecting. Interpreting objects and collections, 317-326.

Belk, R.W. (1995). Collecting as luxury consumption: Effects on individuals and households. Journal of Economic Psychology, 16(3), 477-490.

Belk, R.W. (2001). Collecting in a Consumer Society. New York: Routledge.

Formanek, R. (1991). Why they collect: Collectors reveal their motivations. Journal of Social Behavior and Personality, 6(6), 275-286.

Griffiths, M.D. (1995). Technological addictions. Clinical Psychology Forum, 76, 14-19.

Griffiths, M.D. (2006). A case study of binge problem gambling. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 4, 369-376.

Moist, K. (2008). “To renew the Old World”: Record collecting as cultural production. Studies in Popular Culture, 31(1), 99-122.

Pearce, S. (1993). Museums, Objects, and Collections. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.

Pearce, S. (1998). Contemporary Collecting in Britain. London: Sage.

Sussman, S., Lisha, N. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Prevalence of the addictions: A problem of the majority or the minority? Evaluation and the Health Professions, 34, 3-56.

Sussman, S. & Moran, M. (2013). Hidden addiction: Television. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 2, 125-132.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. In 2013, he was given the Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 800 research papers, five books, over 150 book chapters, and over 1500 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 3500 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on January 24, 2014, in Addiction, Case Studies, Cyberpsychology, Fame, Mania, Marketing, Obsession, Popular Culture, Psychology, Technological addiction, Technology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. One more binge watching reason I would add to the list is social pressure, especially with ‘cult’ shows such as The Wire and Breaking Bad (which I both happen to like) because they often come up in conversation as shows you ‘must watch’. Also, they’re both quite drawn out with relatively few dramatic highlights so you need to plough through hours and hours to join an exclusive club that can talk about specific non-eventful scenes or irrelevant quotes. Maybe another reason is using (some) box sets to elevate your intellectual status amongst your peers?

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