5 Reasons Why TV’s Top Shows Are So Addictive

There's science behind what makes your favorite shows so hard to miss.

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Melinda Sue Gordon / Netflix

It’s okay, we understand. You likely have over five shows on TiVo, and your Sunday nights are devoted to Downton Abbey and Girls. You’re eagerly awaiting Sherlock, which returns on Jan. 19, and we know you’re on top of House of Cards‘ release on Netflix on Valentine’s Day (forget restaurant reservations–you’ll be on the couch).

When it comes to today’s top shows, it’s about more than just good TV. We are literally obsessed. But what makes them so hard to turn off? Here’s our list of what is getting you hooked — and keeping you that way.

Rapid-fire scenes — you can’t look away 
You may have noticed that many shows jump quickly from one scene to another, or flit between characters in the same scene. That’s all designed to keep you glued to the screen, says Robert Kubey, a psychologist and professor of journalism media studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “We are talking about the rapid cutting or the quick montage,” he says. According to his research, rapid scene changes are especially engaging to watch, and that can lead to zoning out (wait, it’s four hours later already?). Commercials take full advantage of this tactic, flashing multiple images within a few seconds to grab, and hold your attention — look away and you miss something. Watching a person drink coffee in a coffee shop is not as effective in drawing us in as, say, switching back and forth between characters in a conversation, or an epic battle scene that quickly switches from one gory assault to another. Kubey says this reaction is wired into our biology. It’s called our orienting reflex, which involves our ability to react to movements around us, like a fly avoiding the swat of a hand. Our orienting reflex is triggered when we watch these scenes, and we become more engaged with what’s happening to the point that it’s physically hard for us to look away.

MORE: Too Much TV Linked With Disease and Early Death

The controlling director
Research from Princeton University found that the more a director controls a viewer’s focus in a scene, the more engaged his audience becomes. Psychologist Uri Hasson and his colleagues took fMRI images of the brains of viewers who watched clips from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Bang! You’re Dead and an unedited shot of Washington Square Park in New York City. They monitored how similar the brain activity of the viewers were, in order to get a sense of which scenes captured their attention. Only 5% of the participants shared similar reactions to the Washington Square Park clip, 18% had the same activity patterns to Curb Your Enthusiasm, 45% had the same brain patterns to The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, but 65% had synced brain activity in response to Alfred Hitchcock’s Bang! You’re Dead. The researchers,who published their findings in the journal Projections, concluded that the more controlling a director is with a scene, the more engaging, and potentially hard to avoid, it is. Every scene in a Hitchcock movie, for example, is intentional and planned out. He points you exactly where he wants you to look, and there is very little variability in what viewers watch. House of Cards employs a similar technique; its directors dictate where they want viewers to look — when Kevin Spacey addresses the audience, everything else fades into the background, and it’s just him and you.

What happens next?! The cliffhanger
This one is the most obvious, and perhaps most common tactic that TV and movie producers use. But it always works. In the final scene of the Sherlock season 2 finale, Sherlock falls to his apparent death, only to be spotted again, watching his partner Dr. Watson lamenting his death at his own tombstone. Wait, is he really alive? According to Kubey, TV shows even use mini-cliffhangers before each commercial break to make sure the viewer doesn’t change channels. “The cliffhanger makes you want to come back and ask for more,” he says. Even in the age of recording TV shows or streaming on Netflix, there’s nothing like leaving viewers hanging to keep them hooked.

MORE: Game of Thrones Beats Breaking Bad as Most Pirated TV Show

Sex — blatant, implied, or anticipated
Humans are hard wired to respond to sex and violence–but most strongly to sex. Both, after all, are critical to our survival. “It’s dramatic whether two people in a scene are going to consummate the relationship,” says Kubey. “There’s a suspense, and it’s arousing and hard to pull away.” Sex is appealing to us on a base level–since it’s our means to procreate–and we get a kick out of watching it too, in fact it’s one of our favorite things to watch. Sometimes for hours (Think porn).

Violence…we find it oddly appealing
Violence on the other hand, is hard for some to watch. So what is it about violence and the danger it represents that attracts people to such content? One recent study from researchers at the University of Augsburg, Germany and the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that people are more likely to watch movies with gory scenes and violence if they think there is meaning or purpose behind it — say, revenge or justice. “Perhaps depictions of violence that are perceived as meaningful, moving and thought-provoking can foster empathy with victims, admiration for acts of courage and moral beauty in the face of violence, or self-reflection with regard to violent impulses,” said study author Anne Bartsch in a statement. Other research suggests that people are not necessarily attracted to violence, but may be drawn to the content because, similar to the way that sex scenes are appealing, they enjoy the anticipation, thrill and suspense of the scenes.

13 comments
PathanSalmanKhan
PathanSalmanKhan

You missed the most important explanation: How much people can relate the characters on the show to themselves? People seeing similarities, resemblances and connection to the characters tend to watch more of a TV show. 

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

I've always thought some humor, interesting characters, good writing, a little romance and some action made for an exceptional TV show.  But what do I know?  I haven't watched network television since 2010 when it became evident that television pretty much sucked.

ravenrdr
ravenrdr

What is the make-u[p of the audience for these "tests"?  What age and sex were they?  Did the women spend as much "porn" time?   This is a very insubstantial article, much like the TV shows to which you refer.

stevek77536
stevek77536

This all sounds like manipulation of the viewers' attention.  Another approach is to use good writers, directors, actors, sets, etc.  HBO seems to have elected this approach: "The Wire", "The Sopranos", "Rome", "Six Feet Under", "Oz", ...  to all of which I've been happily addicted.

chokingkojak
chokingkojak

Televised version of the "Red Wedding" killed my "addiction."  But, hey, the show has other characters.    

WilfTarquin
WilfTarquin

@DeweySayenoff Well, I don't know why you feel that way -- maybe you feel that TV has been too highbrow since Benny Hill, or perhaps you're one of those guys who think everything is "liberal propaganda" -- but TV has probably never had more high-quality shows than in the last few years: Game of Thrones, Homeland, The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, House of Cards, Dexter, Downton Abbey, Sherlock and many more. I'm not saying you must like them all, but there's so much variation that there should be at least *some* you'd like, and there's no denying that they're of high quality.