Last Friday at 8pm, my wife and I sat down and watched the final, nail-biting episode of Stranger Things series 2 on Netflix.
As with the first series, I was instantly hooked. Addicted, some might say; and according to viewing statistics from insight agency Nielsen, I’m not alone.
The whole series was released on Netflix on 27 October, with data showing that 361,000 Americans watched all nine episodes within a 24-hour period. A total of 16 million Americans (5 per cent of the population) watched the first episode within three days of it going on Netflix.
I wasn’t that quick off the mark. It took me a few weeks to find the time to commit, and when I did have the time, I made myself a promise. Unlike the first series, I would not binge-watch this time, instead spreading it out over a few weeks. However… I couldn’t. The urge was too strong. The experience too engrossing. So, I ignored the promise I’d made myself, and watched all nine episodes over two very late nights.
Why I had so easily shunned my no binge-watching pledge made the scientist part of my brain go into overdrive. Why do I behave this way with Netflix, when I am generally rather good at delaying immediate gratification in most other areas of my life? As it turns out, the answer is more interesting than you would think.
The clever psychology of Netflix
In a recent interview published in The Guardian newspaper, Netflix's head of innovation discussed how his company actively carries out real-time psychological experiments on viewers so they can learn how to improve their services, and their ability to keep people watching. In fact, Netflix is so focused on how to get people to view its content that in 2009, it awarded a team of external computer scientists $1m for solving the Napoleon Dynamite problem*.
But while Netflix continues to figure out better and more algorithmic ways to engage with us, it’s what is going on in our brains that is much more important.
Our interactions with TV have, up until recently, been shaped by delayed gratification being forced upon us. In other words, programme makers such as the BBC and ITV produce shows that are often of high quality, but maintain strict control over the release of each and every programme. This means you happily watch an episode of the critically acclaimed Dr. Foster on Tuesday night, knowing you have no choice but to wait until next Tuesday for the cliff-hanger to play out.
This forced model of staggered delivery, is delayed gratification at work - a mental model that teaches us the best things are worth waiting for. Interestingly, the benefits of this delayed model are well researched. There’s the social aspect; being part of a community who are equally engrossed in the programme’s narrative, and are happy to engage in conversations around potential plot lines. Then there’s the physiological benefit. Neuroscientists have shown that anticipation (for example, waiting for next week’s episode), provides the brain with a boost of dopamine, the naturally occurring anti-depressant.
But what happens to us when that model is completely turned on its head? What happens when we get every episode in a series delivered all at once? When we get quality and immediate gratification, all rolled into one neatly delivered package?
The answer? It starts to mess with our brain, ever so slowly starting to rewire and reprogram it. This rewiring ultimately impacts our behaviour, so that we now place more emphasis on immediate gratification over delayed gratification.
Beware the Demogorgon within
In Stranger Things, the antagonistic character is the Demogorgon; a powerful demon that holds incredible influence over humans. Taking hold of a person’s physical and mental control centres, it becomes the dominant force, influencing their every action.
I would suggest Netflix is akin to a Demogorgon. It's a 21st century omnipresence that draws us in with its bright lights, and promise of enjoyment. At the same time, it begins the intricate work of embedding itself into our sub-conscious, wreaking havoc on our otherwise normal decision-making lives.
Worse still, letting the Demogorgon in exposes us to potentially profound side-effects.
There is evidence to suggest binge-watching is, in essence, an addiction. A small one perhaps, but an addiction nonetheless. Scientific research shows the brains of addicts become rewired in many ways, but specifically, addiction makes them more ‘present-minded’. Some addictions are so strong, we simply are not willing to wait. We need our fix, and we need it now.
Once this addiction-led present-mindedness has taken hold, it creeps into other areas of our lives. People who were typical long-term thinkers could start to react to short-term news, such as stockmarket movements. They may think taking a profit from their investments today is better than the benefits they can reap tomorrow.
Of course, this is just a hypothesis. But intellectually, and based on neuroscientific evidence, it makes sense. Our habits, addictions and interests make us who we are, and have a crucial role to play in how we conduct ourselves and the choices we make.
I’m not suggesting for one minute we start asking clients “Do you binge-watch TV?”, although I do think it may tell us more about the person than we believe it would.
What I am suggesting is we need to gain a deeper understanding of people, and in particular how they function when making crucial financial decisions. The current 'know your customer' process for learning about a client doesn’t really take into account anything tangible, other than facts around finance. I think this is wrong.
With Be-IQ, we create not only an approach that learns about the behavioural characteristics of a person, but delivers clear and tangible intelligence about them and their decision-making abilities. It reveals the shadow-self, the sub-conscious person living inside, who influences every decision we make. It reveals their inner Demogorgon.
Academic and scientific studies on areas such as the impact of addiction on our normal cognitive processes are ongoing. We should watch the developments in this area carefully, as I believe we can learn a great deal from cutting-edge science, and from the new frontiers being forged in understanding who we really are.* The movie Napoleon Dynamite is considered as the most divisive film ever made (along with Miss Congeniality and Lost in Translation). These are the films that people don't either love or hate, but generally stir up conflicting and inconsistent reactions in people. Therefore, solving how to recommend a film after someone has watched one of those films allows Netflix to say “Now you’ve watched that, we know you’ll like this”.